Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irene is History

Hurricane Irene is now, finally history, as far as I'm concerned.  We lost power around 1AM Sunday morning.  Since we are on a well, this also means we lost water.  

I can handle no power pretty well.  

No water.  That's another matter altogether.

65+ hours later, we finally have power restored.  Awesome.

Soon, I will be posting about "A Study in Scarlet - Graphic Novel", "The Inheritance", "A Letter of Mary", and Gluten-Free Hurricane Hamburgers!  

Who said a hurricane isn't the perfect reason to get some reading done?

Stay tuned!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gluten-Free Peach Pie

Easy as Pie?

Who ever came up with this saying obviously has never made a gluten-free pie.

Pie is something that can undeniably fail. Cookies can burn. Cakes can fall. 

Pies fail. 

The bottom crust is soggy. The filling didn't set up properly. The top crust is burned. The crust is tasteless. The filling is too tart. The crust isn't flakey.

Did I mention that the crust can be a problem?

The crust is the most crucial part of a pie.  And the most difficult.

When I was eating gluten, I baked a few pies. And they were good. And not difficult. Pies have never been my favorite, but I made some now and then and they all turned out fine. Nothing glorious. Nothing divine.  But also none of them failed.

Then I went gluten-free. And then I tried gluten-free pies. Particularly, gluten-free pecan pie.

My first gluten-free pecan pie failed.  My second gluten-free pecan pie failed.

Clearly, it is time to re-evalutate what I am doing with my gluten-free pecan pie.

I've volunteered, actually I'm eager, to cook a full gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner.  With the works.  All gluten-free.  We did it last year, and it was fabulous!

But I want a successful gluten-free pecan pie this time! So...

I'm going to practice!

Practice making pies. It is now August and I have all of September and October and most of November to make pies and figure out how to get that gluten-free pecan pie to behave!  I want to practice making gluten-free fruit pies, gluten-free lemon meringue pies, gluten-free key lime pies, gluten-free apple pies, gluten-free pecan pies.

When I announced this to my family, no one looked worried.  My daughter started grinning from ear to ear.  They liked the sound of making practice pies.  How bad could they be? Even if the practice pies failed, the filling would still be good enough to eat, right?

Well, let's hope so.

Since it is still August, I would like to practice fruit pies first and take advantage of the late summer fruit. At the farmer's market, I looked over the available fruit and decided I would like to get the peaches for pie practice.

That's what this is. It's not soccer practice or trombone practice. It is not even baking practice. This is pie practice.

And this time it will be peach pie practice. But the peaches were still too firm. I needed to wait. I put them in a brown paper bag to help the ripening. That was Saturday. Sunday came along and they were still firm. Then Monday arrived and I headed off to work.

When I got home from work Monday evening, my husband informed me that I need to make that peach pie right away, since the peaches had gotten soft.

He was right. I needed to make peach pie on Monday night.

Mondays are not good for making pie. Or for pie practice. Mondays are Mondays.

But the peaches won. It was time to practice.

Gluten-Free Peach Pie

I wanted to try making a gluten-free double crust pie, and now was as good a time as any.

I started with the crust.  First the dry ingredients:

1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup garfava flour (mixture of garbanzo and fava bean flours)
1/3 cup potato flour
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp tapioca starch
3 Tbsp sweet rice flour
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt

I used a whisk to mix them completely.

Cutting in the margarine was next.  I used 8 tablespoons of margarine and 1 tablespoon of butter, since that is what I had on hand.  I have since come to the conclusion that pie crust should only be made with butter.  More on that in a bit.  I cut the margarine in with a pastry blender until I had coarse crumbs.

Then the wet ingredients:

1 large egg + 2 Tbsp egg white
1.5 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice

You might be able to get away with substituting a bottled version of lemon juice, but when it comes to lemon zest, there is not substitute. None. And if you have a lemon to zest, you might as well juice it.

I gently stirred all the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients using a fork. I don't know why I chose a fork. I guess I just figured it was going to be sticky. And it was. I covered the bowl of dough with a towel and put it in the refrigerator while I prepared the peaches.

These are the soft peaches.

It turned out that some of them were so soft because they had bruised spots. There's no avoiding that.  Bruises must be dealt with harshly. Show no mercy. By cutting them out.

I peeled and coarsely sliced the peaches.  In retrospect, they could have been sliced thinner, but those suckers are slippery once they are peeled!

No more bruises.

Into the peeled, sliced peaches, I added:

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1.5 Tbsp cornstarch

I stirred it all together and let it sit while I rolled out the crusts.

Chilling the gluten-free crust dough is helpful, since the dough is so incredibly sticky.  And it firms up the margarine a bit, keeping it from incorporating completely with the flours.  This all works better with butter.  Butter is what makes pastries flakey.  Margarine?  Not so much.  It melts at a much lower temperature, so just working with it a little bit will melt it.  Getting a flakey crust means small bits of butter need to be intact.  This time, we had mostly margarine.

Rolling out gluten-free dough of any kind is different than gluten dough. Remember that stickiness I mentioned? Well, it is so sticky, you can't get it to come off the rolling pin. Gluten-free doughs need a trick or two. Parchment paper for one, and sometimes either oil or more gluten-free flour for two.

