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.

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The great gluten-free pork pie experiment – part 2

Having thought I was ready to get on and start baking yesterday afternoon, it turned out I was wrong.  I’m not sure how I managed to mislay a packet of lard from the fridge.  After all, I don’t cook with it all that often.  But it wasn’t there and I wasn’t about to start playing with more variables than the flour on the first attempt.

So, after a fruitless walk to the little Tesco on Whitechapel and a rather more productive trip up to Sainsbury’s on Cambridge Heath Road – on the bus, much to Harvey’s delight – we were finally able to get on and start work on the pies.

In the end, I decided to combine elements of the recipe from Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy and the method from Merrilees Parker’s recipe.  The balance felt slightly better on the ingredients – not least Ms Pascale’s understanding that flour can be more or less thirsty, which is often a problem with gluten-free flours – but given the lack of gluten I was not convinced I wanted to let the pastry chill and then try to work it – it would be friable enough when warm or even room temperature, cold it would potentially be impossible to use.  So I stuck with the Parker recipe for the method, forming the pastry while still warm.  With the adjustments for using gluten-free flour (Dove’s Farm plain flour), this is the recipe I used:

430g plain gluten-free flour
1/2tsp salt
Black pepper to taste
1 egg yolk
80g butter
100g lard
230ml water

NB: If you have Lorraine Pascale’s book, you’ll know that her recipe (page 84) calls for 180ml water, and that you may not use all of it.  I upped that to 200ml from the start, then found myself adding extra as I worked the dough.  Gluten-free flour is seriously thirsty.

As instructed, I put all the dry ingredients in a bowl, added the egg yolk and then let Harvey stir them all together while I melted the lard and butter into the water and then brought that mix to a boil.

I then shooed him out the way and poured the molten fat and water mix into a well in the dry mix and stirred it quickly to form quite a firm dough.  Harvey helped, but found the dough too firm for him to stir, and then too hot for him to work with his hands.  Since I have asbestos hands, however, I was able to work the dough rather better and was therefore able to add the extra water it needed, which took it up to the total of 230ml.

I then separated it into two lumps – one third and two thirds – and then separated these into four balls each, since we were going to be making pies using some nice little foil dishes I’d picked up rather than the muffin tins Lorraine Pascale suggests.

The next bit was great fun as it involved squidging the pastry into place in the dishes and up the sides to create the body of the case.  This is a perfect job for a 4 year old.  We then popped in the filling – the one bit we had been able to make earlier! – which was coarsely minced pork loin steaks (480g pack) and pancetta (75g) with a little salt, pepper and nutmeg.  This, it turns out, is another job that mummies should leave to their children.  Finally, we used our last four balls of pastry to squash out lids to put on the pies, pinching them onto the cases where they met at the edges.  Harvey did admit this bit was a little more tricky, but he gave it a good go.

Gluten-free pork pies ready for the oven

H marks the spot - Harvey makes sure we know which pie is his

And so we had pies.  We slit the tops to let the steam out, and then popped them in the oven at 200C.  While the recipe says 30-35 minutes, our pies were going to be bigger, so we took them out after about 50 minutes.

The first thing I noticed was that the whole tray was swimming in fat.  The pastry had pulled in from the foil cases and you could see fat between the two.  Were it not for the crisp, golden pastry in front of me, the whole thing would have looked very unappealing.  On the other hand, I wasn’t too sorry to know we’d be losing some of the fat from the recipe before eating the finished product, so I mopped up the fat on the tray with kitchen towels (NEVER pour this down the sink, please!) and, when the pies were cool enough to handle, popped them out onto some more kitchen towels so they wouldn’t either reabsorb more fat as they cooled, or just end up coated in a layer of white fat: bleeeurgh.

Gluten-free pork pies

Gluten-free pork pies - looking good for a first effort

One thing you might notice on the photo above is how the neat slits have changed into rather rough holes.  That’s because the pastry resealed itself in the oven and I needed to knock holes in the crusts to pour the jelly in.  Ahem.  So, notwithstanding Harvey’s desire to put an initial on his pie, it will be less effort for future batches to simply make a proper hole in the lid before baking.

It has to be said that the crust, when the pies first cooled, was a nice shell on the outside, just as I had hoped it would be.  Since I seem to remember that pork pies were originally used to preserve the meat and that the pastry was used purely as a case to be discarded when it came to finally eating the thing, the only way that worked was if the case would withstand a certain amount of punishment.  So we at least have something authentic here.  Still, I wiggled in a small blade, hooked out a bit of lid, and poured in some jelly, which I’m sure will have softened the crust slightly by the time we come to eat the pies.

Now, I have to confess I cheated with the jelly.  After the length of time we spent just buying lard yesterday afternoon, I simply could not be bothered to make a proper vegetable stock, and didn’t have any left in the freezer.  I simply melted my gelatine, used half a Knorr vegetable stockpot, a couple of splashes of pinot grigio and enough water to top it up to half a pint.  Tasted OK on the spoon, and while it’s far from what I’d consider ideal, there was a fairly serious ‘life’s too short’ argument going on by that point.  I poured it in until it started seeping out of the join of the lid, popped the pies in the fridge, then topped them up a little later to the brim of the holes.

