Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gluten-Free Banana Bread

The title says it all! Banana bread! I can remember my mom baking banana bread and zucchini bread quite a bit when I was still living at home. The smell of it baking in the oven takes me back to childhood, and really, I can't think of a better breakfast than a warm piece of banana bread. Fortunately for me, my husband loves to bake banana bread. But, after I stopped eating wheat, he felt guilty making it. He didn't want to make something that I couldn't enjoy, but he was nervous about gluten-free baking.

He watched me bake a few things gluten-free, and then one evening while I as at a meeting, he surprised me. I came home to freshly baked banana bread. At first, I felt sad because it looked so good and I assumed it was not something I would be able to eat. Imagine my surprise when he told me that it was gluten-free! An even bigger surprise was that it tasted so good I wouldn't have known it was gluten-free if he hadn't told me! He baked another loaf today, and I decided the recipe was good enough I would share with you.

***Gluten-Free Banana Bread
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup brown rice flour
1 cup white rice flour
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp. xanthan gum
pinch of salt
1 Tbsp. sour milk (2/3 Tbsp. milk, 1/3 Tbsp. vinegar)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix oil, sugar, and beaten eggs. Add flours, soda, salt and xanthan gum. Blend in bananas. Bake in large, greased loaf pan, or in round cans for about an hour, or until bread has turned deep brown in color.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Product Review: "Plantain Crunchers" by Amport Foods

If I am ever driving through a town that has a Hy-Vee Grocery Store, I have to stop and check out what's new in the gluten-free section. Hy-Vee has really impressed me with their organic and health food selection, and I've been particularly impressed by how much they stock in the way of gluten-free food. I have always been able to find healthy snacks in the gluten-free section of the store, and it is my go-to store for the various flours I need for GF cooking and baking.

This past week I stopped at a Hy-Vee I'd never been in before, and they had a couple of products by Amport Foods. They both looked great, but I decided to try the "Plantain Crunchers" first. I have to be honest that I don't think I have ever eaten a plantain before this, so I had no idea what to expect. I knew they were like bananas, but usually used in preparing main dishes. That was about the extent of my knowledge. So, I brought these cute little yellow snacks home with no idea what to expect.

My first impression was of "sensory confusion." At first my nose smelled banana, and so I expected a sweet flavor even though I *knew* the crunchers were salted. Once I got over the fact that they tasted pretty much nothing like bananas, I started to enjoy them. My son started begging for some of mommy's "new yellow chips," so I decided to share. He loved them too! They have a texture similar to banana chips in that they are crunchy without being hard, but they have a flavor that is full and meets my salty carb craving.

If you see these snacks in a store near you, it would be worth giving them a try! I've heard Amport Foods has a line of other dried snacks, but I have not yet seen them in the store. Have you tried any of Amport Foods' products? What did you think?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chicken in a Pot - and Spiced-Up Leftovers

I love cooking at home. I always have. And, now that I am eating gluten-free (and experimenting with dairy-free), it is difficult to eat away from home, so I tend to avoid it. Several of my friends have told me that they do not know how I have time to cook at home for all my meals. The simple, honest truth is that I have found that I have plenty of time to cook at home both because it is a priority and because I have a couple of versatile recipes in my back pocket.

One of those recipes is "Chicken in a Pot." It is easy, simple, basic. My Grandma used to make it, my parents still make it, and I make it fairly often.

***Chicken in a Pot
1 - 3 pound whole chicken, or 3 pounds of cut up chicken
2 carrots, sliced
chopped onion (as much as desired)
2 celery stalks, chopped
Salt and pepper, as desired
1/2 cup water
1/2 to 1 tsp. basil

Place in a crockpot and cook for around 4 hours on high or 7-10 hours on low, or until chicken is done. Use 1 cup of water if cooking on high. Serve over rice, or with desired side dishes. In place of carrots, celery, and onion, you may substitute whatever fresh or frozen vegetables you would like to use.

