Coeliac awareness week is coming!

14-20 May 2012 is Coeliac Awareness Week in the UK.  Now, I know, somebody somewhere is always marking something, but since coeliac disease is something that affects me personally, as well as many other people who have yet to be diagnosed, and who could have a much better life if they were, this is one awareness campaign I feel honour bound to support.

If you’re wondering what on earth coeliac disease is, it’s an auto-immune condition that is reckoned to affect some 1% of the population, many of whom remain undiagnosed.  Left untreated, the malabsorption that is the result of coeliac disease can leave sufferers exposed to such nasties as osteoporosis, bowel cancer, etc, as well as fertility problems and, at a more basic level, some pretty unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms.  All because of the body’s response to eating or ingesting gluten.

The good and bad news about this, is that there is only one known treatment for coeliac disease at the moment, and that’s a gluten-free diet.  It’s good news, because it’s nice and clear.  It’s bad news because – despite how easy it can be to cater for gluten-free diets – so few places offer a decent selection of gluten-free food, or only offer it with a risk of cross-contamination that negates the good intention of offering gluten-free menu items in the first place.  And yes, cross-contamination is a real problem: I’ve been made ill in the past by a few crumbs lurking in the butter, for example, even though I’ve conscientiously followed a gluten-free diet for years.  It’s also slightly scary – and very frustrating – just how many products seem to contain gluten for no apparent reason, when a simple adjustment could make them safe for more people to eat.

While the quality of foods in the free-from aisle of the supermarket has improved a lot over the last few years, there are still manufacturers who appear to think that we ditched any sense of taste or texture on receipt of our diagnosis.  My carrot cake, for example, has beaten carrot cakes made with wheat flour in open competition, so I know from personal experience that you can make things as good as – or better than – their gluten-containing counterparts, if you try.  But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from some of the offerings out there, which are dry and crumbly and lacking in flavour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not ungrateful, and I’m glad that these products are available, even the not very nice ones, because it is at least an option when you’re hard pressed to find anything to eat on occasion, and the poor quality can act as a catalyst for others to improve on what’s out there.  It’s a win-win of sorts.  But still.

Gluten-free food can be excellent.  At the risk of shameless self-promotion, ask anyone who has enjoyed a Suzzle cake, most of whom have bought the cakes without knowing they were gluten-free… and then come back and bought more.  It can be done, and without filling the food full of junk like soya flour, palm oil and ingredients known better by their number than their name.  So, for the next week or so, I’ll be using this blog to celebrate some companies who are making or supplying really good, gluten-free food, and making the lives of coeliacs like myself much richer and more enjoyable as a result.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about coeliac disease, please do visit the Coeliac UK web site, where you can find information, recipes and support the excellent work the charity does.


Suzzle banana cake recipe

Just the other day in the shop I had a sample plate of banana cake out. Yes, I know, many people already know what banana cake tastes like, but they’ve not necessarily tasted mine, and it’s nice to give people a little taste of something from time to time.

Suzzle banana cake

Anyway, I was going somewhere with this, I promise. On the day in question, a young couple came in with their incredibly cute baby intending – I think – just to look at the art in the shop, but ultimately leaving with a piece of the banana cake they’d sampled, and a request for me to post the recipe on the blog.

The mum had also asked me about sugar content, because the cake doesn’t taste too sweet, and she was thinking about whether or not she could give some to her baby once the first birthday milestone had been reached, since banana cake ‘felt’ like a healthy starter cake, or at least healthier than some.

This got me thinking, because even though there’s not masses of sugar in my banana cake, it might yet be possible to reduce it, so I’ll be having a play over the next few weeks to see how far I can get it down without completely killing the cake.  In the meantime, here’s my original recipe if you want to make the fully sinful version before I take out most of the sugar.

