This post recounts the trip we took to western Montana a few weeks ago. Our trip was sponsored by Glacier Country Tourism. Even though the trip was sponsored, all the photographs, stories, and opinions are our own. Also, it inspired us to make gluten-free baked doughnuts. You’ll find a recipe at the bottom of this piece.
Our first day in Montana was glorious but cloudy. We loved the people we met, the food we ate, and the experiences we were having. However, I couldn’t see much of the sky in Missoula that week. We had packed a suitcase full of cold-weather clothes but they stayed in the hotel. It was such mild weather that it felt like Seattle. We felt at home. But where was that big sky I heard about before?
On day three, as we drove away from the town and into the wide expanses of land on the way to Polson, the clouds cleared and the sun emerged. And there it was — that wide sky, like a mind opened, not fretting about anything. Big Sky country, indeed.
We fell in love with western Montana that afternoon. We haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
We landed in Missoula and went out to eat right away. Our itinerary had the entire afternoon mapped out for “gluten-free tasting tour of Missoula.” This was some kind of vacation right away. Jim and Erika, from Destination Missoula, brought their two daughters for our afternoon-long tour of bakeries. Lucy was so darned excited she could not sit still. At both Bernice’s Bakery and Black Cat Bake Shop, traditional gluten bakeries with a gluten-free menu and protocol for baking them safely, we were offered cupcakes and muffins, little tarts and gluten-free baked doughnuts. There were so many sweets that we couldn’t eat them all. Thank goodness we had a large group to share.
Jack Wich, the owner of Black Cat, was a pastry chef at the the White House and a baking instructor at NECI. (That’s where Danny went to culinary school. Mr. Wich taught bakeshop the year after Danny attended there. That was a wild coincidence.) But his wife wanted to go back home, so they came to Missoula. They stayed and started this extraordinary bakery. Everywhere we went in Missoula, we met people who had moved there consciously and started something rather unusual, like dance schools or opera companies or started refurbishing old theaters. The city has an electrifying feeling of creativity, of people inventing themselves continually.
The breakfast we ate at Catalyst in Missoula the next morning was ridiculously good. This was the half portion of the chilaquiles (I couldn’t finish it all) with house-made lime-tomato broth and a chipotle-coffee hot sauce. Oh man. I wish I could eat there every week.
Mostly, I want to go back because our server brought us lots of great hot coffee. And when I explained that Lucy and I needed to be gluten-free, she smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re pretty good at that here.”
They are. And to my happy surprise, I’d say that’s an apt phrase for our entire eating experience in western Montana. They’re pretty good at that there.
Thinking about going to Montana in the winter but not wanting to brave the freezing cold? Go to Missoula in February. We were walking around without coats most of the time. The day we arrived it was a balmy 52 degrees! Lucy was disappointed, to be honest. She was so eager for snow that she found a little hillock of old snow in the parking lot outside the carousel (the fastest carousel in the world!) and leaped around in it for awhile.
After more stops for eating, a trip to the children’s museum, and an excellent dinner at a pretty fancy restaurant with Jim and Erika and their daughter (hi, you three!), Lucy got back to the hotel and was still hungry. (Red Bird made us happy but the menu was less kid friendly than the other places we had been.) Not sure what to do, we remembered the suggestion for McKenzie River Pizza, which has a gluten-free pizza (and a protocol for making it truly gluten-free). The kids love hotel rooms in general, but the one in which Lucy was able to sit sideways in a chair, watching a movie on the iPad, eating take-out gluten-free pizza? It might always be her favorite.
As much as we loved Missoula, by day three we were ready to leave the city. I wanted wide-open spaces and small towns. I wanted to feel the mountains butt up against the sky. We headed toward Polson. And we came to one of the most stunning places I have ever stood.
The Garden of 1000 Buddhas, just outside of Arlee, has a force, a place, a sense of windhorse rising. As we stood there, the clouds opened up and the blue sky arrived. We were home.
Even the kids grew quiet there. Lucy wandered on her own, gently touching some of the Buddha statues, then finding a seat at a small pond by herself, to sit meditation. Desmond stayed in Danny’s arms for awhile, then ran around the wheel of buddha statues. At the center of it all, an enormous shrine to Yum Chenmo, the Great Mother of Transcendent Wisdom. This garden was built to be an international center for peace. We all felt peace there.
I’ll never forget that place.