I've made several gluten-free pizzas and have had very good luck with oiling one side of each of two pieces of parchment paper.  The gluten-free pizza dough goes between the oiled sides of the papers and rolling commences.  It's a breeze. The dough isn't stiff. The dough doesn't stick. That pizza dough is rolled out in no time flat.  No pun intended.

But it was apropos.

For the bottom of my gluten-free peach pie crust, I started the same way as for my gluten-free pizza dough.  Oiled parchment paper.  And I rolled out half of the gluten-free crust dough.  And then I tried to peel off one of the pieces of paper.

Not happening.  Stuck.  Stuck like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth.

I ever so patiently and gently and painfully pulled the paper as I kept pushing the dough back in place. This took me about ten slow and deliberate minutes. Painful!

Finally, with the first piece of paper off, I flipped the dough (still on one piece of paper) over into the buttered pie plate.  I adjusted a bit and then began the excruciating task of ever so gently pulling off the second piece of paper.

That was obviously not the way to work with this crust.  Next up:  the top crust and this time I was going to try flouring the paper with rice flour.

The rice flour readily stuck to the oiled parchment paper and I even added a bit more rice flour for good measure.  I definitely didn't want a repeat of that first crust.

I put the second half of the crust dough between the floured paper and rolled it out. The top paper came off easily. This was going to be far better than the bottom crust.

Why did I forget to take pictures of the crusts? Ah, maybe I was so flustered with that sticky bottom crust that I forgot.  Yeah, that's it.

I put the sugared peaches in the bottom crust and smoothed them out, making sure the large pieces were right up against the edge so the top crust wouldn't sag.  Then I sprinkled the zest across the top of the peaches.

Then it was time to flip the top crust onto the filled bottom crust.  My husband grabbed the other edges of the parchment paper, we aimed carefully... and then flipped!

Just the crust, people.  Just the crust.

The second paper came off effortlessly and I smoothed the top crust out, pinching the edges.  Since fruit pies like to bubble, fruit pies need holes in the top crust to release steam.  If you don't give the pie places to release the steam, they will explode. Be kind to your oven and don't let your pie explode. This is also your opportunity to create edible art. Who said playing with food isn't allowed?

But this is pie practice. This requires fine, surgical skill.

Or not. At first, I was going to stop with just the four cuts in the center of the pie.  But then I thought that it needed more room to breathe, so I added more holes.

After preheating the oven to 400 degrees, I slid the pie onto the bottom rack and baked it for 15 minutes. Then I lowered the temperature to 350 degrees and moved the pie up to the middle rack.  I baked it there for an additional 25 minutes.

It's a good thing I added those extra holes.

This pie needed to breathe. Can you see all that pale, cooked peach juice that bubbled out of those outside holes?

By the time the pie came out of the oven, we were all ready to eat it.  But we couldn't, since it was too hot. I couldn't even wait for it to cool to take a picture. We needed to serve this pie. It was Monday night after all. And getting late.

So, we served it.  It was more than just warm.  It was a bit too warm.  Look how it sagged on the plate.

That didn't deter us one pit.  We dug in.

But this didn't turn out to be a great pie.  It was okay.  It was good.  It was edible.

It was not a failure.

It was not a huge success either.  No one in the family was over the moon for this pie.  I've got work to do.

Oh, darn.

The filling turned out to be a bit tart.  I don't like overly sweet pies, but this one could have used a bit more sweetening. Maybe it was the lemon zest. Maybe there wasn't enough sugar. Maybe it was the peaches. I'm not sure.

The crust was done on the bottom and the top and was browned nicely. That was good. But the crusts were rather tasteless. And not flakey.  This is where the issue of the butter comes in.

From now on, I'm using butter exclusively in my gluten-free pie crusts.

And practice makes perfect.  Or so they say.

Just remember, whether you eat gluten or not...

... butter is butter is butter.

Nobody said eating gluten-free is low fat.

I'll have to wait a bit before I resume practicing....

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Book Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

This book is part of a crime novel triology.  The books have gotten a lot of press over the past few years, partly because they have been made into movies and that the third book was just published in the United States in 2010.

I need to start by saying that I loved this book!  I didn't love everything in the book or everything about the book, but this book ranks very high on my list of favorites.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This book is deeply embedded in Sweden.  The references to names and places and cities were everywhere through the book.  It was impossible for me to get any sense of these locations or names or places, since I am not familiar with Sweden or anything Swedish.  If I had a map of Sweden, I may have at least felt introduced to the setting. All I can think of is cold weather and blond hair. Luckily, the author does, at times, mention peculiarities of Swedish law.  This helped me understand things a bit better, especially when Swedish laws are different than the laws of the United States.

This book is filled with many references to many unsavory adult themes.  This is nothing less than an "R"-rated book, at best.  I don't have an inherent problem with R-rated as such, but I find these particular themes extremely unpleasant.  That said, each reference is brief.  The author does not drag these out or give overly extensive graphic details.  Thankfully!  Nonetheless, these references and themes are rather plentiful throughout the book.  The subplots depend on them.  They provide motivation and depth to the story. Unpleasant, yes.  Brief, yes.  Plentiful, yes.  Necessary?  Maybe.

I was overwhelmingly impressed with the thick, complex, multilayered plot and subplots.  This is a well-crafted and beautifully executed story.  Maybe that seems at odds with the previous paragraph, but there is no denying that only a skillful and talented writer can construct and populate such a detailed and complicated tale.  I am in awe.  And everything moves along.  Just as things seem to slow a bit, something new happens.

