(We’re thrilled that this recipe is being featured at Oprah.com’s roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit Oprah.com today.)
It turns that being sick sometimes pays off.
Last week, the Chef spent his only day off sitting in doctors’ offices with me. We were waiting to have my blood drawn, for doctors to look at me with puzzled expressions, and to bounce from one appointment to another without any answers.
Poor Chef. He doesn’t much like sitting for hours, the way I have to do. He moves, all day long. In fact, I think most days he goes 10 straight hours without sitting down once. That day, all we did was sit. Thank goodness, he was patient with me having to be the patient.
After talking and leaning my head on his shoulder, I sat up for a bit and reached for another magazine. What has happened to doctors’ offices? Why do they no longer have sloping piles of trashy magazines for us to read? When I’m in pain, I want People magazine and dishy analyses of ditzy dresses on the red carpet. Everything in doctors’ offices feels solemn these days, instead.
Out of desperation, I picked up a copy of Family Fun, a sweet publication featuring arts and crafts projects to do with children. Certainly, if we had children (and we hope we do someday), this might be a delightful read. But when you’re sick, and you just want to be in bed, you want to read something gossipy and light as candy floss.
However, as soon as I turned to the recipe section, I sat up straighter. “Hey, this looks good,” I said, pointing to a photograph of Christmas fruit and nut balls. “And they don’t have any flour at all!”
Visions of gluten-free food danced in my head. I felt a little better, right there.
The Chef nodded his head. I was ready to retrieve the pen from my pocket and find some scrap of paper to scribble the recipe on. But the nurse called my name, and I entered the maelstrom of medical mysteries.
At least at the ultrasound waiting room they had gossipy magazines. (I love reading six-month-old gossip magazines. All the faces are interchangeable. And the couple reported loudly to be madly in love are hardly speaking to each other now.)
Luckily, my maladies turned out to be a pernicious infection, caused by gluten, and not an entailed mystery. Antibiotics (and pro-biotics with them) are a godly thing, if necessary. Almost all the vestiges of symptoms have left me. But the idea of this Christmas treat has not. And today, we whirled up the memory, now fuzzy, of what that recipe seemed to promise.
I’ve been thinking about holiday baking, lately. Certainly, keeping a food website makes me more aware of the impending season. I want to give you all something to play with, so you can make something you love in time for the holidays. And this year, I’m trying to make handmade presents, and send little tins across the country, long before the big days.
Last year, I was in the final stages of writing this book. This year, I’m dancing my fingers on the keyboard nearly as much, but without a set deadline in mind. Surely I can take some time off to cream butter and sugar, pat dough into balls, and make powdered sugar snow down upon gluten-free treats.
If you are new to gluten-free baking, there are only a few guidelines you should keep in mind.
Play. If you don’t have the expectation that everything should taste the way it once did, you widen your horizons. Take chances. Make small batches. Dance around the kitchen when you create a cookie you like.
Don’t over-cream the butter and sugar. I think this probably holds true for all cookies, but especially gluten-free ones. In the past, I whirled that Kitchen-Aid attachment until it was a white blur in a field of sugary dough. Some of my older recipes even call for that action. Don’t pay attention. Instead, mix the butter and sugar together until they are just combined.
Refrigerate every dough. Before I stopped eating gluten, I went from idea of cookie to stirring to eating within half an hour. But it has been my experience that gluten-free cookie dough does much better if you let it rest and chill. (Think of it as an over-worked kid who needs a long nap.) Two hours in the fridge is the minimum, overnight is the ideal.
Find your favorite flour combinations. I’ve been playing with all those little bags of flours for years, and I’m still learning. The combinations I once used now seem too white. I still haven’t learned to like bean flour. Lately, my favorite combination is equal parts sorghum, sweet rice, brown rice, and teff. That may change later. Try it, if you want. Or find the one that works for you.
Use recipes as a guide, not a bible. Most of the recipes I put up on this site before, say May 2006 (when I had met the Chef) are a little sketchy. I was learning as I went, and putting recipes up in a blind haze. I want to go back and change them, but I’m going to let that perfectionist trick go. So, use those recipes (and any, really) as your guide. Make it up according to your tastes.
Should you wish to dive into gluten-free baking already, here are some of my favorite cookie recipes from this site:
spicy ginger cookies(adapted from Chez Panisse)
lemon olive oil cookies (the best version of this recipe is in the book)
scrumptious fig cookies (again, better recipe in the book)
Of course, there are many, many more. If you have one you love – and you swear by it every December – let us all know in the comments.
• • •
And on a related note.….
If you live in the Seattle area, I have an offer for you.
I have met so many good, gluten-free folks around the country who are terrified. How do I shop? What do I eat? Where can I go to restaurants? And what the heck do I do with all those little bags of flours?
If you have been feeling overwhelmed — because you are new to this or you have been doing it for awhile but have not begun baking yet — I can help.
I am offering my services for the holidays.
Would you like to go food shopping with me? I can take you on a tour of the store of your choice, pointing out the places where gluten might hide that you wouldn’t suspect, as well as delicious foods you might never have tried. Together, we’ll get you over your fear of new foods. I’ll come armed with handouts and recipes, and plenty of silly stories to make you laugh. You’ll go home with groceries and a new confidence.
Do you need to clean out your kitchen and start fresh? Let me help. I can come to your home and help you rid the kitchen of all the possible places of cross-contamination. We can also create some gluten-free snacks for you and your family, to get you through the rough patches.
Are you overwhelmed by gluten-free baking? I can come into your kitchen and put my hands into the flours with you. We’ll put on music, we’ll talk about food, and by the end of the afternoon you’ll have batches of gluten-free goodies to last you through the holidays.
If you are interested, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll talk about fees and logistics and how to make this a happy experience for you.
Happy baking everyone. Enjoy this season of dark and light mingled.
Holiday Fruit and Nut Balls, inspired by a recipe in Family Fun
These are wonderfully quick to make, naturally sweet, and unlike any other holiday treat. Well, actually, they are a bit like one. Fruitcake.
I’ve never been fond of fruitcake. It just seems too cloying and condensed, like concentrated maraschino cherries. Didn’t Johnny Carson use to joke that there was only one fruitcake in the world, and it just keep getting re-gifted every year? Bleh.
These treats have the pure taste of mingled dried fruits and nuts without that cloying sweetness. Even people who don’t like fruitcake will probably like these.
(Have you noticed that I have refrained from saying “holiday balls”? I can’t help it. When I type the name, I can only think of this sketch.)
The quality of these sweets relies entirely on the ingredients. The better the dried fruit, the better your tastes will be. And beware — some dried fruits and toasted nuts can be gluten-contaminated. Check with your manufacturer. We buy local. Some of you probably dry your own. Choose the best one for you.
Finally, please think of this as a template, not a rigid recipe. Any combination of your favorite dried fruits would work. Let your tastebuds be your guide.
1 cup dried stawberries
1 cup dried figs
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
juice of 1 1/2 oranges
Chop all the fruits into bite-sized pieces. Rough chop the almonds as well.
Put them all into your sturdy food processor and whirl them up. Turn off the food processor.
Juice the orange halves into the mixture. Whirl the food processor again. Turn it off.
Scrape the dough into a large bowl and refrigerate the dough for at least an hour.
Pull the dough out of the refrigerator. Making sure your hands are clean and cold (try running them under cold water before you begin), roll the dough into small balls. (Keep them small. This is rich.)
Refrigerate the holiday balls for two hours, to let them adhere.
Remove from the refrigerator. Dust with the powdered sugar.
Feeds 6 to 10 people, depending on their sweet tooth.