When I first made this cake I had actually set out to make a carrot cake.  I’d got the oil, golden syrup and eggs in the jug before realising I’d managed to run out of light brown soft sugar, and that all I had left was caster.  This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but when you’re baking at 4am, the option to just nip out to the corner shop and grab some more is simply not there, even where I live in central London.  I couldn’t unmix the ingredients that were already in the jug, so instead I scouted around for an alternative to carrots and came across some overripe bananas and thought they had to be worth a try.  They were certainly a better option than the savoy cabbage or the onions, although part of me is now wondering whether there might not be an option for a savoury onion cake type thingy to go with soup.  Hmmmm…..

But back to the banana cake!  You will need:

Bowl ingredients:
125g Dove’s Farm GF plain flour
125g Dove’s Farm GF self-raising flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
8g bicarbonate of soda
3 large or 4 medium ripe bananas

Jug ingredients:
110g vegetable oil – I generally use rapeseed, sunflower is fine
80g golden syrup
140g caster/golden caster sugar (can substitute light/dark brown soft sugar, see recipe)
3 large free range eggs
5ml vanilla essence/seeds from 1 vanilla pod

Pre-heat the oven to Gas 5/180C.  Measure the ingredients into their respective containers.  Beat the jug ingredients with a metal spoon until they’ve formed a thick, gloopy liquid.  Mash the bananas into the flour mixture with a fork.  In terms of which sugar to use, I tend to work on the basis of how ripe the bananas are and therefore how much and what kind of flavour they’re going to bring to the recipe.  If the skins of the bananas are very yellow or slightly green, use a sugar with a higher molasses content, like light or dark brown soft sugar or, at a pinch, golden caster.  If the bananas are good and ripe/overripe and speckly-skinned, use plain old caster to counter the slightly acetoney taste.

Using a silicone spatula, stir the jug ingredients into the bowl ingredients until it’s all very thoroughly mixed.  Pour the lot into a lined traybake tray (and by lined I just mean with a long strip of greaseproof paper the width of the base of the tray, not fussing with the corners) measuring around 12″x7″ (30cm x 17.5cm), and cook for 40 minutes, or until a cake tester/cocktail stick comes out clean.  Fan ovens will cook it a little quicker.

Once it’s on the cooling rack, I generally sprinkle over a little demerara sugar, which then sticks in the still-moist top crust of the cake, or you can leave it to cool and frost it if you prefer.  I tend not to frost it because it’s nice as it is, but a good lemon or coconut frosting would work, as would vanilla buttercream, or even sandwiching it with chocolate spread.  It probably goes without saying that mixing in some chocolate chips before baking produces a more than edible result, or a handful of sultanas/dates is also nice, but it’s the simpler version I serve in the shop.  If you fancy experimenting, try adding a little grated orange or lime zest, then coating cubes of the finished cake in chocolate and coconut to make banana lamingtons.  Yum!

NB: For those not using GF flours, I’d recommend using medium eggs instead of large, as gluten-free flours tend to be thirstier than wheat flour.

You gotta have faith

No, despite the season, the title of this post is not a religious message.  After all, I live and work in one of the largest Muslim areas in the country and am myself Christian, and count among my friends people who have identified as everything from Hindu to Jewish, via Jedi and Pastafarian.  Whether you look to Jesus for your guidance or the Great Spaghetti Monster, though, one thing we all hope to be able to do is place faith in other humans to be decent and behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us.

When I opened the shop, I was obviously in the full glow of the fact that we’d managed to do it, to achieve this dream and be able to take it forward to become something that would help both us and other people – one small shop where it’s safe for coeliacs and the lactose intolerant to eat may not change the world in one go, but enough people get the idea that you don’t have to sacrifice quality, texture and flavour along with the gluten and the lactose in your diet, mainstream manufacturers will eventually get the message and we might have a more enjoyable time buying and consuming our food.