We are given a number of characters, two of which are co-protagonists.  We are given quite the background on both of these characters, which gives them body and generates interest.  Each of the main characters is portrayed in a unsurprising way.  They aren't boring, but they aren't surprising or overly unique either.  Early in the book, these characters are presented somewhat separately.  It isn't immediately obvious how they will be brought together. When they do all come together, they create an intricate and complex web. This, again, is impressive.

The subplots are numerous and include journalistic responsibilities, corporate fraud, family businesses, a family saga, and all those adult themes interspersed throughout.  Each of these adds depth to the story and they drew me in.  Of course this adds to the length of the book.  The normal-sized print book is 600 pages.  As you can see from my picture, I read the large print version, which has 800 pages.  This book was long, but I never felt like I wanted to read less of it.  Much to the contrary.  I couldn't wait to read more each day!

If you don't mind and can handle the adult themes, this is an outstanding book.  Set aside some time for this one, and you won't be disappointed.  I can't wait to read the next in the trilogy!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Brown Rice Pasta

Brown Rice Pasta

I was asked recently what kind of gluten-free pasta is good.  There are lots of horrible tasting ones out there.  I know.  I've tried quite a few.

This is from Trader Joe's and is not advertised as gluten-free.  It does have a label indicating that no gluten ingredients are used.

I have found that most of Trader Joe's products are made without much cross-contamination.  Not enough for me to notice.  That does not mean cross-contamination is not possible.  It just means that I must not be sensitive to that level of potential cross-contamination.  I do have cross-contamination problems with other products.

Gluten-free labeling is no guarantee of safety.  Each of us needs to evaluate what level of exposure to potential gluten cross-contamination is safe for us and act accordingly.  Please be safe.

I have had good luck with many of Trader Joe's "no gluten ingredients" products.

This is one of them.

We eat this pasta almost exclusively in our house now.  I used the fusilli in my Gluten-Free Greek Pasta Salad. Only rarely do we make gluten pasta, but sometimes we do make other non-glutenated pastas.  Some of those are more ethnic pastas and noodles.  But almost always they are gluten-free.

I have found that cooking gluten-free pasta takes a bit more attention than gluten pasta.  This brown rice pasta needs to be stirred more during the boiling, since it seems to release more starch into the water during the cooking.  Without more frequent stirring, it glues itself together.  Once I drain this pasta, I'm also sure to immediately rinse the pasta with cold running water.  This stops the cooking process and washes off the loose starch, so that the pieces don't stick together.

My family vetoed several different gluten-free pastas before we settled on this one.  This one tastes almost as good as gluten pasta and it is a close enough stand in that nobody minds having it.  It's texture is a bit different, but not significantly different.  The taste is closer to a whole wheat pasta than a white, durum wheat pasta.  We were happy when we found that both the taste and texture were acceptable to everyone in our household.

Once this is cooked, drained and rinsed, it can be used just as you would use any cooked gluten pasta.

Cook some up and add some homemade pesto for a delicious dinner!  Enjoy!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Book Review

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

We were at the library and my son was busy playing computer games instead of finding books to borrow. From time to time he resists getting more books, yet when he finds something he likes, there's no stopping him from reading.

But he doesn't like having to look for new books.

I finally decided that if I find him playing games at the library and he hasn't picked out any books, he has to accept two of the books I find for him.  Yes, he started to object, but then he realized that the pressure of finding new books was lifted a bit, since I was essentially pushing some suggestions on him.  He just had to select two.

Enter Hugo Cabret.

I was browsing through the children's section at the library while the boy played games, and I spotted Hugo on the cart near the librarian's desk.  It had a Caldecott Winner sticker on the front.  That's usually an enticement for me, but this was already different than most Caldecott winners.  This "picture book" was thick.

Three inches thick.

Something clicked.  Did we just see a movie preview in the theater about an upcoming movie involving an invention and a kid?

I liked the cover (yes, I just said that) and it included the word "invention", so I picked it up and added it to The Boy's pile of books.

Then my daughter arrived.

She took one look at The Invention of Hugo Cabret and said, "That's a good book!"

Well, that was good enough for me to encourage the boy to get it.

And then I asked her, "Did we see a movie preview about something like this when we were at the theater?"

"Yes, this is the book.  They are making a movie about it."

Good.  The preview had looked interesting.  From what I could recall.

I still didn't really know anything about it or the book.

After getting home, I noticed that The Boy was flipping through Hugo.  I could see some of the pictures from a distance.  Clearly, my son was interested.

He read it in no time flat.

Sometime the next day, I heard The Boy say, "Yeah, that is a good book."

Now, I was truly intrigued.  I had to find out about this book.  I had to read it.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

This is an outstanding children's book.  It is unique and engaging.  It is so different from anything I've ever read before.

This is a novel told in both words and pictures.  It is not quite a "picture book", and yet it is.  The pictures are vital to telling a large part of the story.  All of the pictures are done in pencil.  This "black, white, and shades of gray" view of the story is quite appropriate to the plot.

The plot tells of a boy's struggle to survive, in spite of difficult circumstances. The setting is unique and is firmly set in the specific time period. While this is a book written for children, there is more to the plot than what appears at first glance.  There are a few complexities and unexpected twists.  This is especially nice for the older children and adults reading.  Nothing gets too complicated, but it certainly held my interest throughout.

