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Gluten Free Food
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It doesn't have to taste awful

These are the days of allergies, at least it seems so. People can fall ill simply by coming into contact with a substance that their bodies and immune systems can't handle. Even the bare trace of a peanut may trigger anaphylactic shock resulting in death. Those at risk can take precautions to avoid the substances likely to do them harm, which is fine if they aren't particularly averse to the safe substitute, but when it boils down to food and what they can no longer have, many are disappointed, even bitter when told they have to miss out on those tasty morsels that they used to enjoy. Anyone suffering from coeliac disease will know what I'm talking about. This, for the uninformed and those lucky puppies who don't have the problem, is a condition which affects the small bowel and can result in a mild to severe reaction to gluten, an ingredient found in some cereal crops, particularly wheat. It can mean no decent bread or cakes, no melt-in-the-mouth pastry, practically no nothing! Actually, that's not quite true: gluten isn't present in all foodstuffs, but it surprised me when I looked more closely at the packaging in supermarkets to discover that very few products were gluten free. So, when our grand-daughter who is gluten-intolerant came to stay with us, I had to change my approach to cooking.

I have heard of families where one or more members, but not all, have this kind of allergy; the way they adjust to it, however, was one I preferred not to adopt. I couldn't see the sense in having to cook two separate meals in the same session. So, my wife and I agreed to eat the same food that I was having to prepare for Alyssa. Believe it or not, with many of the dishes we couldn't taste any difference; and, although it could have been pure coincidence, after seven weeks on a gluten-free diet we both felt healthier, suffered less from indigestion and the doctor said that my return to normal blood pressure was a cause for celebration!

Enough of the waffle - let's get down to the nitty gritty. Gluten-free products are available in most supermarkets, often in the health-food section, while some stores even have a set of shelves devoted exclusively to them. My main GF cooking ingredients comprise plain and self-raising flour, baking powder, gravy mix and stock powder. I gather that most vegetables and fruit are gluten-free, and research suggests that animal products such as meat and eggs are too, despite the fact that the creatures which provide them are often fed cereal crops. This means that a good percentage of dishes that everyone else eats can be prepared with ingredients that contain no gluten. Gluten-free plain flour as a thickener for casseroles, sauces and stews works the same as wheat flour, and if there is a difference in taste, we haven't noticed it. A white roux as might be used for brandy or cheese sauces can be made in the old way, but with gluten-free plain flour taking the place of the wheat version. Sauces for meat dishes turn out well using GF gravy powder, perhaps adding a bit of stock powder or spice for extra taste; and the addition of a little sherry or wine makes a pleasant change. When it comes to bread and pastry, however, the transition isn't quite as appealing.

We've tried some ready-prepared pastry and bread mixes to discover they are indeed quite unpleasant as our grand-daughter claimed. I daresay anyone brought up on them wouldn't complain, but after sixty-odd years of enjoying wheat, our taste-buds demanded something at least approaching palatable. In all of them there was a strange, oily flavour akin to linseed which we don't like, so we made a closer inspection of the ingredients on the packets to see what went into them. The base ingredients were mainly tapioca, rice, soya and potato flours, plus starches of the same kind. Inclusions would seem to vary, depending on the country: in the UK, for example, some blends contain buckwheat, something of a misnomer because it isn't actually wheat at all; plus other ingredients like carob and sugar beet fibre for brown bread. How these affect the taste, I have no idea. Of those that I was able to check, there was no linseed, but various gums had been added, xanthan and guar to name just two, then a substance called carboxymethylcellulose which sounded a bit like wallpaper paste! No wonder they tasted funny. I decided to go back to basics, adapting my old recipes by substituting a GF plain flour which claimed to have no peculiar additives, and a self-raising that slipped in only one - I'm still a bit dubious about this.

I've always been able to make a pretty good shortcrust and we love pies, so I thought I'd give one a go. The result was both a nightmare and a disaster! Right from the start I knew it would be: while rubbing in the fat, the texture felt strange, fine certainly, but not what I was used to. After the water was added, the dough was heavy and sticky. My next mistake was using rice flour to dust the board when I rolled it out. Finally, I had my pie topping and tried to pick it up in the usual way by curling it around the rolling pin. It cracked, bits broke off, and by the time it was on the dish it looked like it had been used as a target on a rifle range! That wasn't the end of it - baked as per normal, it didn't appear too bad out of the oven, but it was as tough as shoe leather and didn't taste much better. For my next attempt I added a little self-raising to the plain flour. I've proved this works with wheat flour, so I thought: why not? I'd rubbed in the fat and then had another idea, a really stupid one. I borrowed a tablespoon of cold mashed potato and worked it in, thinking this might add some elasticity. It did, and the transfer to the dish was incident free. Once in the oven it looked great, a real pie; unfortunately the crust didn't want to brown, so I left it in a while longer, too long as it happened. This time, the edge was a tooth-breaker and the rest as chewy as a piece cut from a wet-suit! For mark III, I left out the mash, but added some bicarbonate of soda. This one fell off the fork like crumble pastry and was so salty as to be almost inedible.

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