Yet I digress.  Obviously, I knew the art on the walls had a value, as does the cash in the till and the food and coffee we sell.  But with the exception of the cash they’re not the kind of items that tend to get nicked, we don’t have any Picasso, Holbein or Matisse on the walls – anyone wanting to see the work of the artists on our walls can easily do so walking round the East End for an hour or so.  This was probably naive of me.  I’ve been blessed with a few weeks of having more or less nothing but lovely people coming into the shop and enjoying what we have in there, whether they buy anything or not.  Yes, there was one woman who tried to get me to fall for a note-changing scam, a bloke who tried to pass off a fake £50 note and another who spent his time in the shop trying to scope out my till, but you expect there to be a bit of this and I was prepared for it to happen.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I was well and truly caught out.  Two young women came into the shop and, after a fair bit of effort on their part, they managed to distract me enough for one of them to steal my HP Touchpad, a 40th birthday present from my brother.  The worst of it was, I had a feeling they were a bit ‘off’, but decided to treat them as normal, upright humans rather than listening to the alarm bells.  Not that the alarm bells would have done much good under the circumstances, because until the theft had occurred there was nothing concrete I could have used to kick them out of the shop, and they were relying on my basic decency for their plan to work.

The police response has been disappointing – understandably so, really, since we’re hardly talking about the Great Train Robbery here – and based more along the lines that I should be able to claim on the insurance, rather than taking note of the fact that the girls will have been caught on CCTV entering and leaving my shop and might be identified and apprehended as a result.  I’ve had to lobby quite strongly to get them to send out a fingerprint team to collect evidence against the girls in question: it was only on reminding them that the crime committed was cynical, premeditated and carried out by two professional thieves operating as a team, instead of an opportunistic grab and run, that they eventually agreed to do so.

I was angry at the time it happened, and not a little shaken.  I was upset at the loss of my brother’s very kind gift to me.  And I was furious at myself for being fooled into it happening in the first place.  By 4pm I couldn’t face being open any more and decided to close the shop early and go out for a walk instead to clear my head.

Today, I’m still angry, but only with the thieves.  Being angry with myself serves no useful purpose, and would only be resolved by my changing my behaviour in the future.  Do I need to be more circumspect about the people coming into my shop?  Apparently I do.  But if I start treating every person who enters my shop as a potential thief, those women will have stolen more than a computer I can easily replace.  They’ll have stolen a friendly welcome, they’ll have stolen the pleasure I had seeing people come into my shop, that brought a genuine smile to my face.  They’ll have stolen my dream that had only just become reality, and I’m not prepared to let them have that.

So I choose to have faith in humanity.  I choose to believe that the vast majority of people coming into my shop are decent, law-abiding citizens.  I choose to keep on taking pleasure in people deciding to come into my shop… but with systems and processes that prevent any recurrence of yesterday’s events so that anyone less deserving of my faith in basic human decency decides their efforts would be wasted.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Up and running

Well, it’s another first for me today: my first blog post from the new shop. 

This is our third weekend of opening and the feedback has been very positive. While we’ve obviously been meeting lots of people, what has been absolutely amazing is the repeat business, including people coming back to buy more of specific things they bought before, rather than generally browsing for baked goods.

The cakes are going down very well with people. Among the ones on offer today are some old favourites of mine like lemon drizzle and dark chocolate brownie, along with my prize-winning carrot cake that has become a Suzzle staple in record time, and my new mango passion cake, which has the most dangerous buttercream I’ve  ever tasted 🙂 …I really could just eat it out of the bowl with a spoon.

Silas, Fabiano and I have also been quite entertained by the number of people treating the cake as something to be appreciated through the window as much as the art we have on the walls. There seems to be quite a ‘cake porn’ contingent out there, many of whom stop to take photos. If I’m brutally honest, I would understand this more if the cakes were beautifully decorated, or arranged in more original fashion, but the fact is they’re simple cakes, simply presented – although lit beautifully by Silas, so perhaps that’s the key. I haven’t yet worked out how to add photos to my blog posts with the Touchpad but I’ll add some pics to this post later and you can judge for yourselves.