The characters are painted a bit thinly, but this isn't really surprising.  The plot and the pictures drive this story along.  The setting is prominent in both the telling and showing of the story.  The black and white drawings add to the sense of age, some time in the past.  Color would have detracted from the feeling of looking back in time.

The author has done a good job of presenting actual events and movies of the time.  This made me wonder about the authenticity of some of the things in the book while I was reading it.  The afterword explains that these parts were true and that our supporting character was in fact a real person.  The rest of the story is fiction.  I found this blend of fact and fiction intriguing. I liked it. I liked the way they were melded together and it left me wondering about it.

This is so much more than a children's book.  This is so much more than a picture book.  This is a fascinating book that everyone should read, children and adults alike.  I really enjoyed it, and both of my children did too!  Check it out!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gluten-Free Raspberry-Apple Cobbler

Un/Happy Accident

This was the result of a happy accident.

Well, actually, it was unhappy. But it was certainly unexpected.

I was happy to be asked to pick up the weekly allotment of a colleague's share of their CSA delivery.  Community Supported Agriculture.  This is locally-grown, farm-fresh produce.  I was being given the vegetables due to a sudden, unhappy change in schedule.

But I was happy to accept them.

And then I forgot to get the vegetables.  Luckily, I got a call reminding me to pick them up.  I grabbed the nearest bag I had with me and headed out.

My bag wasn't nearly big enough!

I was picking up eggplant, yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, butter lettuce, bell peppers, garlic, corn, cantaloupe, and raspberries.  And since I ended up being the last person to show up for the pick up, I helped clean out the leftover vegetables.  More tomatoes, more onions, more bell peppers, more raspberries.

I was thrilled to be getting all this produce!

But I had been warned that the raspberries had seen better days.  It was true.  The farm folks had let them sit a bit too long.

The raspberries on top looked good enough to me, so I took lots.  They wouldn't go to waste.

Gluten-Free Raspberry-Apple Cobbler

After getting home with my spoils, it was clear that the raspberries had to be dealt with immediately.  I had been thinking about making a raspberry pie, but in reality, these berries were well past their prime and a pie is best when the fruit is at their peak.

These were past peak.

These needed to be cooked.  And soon.

Given that we had little other fruit at that moment to use with the raspberries and seeing how late in the evening it was getting, we settled on a gluten-free cobbler.  Quick, easy, and painless.  We had apples on hand, so we used those to fill it out.

We worked quickly to get the cobbler together so that we would have dessert ready to eat after dinner.  My husband gently picked through and cleaned the raspberries.  They were readily falling apart.

My daughter wanted to do the gluten-free cobbler biscuit dough.  We used sorghum flour, white rice flour, brown rice flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, xanthan gum, cold margarine, and milk with a bit of vinegar (since we didn't have any buttermilk on hand).  She measured everything out, cut the margarine into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender, and then mixed in the combined milk and vinegar.  Then she set aside the dough until we were ready for it.

I chopped the apples and prepared the fruit, adding some sugar and a bit of lemon juice and corn starch, and mixing with the raspberries very gently.

I put the fruit mixture in the oven and baked it for about 20 minutes.  The apples needed enough time to soften and the mixture needed to get hot and bubbly.  Then I took it out and added the dough to the top.  I struggled a bit to get biscuit-sized spoonfuls dropped onto the fruit.  I made sure not to cover the fruit with a complete layer of dough, so that the fruit and juices could bubble up between the dough balls. Then I put it back in the oven for another 25 minutes or so.

I can't quite call these biscuits, but they were quite tasty with the fruit.  I have a gluten-free recipe for biscuits that make better biscuits than what you see above.  All that hurrying to drop the dough onto the top of the hot fruit left these "biscuits" rather spiky-looking.  But they browned nicely and they tasted just fine for this purpose.

Look at that red!  And oh, the flavor!  The raspberries were so strong in flavor!  Delicious!  The raspberries and apples cooked together very nicely and the topping was browned just right.

This turned out to be a quick and perfect use for all those overripe raspberries!  So fruity and summery!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Lightning Thief

Book Review

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.

This is a young adult offering that has grown into a series.  I was first introduced to it through my daughter and her Literature class.  The book has been made into a movie and the teacher showed the movie at the end of the school year.  I was very curious about a movie that a Literature teacher was showing to her class.  My daughter explained that the movie had Greek gods and goddesses in it, which they had studied recently.  This peaked my interest.

For years now, I have wanted to read The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.  Everyone I talked to agreed that I should read the Iliad first.  I prefer to read things in the proper order.  I finally worked up the nerve and I borrowed it from the library a few months ago.  And I started reading it.  A bit at a time.  A page or two at a time.

It was slow going.

And then, before I knew it, my library renewals for it were used up.  I had to send it back.

But I still wanted to read it.  Sometime.  Eventually.

I kept my eye open for a used copy at our local used book store.  It didn't take long to find a copy in good condition.  I got it and brought it home.

That was months ago and I still haven't opened it.

I'm feeling a lot of inertia to reading The Iliad on my own.  I tried to encourage myself by picking up the Cliff Notes from the library.  I want to read this book.

But clearly, I don't want to read it so much that I'm willing to set aside all of the other reading I'm also doing.  I just need to find the time and place to sit and get immersed in it.  I guess I just haven't found the right time or place yet.

