The year after I discovered I could no longer eat gluten, the kitchen became my sanctuary.
After a long day of teaching, grading, and faculty meetings, I came home to cook. For years, I had been too tired to cook most days, settling for tv dinners or deli salads before I sat down to an evening of grading. But with the sudden burst of energy that came from the health I was meant to have, I cooked. I shopped for food for fun, touching nearly every jar on the shelves of the grocery store. At first I looked at the labels to see if they were gluten-free. After I became familiar with my brands, I started looking at foods I had never eaten before. I discovered. It was an explosion of joyful discovery. (And most of it is documented in the entries from the first year of this website.)
Standing in the kitchen, chopping then stirring, was my meditation. The pressing need to grade and prepare for the next day in the endless grind that was teaching high school? It slipped away as I listened to onions sizzle in a hot pan. Jaunty music played from the living room. I sipped on a glass of wine as I made my way through someone else’s recipe, imagining the flavors on my fork at the end of the process. The kitchen was clean, save for the few dishes I had dirtied, and spacious. I was at peace. At home.
Cooking rarely feels like this, seven years later.
When it’s time to cook dinner, there are three of us standing in a much smaller kitchen than the one I lived in then. Danny’s sautéing something at the stove, standing back to flip all the vegetables in the air. Lucy’s asking for some cheese as she stands on her step stool, reaching for the watermelon, then asking for some of that too. I’m pulling food from the refrigerator, trying to make a salad while making sure a whining child is fed something. There are dishes in the sink. Danny and I spent the afternoon cooking and baking, then looked at the clock and realized we had to pick Lu up from school right now. The strawberries I drizzled with balsamic and honey and set to dry in a low-temperature oven? I pull them out to find they have mostly withered into themselves, leaving only red streaks on white parchment paper. They should have come out hours ago. Lu’s singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” loudly, gesticulating so broadly she might fall off the countertop she has climbed on. Danny’s done with dinner but we forgot to start the rice. Time to eat.
It’s not exactly relaxing, this cooking routine.
But I prefer this one.
Sure, I sometimes miss the quiet space of that time alone. That’s why I do most of my baking experiments when Lu is in school or when she’s asleep, late in the evening. I still love that silent time. But cooking is more real now. Instead of merely open-eyed discovery that leads to writing, I have chaotic discovery that leads to helping a human being to grow. Feeding a kiddo is much more satisfying than simply feeding myself, even if it’s rarely quiet.
That photo up there? Of Lu cutting out little circles to help me make cheese crackers? That’s why I cook now.
The reality of our cooking life is part of the reason I’m madly in love with The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making. After Lu was born, I only wanted to cook more food from scratch.
There’s a kind of familiar refrain in this culture, a refrain that chants once kids come around we relegate ourselves to packaged foods and nuggets on the kids’ menus. It’s too hard to be a parent and have a good cooking life — that’s what all those commercials for family-size tv dinners and fast food places suggest. Give in.
Nope. I won’t.
We have fewer elaborate meals than we did before Lucy was born. We don’t eat dinner at midnight anymore. We’re always trying to balance our desire to play with something new and the need to have dinner on the table at 5:30 for her. Strangely, even though we’re developing new recipes every day, they don’t always lead to dinner. (Especially when Danny decides he is going to conquer croissants.) It’s clear that our cooking life has changed.
But I am excited to make more foods from scratch than ever before.
That’s what drives Alana Chernila, the author of The Homemade Pantry. She writes in the introduction that her first experiments with food from scratch were born of not much money for groceries and an abiding curiosity for how things work. It’s funny — lately people have been turning back to canning, making yogurt, and learning how to create cheese at home. Some scoff, saying this is a foodie trend. People, this is what our grandmothers did. We’re talking humble food here. Food made with our hands. Having kids around can make you want to make more food with your hands.
As Alana writes, there are some good reasons to make more food from scratch for your kids:
“1. Food made at home is better for you.
2. Food made at home tastes better.
3. Food made at home usually costs less.
4. Food made at home eliminates unnecessary packaging.
5. Food made at home will change the way you think about food.”
I’d add one more for the gluten-free folks: food made at home means you know exactly what has gone into it.