The real art, on the other hand, I completely get people wanting to see. Paddy from Lava Collective has managed to pull together an amazing collection of works by artists like Otto Schade, Pikto, The Krah, Ashes57, Jo Peel, Penfold, etc. Again, I shall share some photos with you later so you can get an idea for yourselves.

So there we are. Other exciting things that are happening here include a request from a journalist to supply some photos of the shop – with cakes – for an article in Elle Italia, and the forthcoming arrival of a shiny coffee machine so we can serve up Lactofree lattes. 

And there I must leave you, because I have more customers, and if I don’t hit publish now, who knows when I’ll get the chance again? This is a good problem to have 🙂

New years and new beginnings

Happy New Year everybody!  

Having staggered painfully out of 2011 with nasty, mean gallstones that put a serious curb on a lot of end of year activities, 2012 started with no rapid prospect of a resolution until a call last Thursday to offer me someone else’s cancelled surgery slot for yesterday. Which means I’m typing this on the Touchpad my lovely brother so kindly gave me for my 40th, while snuggled under a duvet recovering from yesterday’s op.

So while I’m obviously a bit sore and battered at the moment, the knowledge that all the pain I’ve had since July is done with is more than compensation for a couple of weeks’ recovery, not least because it brings a particular dream a lot closer.

The dream? Well, we’re going to open a shop. And it will only sell yummy gluten-free things. Assuming the recovery goes well, we’ll be soft launching around Valentine’s Day, so it’s about to get quite busy round here. On the menu? Cakes, salads, snacks, soups… and art, since that’s long been a part of the plan. Sort of art and tarts, really. 

Still a couple of experiments to go before we can include them in the shop, which I will obviously share here, for good or ill 😉

Happy 2012!

Tweet Tweet – Twitter cakes for iCake

Run-out twitter birds

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m having a great time thanks to Emma – aka Miss Cakehead. I’ve been doing some very therapeutic run-out work making little tweety birds to put on cupcakes for tomorrow’s iCake Shop at the Hospital Club.

Lots of cakes, all themed around things geeky, and all profits to a good cause.  Make sure you get down there tomorrow!

Sneak preview of the twitter birds on the left 🙂

And more details about the event here.


Why I won’t be entering GBBO (the Great British Bake-Off)

I’m well known among family, friends and acquaintances for being an enthusiastic baker, with end results to match.  And like, I am sure, many other people in the UK, it has often been suggested that I enter GBBO.  It’s very sweet of people to suggest it, and even sweeter that they think I would stand a real chance of getting as far as the show, but it’s something that’s not destined to happen.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not some sort of false modesty on my part, or a lack of self-confidence.  I admit, most people who know me also know I hate having my picture taken, although I’m learning to be better about that now.  I will also admit I’m not hugely keen to have TV cameras add another ten pounds to my already overweight frame.  But this is not the reason I’ll be steering clear.  No, the simple reason comes down to what got me baking in the first place: the simple fact that I can’t eat gluten.

I love watching the Great British Bake Off, and in many cases I think I could probably do as well without gluten as many of the contestants do with it, but there are some things I simply cannot do.  The blind challenges in particular would be impossible for me as I would doubtless end up being ‘glutened’ either by inhalation or from the simple need to check flavouring.  Paul Hollywood’s focaccia?  Would love to, but I don’t think it’s worth risking my health to get there.

Would I enter if the Beeb did a gluten-free version of GBBO?  I would indeed, but the chances of them ever doing that are probably fairly slim.  I do find this frustrating.  After all, increasing numbers of people are having to exclude gluten from their diet because of either coeliac disease or intolerance, and yet you’ll see very little about gluten-free cooking on TV.  I think the best gluten-free bakers can hope for on that front is for series 3 to include one episode where the contestants have to bake exclusively gluten-free.  It’s at least as much of a challenge as the perfect macaron, after all.

Anyway, back off the soapbox.  For those of you that fancy entering, I believe they’re recruiting the next set of contestants now.  In the meantime, if anyone from the BBC would like someone to set and judge a gluten-free challenge on GBBO, I’m right here 🙂