Super easy. I love this recipe, and I go to it often. After we've eaten what we want from the chicken in a pot, I will cut the chicken into bite-size pices, or shred it up. Save the veggies, and pour the broth into a container. Cool the broth in the fridge, scrape the fat off the top, and freeze it for later use. You know the broth is gluten-free because you made it!

Now, let's take that dinner and turn it into another! First, make up some homemade Italian dressing. You won't use all of it for this recipe, but you can keep it in the fridge to use over salad or as a dip for veggies as a snack.

***Italian Dressing
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. dried minced onion pieces
1 tsp. dried basil leaves
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp.  ground mustard
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
dash black pepper

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. This makes a little over 1 cup of Italian dressing.

And now, for the spiced-up leftover.

***Chicken and Spiral Pasta
1 pkg. (12 oz. dry) brown rice spiral pasta, or whatever shape you want (I used Tinkyada brand)
leftovers from Chicken in a Pot
5 Tbsp. Italian Dressing (or more if you really want to notice the flavor)

Heat water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente, drain, and rinse with cold water. This helps the pasta keep its shape.  Heat up leftover Chicken in a Pot. Stir chicken and veggies into noodles. Add Italian Dressing and mix well.

Voila! Dinner! This made so much for me tonight that I think I have leftovers for tomorrow's lunch too! This time around I took "Easy Street" and used a bag of frozen peas and carrots when I made Chicken in a Pot. Worked out just fine!

My kids and husband love this recipe. I hope you will love it too!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Recipes for Gluten-Free Flour Substitutes

Something the gluten-free diet did for me that I never expected: I suddenly became very interested in the ingredients in my food. Not necessarily in an obsessive way (though sometimes that happens to me too), but it was more that I became curious about where my food came from. I knew all-purpose flour had been made from ground wheat, but I had no idea that things like sorghum, millet, masa harina, and quinoa even existed. I'm sure I had seen the names before when I was reading a book or perusing a dictionary, but I didn't know what they were. I had no idea that they were edible. I was even more surprised to learn that those grains are staples in many other cultures.

The tricky part of gluten free baking is that wheat-based flour weighs more and has more sticking protein than gluten-free flours. Whole wheat flour is very dense and loaded with proteins. White rice flour...not so much. And so, when working with gluten-free flours, it works a lot better if you mix different flour types so that you achieve a weight that is closer to a wheat-based flour. And then, many recipes recommend that you add guar gum or xanthan gum to your flour mixture as a sticking agent (kinda like the gluten in wheat).

When I use xanthan gum, I tend to use 1/2 tsp. of xanthan gum per 1 cup of flour being used.

I don't know the real science behind what makes certain flour mixtures work. I know for many people, they discovered what worked best for them through many frustrating hours of trial and error. Honestly, I lucked out. I had no idea what I was doing and slapped together the flours I had in my cupboard. It has worked for almost everything I've used it in. The millet flour has a bit of a bitter flavor, so if you try this out and notice a bitter flavor you don't like, feel free to substitute something else for the millet. You could always just increase the brown rice flour. The recipes are laid out in "parts." I did this so you can make as much (or little) flour mixture as you need.  When I made my flour mixture today, 1 part was 1/3 cup. That yielded right around 3 cups of flour.

First, assemble all your supplies together.

***Gluten-Free Flour Susbtitute Recipe #1 - works best in baking that uses a lot of flour (more than 2 cups)

3 parts brown rice flour
1 part corn starch
2 parts tapioca starch/flour
1 part masa harina
1 part sorghum flour
1 part millet flour

Mix all the flours together. Instead of sifting, I washed out an old, plastic Folgers coffee can (with a snap-tight lid), and let it completely air dry. I put all the flours in there, snap the lid on and then shake it vigorously (while making sure I have a couple fingers holding the lid in place). If you want to do it a more traditional way, you can sift your flours together. The key is to get the flours so mixed together that it resembles one flour. For every one cup of flour you use, add 1/2 tsp. of xanthan gum to the recipe you are making.