I'm still interested in reading learning about the Greek gods and goddesses.  I've always been interested.  I didn't any exposure to them in my schooling.  Not middle or high school.  Not college.  During college I bought myself a book on Greek mythology to read on my own.  I was taking astronomy classes and learning the constellations.  It seemed like the right time to learn more about the mythology that went along with them.

But I found that book of mythology too dry to hold my interest.  I didn't get very far with it.

I'm still lacking in knowledge of the Greek myths, but I'm still interested.  It finally dawned on me that what I really wanted was a novel-like version of the myths, with a good plot and characters to move things along.  Kind of like a lot of historical fiction that is now available.  I just hadn't come across anything.  Yet.

Enter The Lightning Thief movie.

My daughter said the movie was good and I was curious, so we got the movie and watched it together.  Watching the movie adaptation before reading the book is very rare for me.  This time, I didn't mind a bit.  Pierce Brosnan is cast prominently in the movie.  This was a great visual to take away.  Oh, and the movie was rather good and the kids enjoyed it.

I was interested enough to want to read the book.  Even if it is a young adult book.  Maybe one of the kids would like to read it and I would know more once I read it.

The Lightning Thief

Our hero is introduced to us in New York City as a troubled sixth grader. He's got learning difficulties and has been kicked out of every school he has ever attended. And he has a step-father that is despicable.  And then strange and unexplainable things start happening.

Well, these things are explained and an action-packed adventure begins.  The plot is constructed such that our hero has to learn everything about himself and the Greek gods very quickly and act accordingly. He has learned some through school, but some he learns on the fly.

Scattered throughout the book are many references to gods or demigods that I've never heard of before.  The descriptions and explanations are very brief.  This is the one way in which I would have liked for the author to provide more depth.  It didn't bother me much that the characters in this young adult novel are rather flat, but I certainly was hoping for more mythology.  It could be argued that this may have taken away from the action, but I think it would have given the book a stronger structure.

I liked the bit of surprise at the end of the book.  I thought I had it all figured out earlier in my reading, but then I forgot.  When the end came around, I was expecting a nice tidy ending.  But I was surprised.  After reflecting a bit, I remembered that I had expected as much.  The ongoing plot distracted me from my expectation.  This is good.  Even though I had guessed the ending, I was pleasantly surprised when I got there.

This is an easy read and the prose is appropriate to a young adult book.  It was quite a bit lighter on the mythology than I would have liked, but maybe I should be looking elsewhere for that.  The plot moves along fine, but I found myself losing interest somewhat.  I'm sure my daughter would see it differently.  I think she will like it, and I will be recommending it to her.  I had assumed that I would be reading others in this series, but now I think I'll have to wait and see.  I don't particularly like reading series books back to back.  I'll have to see if the preview of the next book, which is included in my copy, can entice me.

All in all, I would recommend this to any middle schooler even slightly interested in Greek mythology.  The plot will likely be enough for them to enjoy it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gluten-Free KinniToos Chocolate Sandwich Creme Cookies

Gluten-Free Sandwich Cookies

It all started with dirt.

Edible dirt.  And gluten.

And then came a Harry Potter birthday party for my daughter.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the land of gluten-eating, I used crushed Oreo's to make edible dirt.  I had small, terra cotta pots, each of which contained Dirt Dessert and an candy flower coming out of the pot.  This was a dessert I made for an Easter egg decorating dinner with friends.  They were cute and yummy.

That may have been the last time I ate any Oreo's.  That was when my daughter was a baby.

Fast forward about ten years.  I'm now gluten-free and that very same daughter wants a Harry Potter themed birthday party at the roller rink.  And she is insisting that she have a cake that I can eat too.

She's so sweet!

If I do a themed birthday party, I do it.  I do it all out.  If I'm going to do it all out, I'm going to try to give my daughter what she wants.  If she wants me to be able to eat cake, then I'm going to try to get her a cake I can eat.  If I am going to be able to eat birthday cake, it has to be gluten-free.  If it is going to be gluten-free, I'm going to have to make it.  If I'm going to make a birthday cake for a themed birthday party, it has to be awesome.  If it is going to be awesome, I'm going to do it all out.

Did you follow that?

There are so many options for a homemade Harry Potter cake!  We came up with lots of ideas and plain sheet cakes never made the list.

We settled on a Mandrake Cake.

In Harry Potter, a Mandrake is a plant that screams when it is uprooted for transplanting.  Hearing this screaming is lethal to a wizard, so transplanting can only be done while wearing hearing protection.  But I digress.

Gluten-Free Carrot Cake

The idea we came up with was to use a large terra cotta pot and put gluten-free carrot cake, layered with cream cheese icing in the pot.  That would be covered with gluten-free edible dirt.  I would make a Mandrake plant out of gum paste (gluten-free!) and put on top of the dirt in the center of the pot.

Here's how it turned out.

That pot is full of gluten-free carrot cake, cream cheese icing, and gluten-free edible dirt!

But then we had the additional idea to make baby mandrakes and put them in a seedling tray.  Each cup of the seedling tray contained a gluten-free carrot cake cupcake, iced with cream cheese icing and then covered with gluten-free dirt.  Each was topped with a baby mandrake made of marzipan (unfortunately, not gluten-free).

Here they are.  Each baby mandrake was made unique and with its own personality, made by my daughter and one of her friends.  They had so much fun making these, while I was making the large mandrake.

Can you see the one with the mohawk?  How about the one with the afro?  The cone head?