An hour later, we were winding our way by car through dun-colored hills, the grass gently moving in the wind. We were the only people in the National Bison Range that afternoon, it seems. Driving through, watching the hills for any sign of bison, it was easy to imagine what this place might have been like in the 1800s, before the roads and towns were built. As we were leaving, we stopped the car, rolled down the windows, and whispered to each other about the bison right by us. It was a small, quiet moment. Those bison are big.
And then we drove to St. Ignatius Mission, which was built in 1890. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we didn’t have the chance to see the 58 murals inside the church, or the light streaming in. “This summer,” we told ourselves, since we already felt the need to come back for more in the warmer months.
The next morning, we pulled up to Betty’s Diner in Polson. You could drive through Polson, a small town that skirts the southern edge of Flathead Lake, in about 3 minutes. Truckers stop on the way up to Kalispell or Whitefish. The fanciest hotel in the place is the new Red Lion. (It’s actually great. Small hotels like that are my favorite too: clean, free wi-fi, and staffed by friendly locals.) This is not where you’d expect to find a full gluten-free menu.
And yet, when we pulled up outside Betty’s Diner, with its kitschy 50s sign, we saw in pink letters on the bottom: large gluten-free menu.
Inside, a classic diner, with metal bar stools, red walls, and faux-50s signs all over the walls. (“Drink Coffee! Do stupid things with more energy.”) There was a local woman with the newspaper fanned out on her red table. A trucker parked and wandered in to sit at the counter. This wasn’t the place I expected that they’d even know what gluten-free meant.
It’s pretty easy to think that the best place to eat gluten-free is in a big city. So many choices, right? However, our experience, over and over again, is that small towns and smallish cities often offer the best options. Why? Maybe it’s because someone gluten-free is a neighbor, not a number. It’s about community.
Our server arrived with a smile and a pot of hot coffee. We said hello and then I asked her. “Can I ask why it is you have a gluten-free menu? We’re thrilled but I’m wondering why.”
She said, “Oh, our owner has really serious celiac. She can’t have even a bit of gluten. So everything on the menu — aside from the biscuits and gravy — we can make gluten-free.”
This is how we shared a big stack of pancakes with sausages and a platter of French toast among us. We were all so happy.
Look, I’m pretty sure that squeeze bottle was not full of real maple syrup. The sausages were a little withered. The pancakes were surely made from a mix. I did not care. This was bliss, looking out over Flathead Lake, the fog lifting, eating good food with my family, gluten-free, in a tiny town in Montana. Our waitress was friendly and kind — turns out we both have 7-year-old girls and almost 2-year-old boys — and she kept the coffee coming.
I could have stayed all day. But we had a mountain to visit.
Still. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Betty’s Diner in Polson, Montana. Give me a small town, a friendly waitress, and a local diner. Every time.
Before we left, Lucy’s 1st grade teacher told us to enjoy Whitefish. She’s thinking about retiring this year so she and her husband can move to the 8 acres they own outside of Whitefish. Once we were there, we understood. This small town seems like a movie set. It’s real, though.
And then there was skiing.
At Whitefish ski resort, I got on skis for the first time, at 49 years old. I highly recommend this — taking on something scary when you think you’re too old for it. There’s never too old for it. I only fell once and I sailed down the hill by the end of the first hour. Exhilarating.
The amount of gluten-free food at the Whitefish ski resort is kind of mind-blowing. Lucy had a burger with a gluten-free bun. This is their kung-pao chicken. Everything made in their wok is gluten-free. Everywhere we went in western Montana, it was so wonderfully easy to eat gluten-free.
And then there was Glacier Park. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We have Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Rainforest, some of the most stunning places on the earth. And yet, when we stood on the edge of Lake McDonald in the snow, the tips of the mountains obscured by the clouds, I had to hold my breath. This might be the most beautiful place I have ever been.
Most of Glacier Park is closed in the winter. The Going-to-the-Sun road is just too perilous in all that snow. However, it was still exhilarating to drive to the sign that said Road Closed, park, put on our parkas and snow boots, and take a long walk with the kids on that clean white snow. There were no sounds of cars or people talking, of the city burbling away or life in the 21st century at all. The kids only lasted an hour or so but they were happy and open, excited to be there. I love the experience of visiting national parks with them. We’ll definitely be back to this one in the summer.