***Gluten-Free Flour Substitute Recipe #2 - works best in recipes that use 2 cups of flour or less

1 part brown rice flour
1 part white rice flour

I worry less about sifting the flours together when I'm only using two. Just make sure you stir them well together before adding your wet ingredients. Again, 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum per 1 cup flour.

These have worked for me in many types of baked goods. I've made muffins, a King Cake for Three Kings Day, cinnamon rolls, and lots of other things. It isn't perfect, but it gets the job done. Feel free to adapt it if you find something that works for you.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cherry-Oat Crisp

I've been on a fruit kick lately. The produce all looks amazing at my grocery store right now, and I always get excited when I can eat fruits and veggies that are in-season. Usually when I go shopping with my kids, they beg for apples, bananas and grapes. This time they begged for grapes (green and red), which we got, but the ripe, dark cherries caught my eye. We were preparing for a family picnic, and the cherries looked perfect for a finger food for our meal-on-the-go. I pitted several cherries for the picnic lunch, and they tasted fantastic! But, there were lots of cherries left and I couldn't stand to see them go to waste. The result: a delicious cherry-oat crisp that can be eaten by itself or as a topping over ice cream.

The best part of the recipe is that it doesn't use any flour at all. It has very few ingredients, and will delight gluten-intolerant people and gluten-eaters alike.

First, wash and pit your cherries. Then place them into the bottom of a greased, 8-inch square baking pan.

I wanted the taste of brown sugar, but I didn't have any at home. So, I made some. Super easy! Just mix sugar and molasses. Grandma's brand Molasses is marked gluten-free right on the jar.

Work the molasses into the sugar until it looks like this:

Mix the brown sugar you just made, cinnamon, gluten-free oats (like the rolled oats at Bob's Red Mill), and oil together. Sprinkle over the top of the cherries. Now it is ready for the oven! Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until the juice from the cherries starts to soak into the oats. The oats will remain crunchy. That's part of what I love about this recipe!

***Cherry-Oat Crisp

2 1/2 - 3 cups pitted cherries
1/2 cup sugar + 1/2 Tbsp. gluten-free molasses (or 1/2 cup brown sugar) - it is a pretty sweet treat. Feel free to reduce amount of sugar.
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup gluten-free oats
scant 1/4 cup oil

Preheat oven to 350. Pit cherries and place in greased,  8-inch square dish. Combine molasses and sugar in a medium-size bowl until brown sugar forms. Stir cinnamon, gluten-free oats, and oil into the sugar until well combined. Sprinkle sugar and oat mixture over the cherries. Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until the oats begin to soak in a little of the cherry juice. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. Serve either over ice cream, or by itself. If you'd like a goopier ice cream topping, or if your cherries aren't very juicy, place 1/4 cup water in the baking dish with the cherries before coating with the sugar and oat mixture.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Never-Use-A-Box-Again Brownies

Please never go out and buy a brownie mix again! You don't need it! It doesn't matter your level of baking expertise, whether you are able to burn water as it boils, or even if you have a track record for screwing up the heating of a frozen dinner. You can make these! I have faith in you!

Now that you've had a little pep talk, I hope you are ready for a recipe that will revolutionize the way you make a meal. These brownies are so simple that they whip together with very little effort, and all you have to do is smell the deliciousness as they bake for 25 minutes. They are a perfect oh-shoot-I-didn't-plan-dessert-for-my-guests dessert. 5-10 minutes of active time, and you've got something in the oven for your dinner guests. My mom used to make brownies that tasted almost identical to these. She never needed to buy a box of brownie mix because this recipe uses things that most bakers have on hand. It wasn't until I recently asked for the recipe that I realized it was a recipe my Aunt B. learned when she was in 4-H.

The original recipe only calls for 1/2 cup of flour, which is the perfect amount for a one-flour, gluten-free substitution. The more flour a recipe calls for, the trickier it is to make a gluten-free substitution. When a recipe calls for 2-3 cups of flour or more, it is best to make a blend of flours to substitute. I will share my flour blend in another blog post in the not-too-distant future. Anyway, I'm digressing. I'm far too excited about this brownie recipe and it has me off-track. Back to the delicious matter at hand...