It turned out that we served the baby mandrakes first to the kids at the party, and then never needed to cut into the full-size mandrake.  I didn't eat a baby mandrake or the full-sized mandrake.  But I did eat that gluten-free carrot cake and gluten-free edible dirt!  Delicious!

Everybody loved the mandrakes, both baby-sized and full-sized!  They were so cute!  And the gluten-free carrot cake was delicious according to everyone!

And the gluten-free dirt made it all possible.

These KinniToos are what I used for the gluten-free edible dirt.  They taste great!

Even now, my kids love Oreo Cookies. I, personally, could take them or leave them, when I was eating gluten.  Nonetheless, now it is hard to watch them love those cookies, knowing I can't have any.

It's really hard to watch.

Unless, of course, I have some gluten-free ones too.

Sometimes now, if I know the kids are going to have some Oreo's or the like, I will pick up some of these KinniToos.  Then we can all eat cookies together, dunking them in milk and licking out the insides.  Just like a kid again!

Life is so much more fun when we can share our experiences together.  Dunking sandwich cookies is no exception!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bacon, Beef & Bleu Salad

Summertime Salads

It's summertime and I like salads when it is hot.  Actually, we eat salads a lot in our house, year round.  Side salads, mostly.

But the summer is when we eat more entrée salads.  Salads that fill the whole plate.  Salads that have something other than our usual tomato, red bell pepper, and feta toppings.

Spinach Salad with Egg and Bacon.  Chicken Caesar Salad.  Candied Pecan and Dried Cranberry Salad. Greek Green Salad.

This is the time of plates full of salad, with all sorts of toppings.

Bacon, Beef & Bleu Salad

This is not a special gluten-free recipe.  This is just a salad that I really love and it just happens to be gluten-free too!

And everyone in our house goes ballistic for it!

It all happened rather by accident, when I walked into the kitchen one recent evening.

"Is that beef?"


I found that my husband had started marinating some beef.  Eye of Round steaks to be precise.  They had been really thick, so he had sliced them in half to make them thinner and they were marinating that way.

"What are you planning to do with it?"

"I'm not sure yet."

"Grill?  Were you going to grill it?"

"Yes.  Probably."

"Great!  Let's do that.  Then what?  Were you thinking anything else?"

"Just a salad."

"Really? What kind of salad?"

"Just a normal side salad."

"Really? Hmmm....  Well, instead of that, why don't we make that salad that has sliced beef and bleu cheese dressing on it?  Everyone loves that!"

"Ah.... Well...."

"Hey, we've got everything we need for it:  bacon, bleu cheese, potatoes, and you've already started the beef."

And we were off and running.

We always have romaine lettuce in our house.  It is, by far and wide, our favorite lettuce.  Butter lettuce is too soft.  Iceberg is too pale.  Sometimes we have baby mixed greens or spinach, but we always have romaine.  This is perfect as a base for this salad.  

He grilled the beef as planned.  When it was done, we just needed to slice it thinly for the tops of the salad.  Of course, any kind of cooked, sliced beef would work fine here.  Choose your favorite.

We almost always have some bacon in the freezer.  We pulled that out and popped it into the microwave.  A year or two ago, I bought a microwave bacon tray.  It has ridges that the bacon slices lie on, and a groove down the middle leading to a tray at the bottom.  The groove sends the liquid fat down to collect in the tray, and the bacon cooks on top of the ridges and out of the fat.  This is now my favorite way to make bacon.  Just be sure to cover the bacon with a paper towel before cooking!

After the bacon was cooked and crispy, I further drained it on paper towels and then cut it into small bits, ready for the top of the salad.

Potatoes.  Did I mention the potatoes?  I'm not usually a fan of potatoes on salads, but I have grown to love them on this salad.  That is, if they are cooked well enough.  I like them slightly brown and crunchy on the outside and well done all the way through.  That's why I cut them into very thin wedges.  I like the shape of the wedges, but the thinness is necessary if you want to get them done enough through the middle.  I dusted them lightly with sea salt and baked them for 20-25 minutes at 425 degrees.

These turned out perfect.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of them after they were done.  They were beautiful!

And actually, we didn't have bleu cheese.  We had gorgonzola.  Close enough.  Yummy enough.  Either works just fine for this homemade dressing.

To make the dressing, I just winged it, using a couple of heaping tablespoons of sour cream, a splash of milk, a bit of cider vinegar, a small wedge of gorgonzola, salt and pepper.  I would have used non-fat greek yogurt too, if I had had any at the time.  But I didn't.  I put it all into the food processor and it was done in a minute or two.  I added a touch more vinegar and milk, until the tanginess and consistency were just right.  Thick, but not too thick.  If you don't have a food processor, a blender works just fine too.  Or you can mash the cheese sufficiently small with a fork and just mix all the ingredients in a bowl.  Still easy.  Oh, and delicious!

Then I laid everything out on the plates:  first the romaine, then potatoes, bacon, beef, and finally the gorgonzola dressing.  Adjust the ratio of each according to your own liking.

This was our Bacon, Beef & Bleu Salad!  Everyone in our house fawns over this salad.  It is so tasty and so flavorful!  It really is a meal unto itself.  And it naturally doesn't have any gluten in it.  Fabulous!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Secret Garden

Book Review

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  This is a classic children's book.  It was originally written in 1911 and the prose is appropriate to that time frame.  This is one of those classic children's books that may have been intended for children, but probably wasn't often read by them until they were quite a bit older and their reading skills more advanced.  It is the kind of story that I can imagine being read to children right before bedtime.