It’s good to get away from our mundane lives sometimes. Nothing in our lives feels normal these days — we have a weird job we love and a schedule that seems to change every day — and we don’t take it for granted. However, exploring a bit of Montana on a road trip, with these two kids we adore? It was the breath of cold mountain air we needed. We’re back here, building something new. And this summer, when we can relax a bit more, we’re going back to Montana for more of that big blue sky.
Here are some of the places we ate in Montana that not only made sure we were fed safely but also made us great food.
190 S 3rd St W,
Missoula, MT 59801
Black Cat Bakeshop
2000 W Broadway Street
Missoula, MT 59808
Mustard Seed restaurant (get the green beans!)
2901 Brooks Street
Missoula, MT 59801
Catalyst Cafe (that is a good breakfast)
111 N Higgins Ave
Missoula, MT 59802
Scotty’s Table — An American Bistro (the chef owner is marvelous and his son has celiac)
131 South Higgins Avenue U3
Missoula, MT 59802
Red Bird111 N Higgins Avenue,
Missoula, MT 59802
Polson, MT 59860
Whitefish Ski Resort
Base Lodge Cafe
1015 Glades Drive
Whitefish, MT 59937
123 Central Avenue
Whitefish, MT 59937
Pescado Blanco — great mountain Mexican food
235 1st Street
Whitefish, MT 59937
Red Caboose Frozen Yogurt and Coffee
103 Central Avenue,
Whitefish, MT 59937
gluten-free baked doughnuts
After having such good gluten-free doughnuts in Missoula, Danny and I started having a hankering for more. Thus, this past weekend, we made a lot of batches of baked doughnuts to get these right.
Here’s the important thing — don’t expect these to be a yeasted cakey doughnut, fried in oil, then covered in glaze. As good as those are, I can only eat them every great once in awhile. But a good baked doughnut is more like a muffin, a satisfying sweetness you could eat for breakfast sometimes. (Our little guy certainly approves of this idea.) They are soft and supple. They’re really only barely sweet. You might want to add frosting on top. Well done! But we like these just as they are.
One of the secrets to these baked doughnuts is almond flour. Most doughnuts have lard or butter in them to make the texture right. I have no problem with either. But I had the idea to have most of the flour blend here be composed of our gluten-free all-purpose flour and some part of it almond flour. Here, I used almond flour as a fat and a flour. (If you can’t do tree nuts, play with using 50 grams of cold butter or lard worked into the flour instead.)
To have a light gluten-free baked good in the end, you need a wet batter. But how to get a wet batter into a doughnut pan? Pipe the wet batter into a greased pan. And if you don’t have a pastry bag, use a large ziplock bag and cut off the corner. (I love doing this. I always feel a little MacGyver.)
This recipe is very loosely adapted from one by Abby Dodge, in her new encyclopedic book, The Everyday Baker. If you don’t have this book, and you love to bake, do buy it soon!
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 325°. Grease a 6-hole doughnut pan.
Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the all-purpose flour, almond flour, coconut sugar, baking powder, salt, soda, and nutmeg in a bowl.
Finish the batter. Whisk together the buttermilk, egg yolk, and vanilla. Scoop the dry ingredients on top of the buttermilk mixture and fold them all together with a rubber spatula. The final dough should be wet but not as wet as pancake batter.
Let the batter sit for at least 30 minutes before baking the doughnuts. (You can let them sit as long as 8 hours in the refrigerator. The longer the batter sits, the stronger the final doughnuts are.)
Pipe in the batter. Put the doughnut batter into a large ziploc bag, pushing it all into one corner of the bottom. Close the bag and cut the tip off the bottom of the corner of the bag. Pipe enough batter into one of the holes of the pan, moving around the circle with a deft wrist, until the circle is closed. Repeat with the remaining doughnuts.
Bake the doughnuts. Bake the doughnuts until the tops are firm but still a little springy, 10 to 12 minutes. Allow the doughnuts to cool in the pan until they have reached room temperature, about 30 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edges of the doughnuts to loosen them. Let them sit on a cooling rack.
Feel like playing? The nutmeg and vanilla make a really lovely combination here, but I imagine cardamom would be wonderful. So would cinnamon or a tiny pinch of ginger. I really love the caramely taste of the coconut sugar here, but you could substitute the same amount of white sugar here too. If you can’t eat dairy, simply add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your favorite non-dairy milk and let it sit for 15 minutes to “buttermilk” it for this recipe.