So, the photo above was taken this morning of my first ever gluten-free pork pies, complete with jelly – that’s what the shiny patch is on the lid of the bottom pie.  I will admit that the three of us ate one of the pies last night, purely to check the seasoning before I put the jelly together.  After all, you want to make sure the tastes complement each other.  Well, that was our excuse.  The pastry was – at that point – marvellously crunchy and lacking the bitter aftertaste my husband deplores in commercial pork pies.  The filling was delicious, although not perhaps so traditional, given the pancetta was smoked, and one would normally use green bacon.  All that was missing was the jelly.

And that, dear readers, is where I shall leave you, for it is time to put together a couple of salads and try the properly finished product.  Full verdict from all the family – and photos – later…

The great gluten-free pork pie experiment – part 1

Pork pies.  I used to love them.  My husband still does, but only when they’re well-made, which apparently most aren’t, these days.  Our son is also a fan, but rather less discriminating than his Dad, by all accounts.  And since you can’t buy them gluten-free in the shops, I’ve not eaten one in years.

I would probably have been content with occasional pining, but the new migraine drugs I’m on are doing some very odd things to my appetite at the moment and, having seen someone this morning scoffing a pork pie, I suddenly really wanted one myself.  As in really, really wanted one so badly that ignoring it wasn’t going to make the wanting go away.

So, accepting the inevitable, I thought I’d better investigate and see how one is supposed to make such things in the world of wheat, before having a bash at a gluten-free version, as I’ve never before made a pork pie.

I’ve often found the UKTV website a good starting point for recipes when I need to find something I can adapt, not least because they always seem to have several versions of the same finished product and you can get a better feel for how things will work, which is quite important for me as I can’t go making up and tasting a version with wheat flour first to use as a ‘control’ for my gluten-free experiments.  Well, not without making myself ill, anyway.

So the first recipe I looked at was Mike Robinson’s ‘proper old-fashioned pork pie’.  I certainly like the way it’s turned out in the picture, but it’s clearly not the pork pie I’m hankering after, because it’s not a raised crust.  And while I agree that a traditional pork pie relies on the flavour of the meat, rather than smothering it in herbs and other seasonings, I can work out the filling part for myself.  It’s time to move on to another recipe.

Same site, different recipe, and this one looks far more promising, not least because by this point I’ve fished out my Lorraine Pascale when I went to grab a coffee to help the search.  Ms Pascale’s method seems to agree in the main with this one for the pastry, although she omits the jellied stock, which I think is rather a shame.  Still, as she says, some people really don’t like the jelly, but I really do.  Not sure I can be bothered to trawl the East End for a pig’s trotter – living in a Muslim area has some minor drawbacks  at times like these – but I’m sure I can make a nice stock to dissolve some gelatine.

So, I have all my pastry ingredients, some pork, some pancetta (run out of bacon – oops), some gelatine and plenty of time to put together a decent stock.  Now all I need is for my glamorous 4 year old assistant to finish his nap and we can begin.

Of course, in all this, I’ve realised there is no quick fix to my craving for a pork pie.  Given that I daren’t make these without my son – he conked while I was researching recipes and is fully expecting to be part of the ‘sperimenting’ – plus the prep and cooking time, then the cooling and setting time, I won’t be wrapping myself round one of these until tomorrow at the earliest.  But that’s OK.  Since I’ve had to dig the mincer out to make the filling for the pie, we’ll be making some gluten-free sausages this afternoon as well and, believe me, there’ll be no waiting around for those 🙂

Flapjack recipe

And no, I don’t mean what some Americans mean by flapjacks, which is apparently some kind of pancake. I mean proper, oaty, sweet things that are sinfulness itself masquerading as health food.  They’re better for afternoon tea than scones with jam and cream, and even at Harvey’s strict school pass the ‘healthy’ test to be allowed into lunch boxes (no cakes or biscuits allowed).

My husband and son are addicted to them, and I’ve never yet had a complaint when I’ve made them, unless you count people worrying about the effect they’ll have on their waistline. The only reason I don’t get even fatter than I am is because I can’t eat them without making myself ill: I can’t even eat gluten-free oats, so these are definitely off the menu until I start work on an oat- and gluten-free flapjack… and develop the willpower not to scoff the resulting treats in one sitting!

If there’s one thing I particularly like about flapjacks, it’s their versatility. My son, Harvey, prefers them with Callebaut chocolate flakes sprinkled over the top before baking. I used to love them with dried blueberries and lemon zest added in place of the sultanas/raisins. And I have two trays in the oven baking – one with chocolate flakes and one without.

Chocolate chip flapjacks by Suzzle.com

Harvey's favourite - choc chip flapjacks

Here is my fail-safe recipe for flapjacks. I hope you like them.