The plot is somewhat predictable from the title alone.  A garden is hinted at but hidden, found and kept secret, and then announced and accepted.  There are no plot twists or turns, as one might expect from a child's book of this era.  The pace is right on target and moves along as one might expect.

The characters are few and didn't seem especially deep.  Maybe this is the symptom of being a children's book.  Maybe not.  Our protagonist is initially unforgivable and we are unsympathetic towards her, but she has had her share of upheavals.  It takes an equally unsympathetic antagonist to shake her to her core and bring awareness.  This is done in an appropriately simple manner.  We appreciate the changes brought over on our protagonist.  We expect these changes.  There is nothing unexpected here.

The prose is typical of the time, along with the prevalent prejudices and customs.  The local dialect is difficult to read silently and I doubt many American children would be able to decipher it.  It is possible that British children might have an easier time of it, if they know what local Yorkshire dialect sounds like.  Luckily for us, sometimes the author has made the effort of reiterating or translating or having our characters repeat what is said.  Well, at least the most pertinent parts.  The written dialect was heavily laden with apostrophes and my reading was greatly slowed through these parts.  As painful at it was, it did lend the appropriate flavor to the specific characters using it.  It was also used as a means for our protagonist to grow and accept her new situation.

Most of the prose is appropriate for an advanced child to read, but in the latter half of the book in several places, it seems as if the author has forgotten for whom it is written.  The word "hysterics" is used repeatedly and finally explained in an appropriately simplified manner.  But at one point, the author uses the word "atrophied" and then defines the word in a parenthetical expression.  This speaking directly to the reader jolts us out of our place in the story and is distracting.  In another place the author uses the word "hypochondriac", but does not define it or explain it.  I found this as an unfortunate oversight.  How many ten-year-olds know what a hypochondriac is?

There is a lot of use of the word "magic".  With today's kids, this would require some explanation.  The usage here is not the same as it is used in the Harry Potter series or any of the other common fantasy works.  Here the word is simply meant to represent the beauty of nature doing its work in the world of living things.  Mother Nature.  It could be extended to imply a religious or spiritual or mystic origin, but I suspect the author specifically chose to avoid stating any of these explicitly.  Other references to religion are given, specifically the ceremony and the sung hymn, but these seem to stem naturally from the children's experience and less from a direct persuasion of the author's.  I believe the word "magic" was specifically chosen to avoid a specific connotation and to let the reader infer its meaning however they wish.

This is a well-written book and is appropriate as a story for children.  I don't know if I could interest my modern children to read it now, but I could imagine having read it to them a few years back, when I was still reading bedtime stories to them.  If I had done so, I would have had to do some explaining of the prejudices and language used, as well as the British rule of India.  At an age of five or six years old, they might have been patient to listen to me read the story, but they probably wouldn't have known about British-controlled India.

Considering everything, this was a good read.  It is evident of its time, but still has the qualities of a well-crafted and well-written book.   With other exposure to children's classics, and if you can get it to today's kids young enough, even today's children are likely to enjoy it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gluten-Free Tempura

The Farmers' Market

It all started with a trip to the library.  Really.  The library.

We had things waiting for us at the library.  We always have things to take back.  Often we need to get more books.  We go weekly to keep ourselves well supplied with reading materials.

Our local library shares their parking space with the local farmers' market during the summer months.  When we arrived at the library, we couldn't help walking through the farmers' market first.  It was near the market's closing time, and the vendors would be gone by the time we were done in the library.  We had to walk through the market first.

Baked goods.  No thanks, I'm gluten-free.

Dairy products.  Um... not today, thanks.

And that's when I spotted the okra.


And zucchini.  And eggplant.  And tomatoes.

We got some of each.

Now we had to figure out what we were going to do with our new found bounty.

After finishing at the library, we started thinking quickly.  What do we want to do with these vegetables and what would we need from the store before we head home?


Fried okra.  We wanted fried okra.

We never fry anything at home.  Maybe pan fry, with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, but never deep-fat fry.  It's just not our style.

But the rest of the family had had some fried okra a few weeks before at a restaurant.  I, of course, could not partake or even taste their fried okra, since it was battered and fried.  Glutenated.

This is the tough part of being the only one in the family that needs to be gluten-free.

They all were in love with that fried okra!  They smiled and giggled and sighed and went back for more.

I just imagined what it would taste like.

Now, we had okra in hand and I was ready for some fried okra myself.  I wanted to taste that deliciousness too.

Everyone was with me.  They wanted fried okra too!  They had no hesitation to making it gluten-free.  Let's do it!

Okay....  What else would we want to have with it?  Well... if we are going to fry, why not shrimp?!  Gluten-free Tempura Shrimp!  Well, if we make tempura batter, we can just use that on the okra too.

I was so excited!  I hadn't had tempura in more than five years!  I hadn't had tempura since I had become gluten-free.

Gluten-Free Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables

Have you ever noticed how beautiful sliced okra is?

Have you ever noticed how slimy sliced okra is?!

For our tempura, we used about a cup of potato starch, some baking bowder, salt, milk, one egg, a bit of olive oil, and a dash of paprika.