Although I’ve already learned how to make many of the foods in The Homemade Pantry, I’ve been inspired by it. I love how Alana writes snippets of stories before each recipe, just long enough to let us share her life for a few moments, short enough that parents of small children can at least finish one before the next emotional crisis over a favorite book being left in the car takes over the room.
Mostly, though, I love the casual way she invites us into her kitchen, even if it is a mess. It’s clear that Alana, and many of us, are less interested in the pretense of the perfect kitchen and more interested in welcoming in our friends, asking them to put their hands around the butterfat and massage out the buttermilk. Butter. We made butter together.
“If we are to become people who do make butter, we might have to shift the way we see ourselves a bit. We might have to get into the adventurous spirit and unearth our own curiosity about where our food comes from. We might have to make a colossal mess of the kitchen. And we might have to slow down, at least long enough to knead a loaf of bread before the day begins.”
Sure, we can buy some decent packaged crackers for our kid. And we do. But nothing compares to having her in the kitchen beside me, her smile wide as she says, “I’m going to help you, Mama!” Weeks later, she’s still talking about these gluten-free cheese crackers, the flaky snack with an intense cheese flavor, better than any packaged cracker I’ve ever purchased. “I made the crackers with you!” she says sometimes, remembering. In fact, it’s time to make another batch.
I love showing my daughter how to make her own food. Honestly, it might be one of the tasks I love most in the world.
Give me a messy countertop, an extra 30 minutes in the kitchen, and clean-up after the kid finally goes to sleep that evening over a clean and spacious kitchen where I’m standing alone.
Any day. Every day.
HOMEMADE CHEESE CRACKERS , adapted from The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making
These crackers are a dream — flaky, full of cheddary flavor, and certain to disappear soon. I don’t judge my baked goods by this template anymore, but I’m certain that anyone who ate these crackers would think, “Holy cow! These crackers are gluten-free? I didn’t even know that was possible.” It’s fun to try your hand at these.
We made one batch of crackers with a small biscuit cutter and another in larger rectangles by cutting the dough with a knife. All three of us preferred the circles. They’re a wonderful full taste in one little pop. (The idea that you would eat just one of these crackers is pretty funny, however.)
I’ve put a link to our gluten-free all-purpose flour mix below. However, you should know that our mix has changed since we wrote this. For these crackers, we used 40% millet and sorghum, 60% potato starch and sweet rice. It’s working for everything around here right now. But that 40%-60% is all you need to know to make up the flour mix that works for you.
210 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour mix
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon psyllium whole husks
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
170 grams (1 1/2 cups) grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar (you can use apple cider vinegar as well)
Mixing the dry ingredients. Put the flour, salt, and psyllium into the bowl of a food processor. Run the food processor until the ingredients are well combined.
Adding the butter. Drop the cold butter cubes — and do make sure they are cold — into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse the food processor until the butter is broken into chunks about the size of lima beans, 4 to 8 times.
Finishing the dough. Add the cheese and Dijon mustard. Pulse the food processor a few times until the dough is mixed. Mix together the white vinegar and 3/4 cup ice-cold water. Add 6 tablespoons of the water mixture to the bowl of the food processor. Pulse a few times then gauge the state of the dough. If it comes together in a ball around the blade of the food processor, you’re done. If not, add 1 tablespoon of the cold water at a time until the dough forms a coherent ball.
Refrigerating the dough. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Trust me — it’s best when you let the dough refrigerate overnight.
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 325°. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm enough to roll out but not as warm as room temperature. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Rolling out the dough. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Grab 1 ball of dough and put the other 3 in the refrigerator. Roll out 1 of the pieces of dough between 2 pieces of parchment paper. Using a small biscuit cutter (like the smallest one in this set), cut out little crackers. Move them over to the prepared baking sheet. (If you the dough is sticking, you can run a butter knife under the bottom of it. A bench scraper works well too.) When you have filled the baking sheet with little circles of cracker dough, slide it in the oven.
Baking the crackers. Bake the crackers for 12 minutes, then turn the baking sheet 180° in the oven. Bake until the crackers are firm to the touch and golden brown, another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on your oven. Take the baking sheet out of the oven. Let the crackers sit on the baking sheet until they have completely cooled.
Repeat with the remaining cracker dough, either that day or in the succeeding days as you need crackers.
Makes 40 to 100 crackers, depending on the size you make them.