Suzzle Flapjacks

  • 350g porridge oats
  • 50g jumbo oats (optional – add 30g more normal oats if not using)
  • 230g butter
  • 230g demerara sugar (soft brown also works fine)
  • 2 good tbsps golden (corn) syrup
  • 100g sultanas/raisins

Preheat the oven to 180C and lightly grease a shallow baking tray measuring approx 33cm x 25cm.  If you have a teflon baking tray liner, use that instead as it will be much easier to get the flapjacks out at the end.  Place the butter, sugar and golden syrup in a saucepan and place over a low heat.  While you wait for them to melt, weigh both types of oats into a large heatproof bowl, add the sultanas and mix well together.

Check the saucepan with the butter and sugar mixture.  Stir it regularly until everything has melted and the whole thing feels much less ‘gritty’ from the sugar granules – usually the ideal point is when the mixture has started simmering gently round the edge.

Pour the butter/sugar/syrup mix into the oats and stir thoroughly together until all the oats and sultanas are lightly coated.  Empty the mixture onto the baking tray and spread evenly, pressing into place with the back of a spoon.

Put the tray in the oven and bake for 9-10 minutes, or until the mixture is molten and turning a golden brown colour.  You can adjust this to suit your taste: my family like their flapjack quite chewy, but you can give it an extra minute or so if you want it to be a little crisper.

Let the flapjacks cool for a couple of minutes and absorb the liquid before dividing them into portions with a plastic knife: this is much easier done now than when they’ve had a chance to cool.  Let them cool for 8-10 minutes more before removing from the pan.  If you leave it too long and the flapjacks have started to weld themselves to your baking tray (some of my older non-stick trays have a tendency to errr stick), pop them back into a pre-heated oven for half a minute or so and you should be able to get them out.

And finally… put the kettle on for a cuppa, put your feet up and enjoy!

The finished product should look something like this…

Flpajacks by Suzzle.com

Mmmmm flapjacks!

Fabulous friands

I recently started supplying one of our local coffee shops – Love in a Cup, 15 Osborn Street, E1 – with cakes.  Kash, the owner, is a lovely Australian guy who makes a seriously good cup of coffee, and in his Sydney past developed a bit of a taste for friands.  Which meant one of his first questions for me was whether I could make them.

Having not tried them, it was not a given, not least because the only friend who’d ever mentioned them beforehand had me utterly confused by describing them as a kind of Aussie macaroon.  And since I’d never seen them in London and probably wouldn’t be able to find one that was gluten-free to taste if I did, I was going to have to start from first principles and trust to the recipe.

So I decided to give it a go.  And today, my new silicone friand moulds arrived, which is always a good excuse to do some baking.  There’s not that much flour in the recipe, so making them gluten-free should be fairly straightforward, and then it’s just a question of combining things the right way to get the texture to where it should be.  Not that I had a reference point, but I do have a client round the corner who can advise me on whether I’ve got it right.

The results were pretty good: crispy and crunchy on the outside, slightly chewy towards the edges and soft, light and very moist inside.  Kash came round to taste them a little later and gave them his seal of approval, noting that the chewiness was not usual but that he liked it.  Having since given them 3-4 hours to cool, it’s noticeable that the chewiness has largely gone, so it’s clearly the penalty for eating them more or less fresh from the oven!

In terms of the recipe above, I don’t think it’s quite lemony enough, so if you fancy a go at making it, squeeze in the juice of the lemon as well as using the zest, and compensate with a little extra flour and sugar to stop the batter becoming too liquid.

Still, I can see how they became so popular.  Time to have a play with more flavours, I think, but for now, here’s the finished product:

Gluten-free lemon friands

Not bad for a first go!

Hello fellow cake lovers!

Welcome to my blog!  I’m Melanie, and I make cakes.  Quite a lot of cakes, actually, as well as other nice things to eat.  While the cooking and baking have been going on for quite some time, I’ve not previously blogged about them, but that’s changing now.  While my family and friends love eating the results, they are – probably sensibly – less passionate about discussing such things.

And I’ll admit I’m on a bit of a mission.  Having been told by the docs I would have to stick to a gluten-free diet for the rest of my life, I quickly discovered that this would mean accepting some pretty poor substitute products if I wanted to eat the same kind of things I did before.  This was worrying, because I love my food.  I love textures and flavours and the amazing smells a little time and care can produce, and I wasn’t keen to compromise.  How hard could it be to reproduce the things I loved without including gluten in the process?

So began the journey.  I’ve met a few other coeliacs and people with a range of food intolerances since I started experimenting.  I’ve also found that most people assume that anything calling itself ‘free-from’ or ‘gluten-free’ will be sub-standard and less worth eating than its wheat, rye or barley-stuffed counterpart.  Fortunately, I’ve also surprised a lot of them by giving them a cake, letting them express their enjoyment, and then revealing that it was gluten-free.

I want to prove that gluten-free can be as delicious as ‘normal’ food.  I don’t think it’s acceptable for companies to set lower standards of flavour and texture for people with food intolerance than they do for those without.  It’s not good enough if customers say that a product is ‘not bad for something gluten-free’.  It’s either good or it isn’t.

I shall get off my soapbox now.  For those who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading – I hope to get to know a few of you as time goes on 🙂