Mix the dry together first and then combine wet ingredients in the mixer.  Then slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet.  The mixer was overkill here.  This can be done easily in two bowls with a wisk or fork.

We used sweet rice flour to coat the vegetables and shrimp.  Then we dipped each piece in the wet batter.

Then it is time to fry!  We heated a liter of olive oil in our fryer/slow cooker.  It was a wedding gift and this was the first time we were using it as a fryer!  And the oil needs to be hot, so that everything doesn't end up being mushy and soggy with oil.  We set our fryer to about 350 or 375 degrees.  Be careful!

 The zucchini turned out beautiful.

Then came the eggplant!  Wow.  I couldn't wait to finish the rest.  I wanted some now!

But then came the okra.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  We need to hurry up!

And finally the shrimp!  I'm ready!  Let's eat!

Finally we were ready.

And, oh my!  Everything was so delicious!  Everything tasted so good.

It's a good thing we don't fry at home.  I wouldn't be able to keep myself away from these!

And this was certainly a treat.  My favorite turned out to the flavorful shrimp.  But in a very close second was...


the okra!  Tempura Okra!

Three cheers for Tempura Okra!  Hip Hip Hooray!

Unbelievably good.  We just can't let ourselves indulge in this very often.

Who said gluten-free had to be lifeless or tasteless?  Think again!  Eat again!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Book Review

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. I decided to read this after a discussion with a friend. At the time, I had plenty of other books to read, so I put it on my list for later. Then, when I thought I was ready, I looked it up at my local library.

It wasn't available. I had to request it.

And I had to wait.



Not years.

I finally got notice that it was waiting for me. I promptly picked up and started it.

Slowly. It started slowly. Not because nothing was happening, but because I was having a hard time finding a frame of reference for what I was reading.

2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner

I don't think I have ever read a Pulitzer Prize winner before. Or not knowingly. After glancing at the titles of the last fifteen years worth of winners, I'm pretty sure I have not read any other recent winner.

I haven't even heard of most of them.

This made me wonder what criteria they use to determine a winner.

I admit freely that I am not an expert in literature. Or fine literature. Or poor literature, for that matter. I just like to read and want to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of literature.

Reading a Pulitzer Prize winner has now filled in a gap.

I wasn't really aware of this gap until now. I wasn't really trying to fill this unrealized gap. Nonetheless, it is now filled.

And thank goodness. I'm not sure what I would find in these other Pulitzer winners of the past decade or two.

Clearly, "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is inventive. It is clearly crafted. It is well written.

It is also a little hard to follow. The timeline is disconnected, and only through continued reading does the reader finally get a sense of the current time. This is difficult, since the setting is presented in a rather sparse way. Narrators change at each chapter, without identifying themselves. Directly or indirectly.

The characters are quite "interesting". None are perfect and pristine.  Each seems to have his or her own foibles.  Who doesn't?  But some of these foibles are a little unusual, not quite what I think of as "mainstream" idiosyncrasies.  I'm guessing there are plenty of people out in the world who can identify with some of these characters, but I had trouble doing so.   Granted, my exposure to big, wide world may be a bit limited.  Reading about such lifestyles like these, assuming they do exist, is probably better than never knowing about them at all.

The plot is hard to discern, certainly not until after the entire book is read.  In fact, throughout reading the book, I found myself asking what it was all about.  With a disconnected timeline and different narrators, connections between characters and times doesn't come until most or all of the book is read.  A few lifelines are thrown the reader's way occasionally.  Even though a new narrator is presented in each chapter, somewhere within each chapter is some mention of at least one of the characters already introduced.  This wasn't immediately apparent, but I finally caught on.

Without a continuous timeline to guide me, I started looking for the setting of each chapter.  Unfortunately, the setting is almost non-existent, except in an off-hand way.  Time and place are given very light treatment through the same brief narrative descriptions.  The reader is left to piece things together on his or her own.

Much of the discussion between characters and within themselves revolves around music. Musicians' music, not casual listeners' music. I didn't get much from the detailed discussions of the specifics of the music. I'm not familiar with music or musicians or promoters. I found it difficult to understand or care about the music references. I did identify, on a most basic level, with the pauses in music. But only because I have noticed small pauses in some of my favorite songs. Maybe I learned something more about pauses through reading this.

Late in the book, one whole chapter is presented in Powerpoint slides. Yes, slides. This was different. At first I resented it. It seemed too easy. Too new. Too hip. Too "of the current times". Too attention getting. But now I have come to see this as a genuine way to present the narrator of that chapter. It was her way of written communication. It ended up working.  This time.  I hope I never see it again in another novel. It has been done. Leave it that way.

This book takes work to read. Nothing is readily handed to the reader.

Eventually, the plot and characters all do relate back and the loop is closed, but it is loop left filled with lots of gaps and holes.  That loosely knitted loop takes the reader through the themes of deceiving oneself and yet wanting redemption for past actions or inactions.  These are not so far from what real people deal with all the time.

This is book for those who enjoy reading to discover. Discover the plot. Discover the relationships between characters. Discover the timeframe. Discover the setting. Discover the purpose.

And, as I said before, this book is inventive. It is a worthwhile read, if you enjoy this kind of thing. For anyone looking for a nice, tight and tidy timeline and plot, don't bother. But if you like to be intrigued and don't mind a rather hefty dose of less than pleasant personality eccentricities, give it a shot. It is certainly interesting.