Never-Use-A-Box-Again Brownies (Adapted from Aunt B's 4-H recipe)

1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/3-1/2 cup cocoa (depending on how chocolate-y you want your brownies)
1/3 cup melted butter or margarine (or oil if you are eliminating dairy)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten**
1 tsp. gluten-free vanilla (like McCormick brand)
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum**
1/2 cup broken nut meats (optional)

**for more cake-like brownies, use three eggs and omit xanthan gum. There is nothing "wrong" with xanthan gum, but it is a processed food, and I like to avoid it when I can.

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly grease 8-inch square baking pan, or line it with parchment paper. Mix brown rice flour, cocoa and sugar until mixed thoroughly. Stir in melted butter (or margarine, or oil), 2 eggs (3 for more cake-like), vanilla, xanthan gum (if using), and nuts, if desired. Mix well. Pour batter into prepared baking dish and bake for about 25 minutes.

If you can (I know I don't have the will-power), wait to serve until brownies are mostly cooled. They taste better, and don't fall apart as easily.

Enjoy! And never buy a box again!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wheat-less Wheat Thins

I was doing an internet search for homemade rice crackers, when I happened upon a recipe that looked wonderful. The picture looked delicious and I thought it would be great to have something for soups, or dips, or really anything else. I love crackers! They are truly one of the things I've missed the most since going gluten free. Here's the site I found: Easy Homemade Crackers

I whipped up the dough (I used oil instead of butter) and rolled it out on parchment paper like the recipe suggested. I topped the dough with wax paper (less sticky than another sheet of parchment), and rolled out the dough. The end result was both wonderful and a bit of a letdown. The taste was exactly like Wheat Thins! I couldn't believe it! But, I had made the crackers a little too thick and had cut them too big. So, I tried again. This time, I divided the dough in half and placed each half on its own piece of parchment. I rolled the dough with wax paper over the top. I tried to cut off uneven edges and roll them into the dough until I got a nice, even rectangle. Then I cut the dough into 1 inch by 1 inch squares. After cutting the crackers, I pierced them with a fork. I sprinkled on a little salt (recipe calls for kosher, but I didn't have any. Table salt was fine).

As the crackers baked, I noticed the ones on the edges were getting done faster. Rather than just let them burn, I removed them and put the rest back in. They taste best once the tops of the crackers have turned a deep brown color. I didn't realize how much I missed Wheat Thins until I tasted these! I will put this into my rotation of recipes that I make often.

These crackers are amazing! Now I'm busy plotting all the fun dips and spreads I can make to go with them! What is your favorite way to eat your crackers? I'd love to get some ideas going in the comments!

***Wheat-less Wheat Thins*** recipe modified from this one: Easy Homemade Crackers

3/4 sorghum flour
3/4 cup brown rice flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons oil
6 tablespoons cold water
Salt,  for sprinkling on crackers (kosher or regular)

Preheat oven to 400. Mix flours, sugar, salt and baking powder in medium-size mixing bowl. Add in oil, and stir with fork until mixture gets clumpy and oil is well mixed in. Slowly add water, one Tablespoon at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

Cut two sheets of parchment paper - each about 12 by 15 inches. Place half of the dough on each parchment piece. Place wax paper over the dough and roll into a thin rectangle. Dough should be about as thin as you can make it without causing it to tear. Trim edges and roll dough as necessary to achieve desired shape and thickness. Repeat with other half of the dough. Remove wax paper. Cut dough into 1 inch by 1 inch squares. Pierce eat cracker with a fork (I used a child-size fork, but a relish fork would work too). Transfer parchment and dough to cookie sheets. Bake for about 15 minutes. Watch the crackers and as the edges darken, remove them so that they do not burn. The crackers are done when both the bottoms and the tops have browned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mystery crocheting

A few months ago, a friend of mine had a baby. I wanted to make a crochet blanket animal, so I followed a wash cloth pattern and intended to stitch the finished product on to the bottom of a stuffed animal I had already created. After I finished the wash cloth, I decided the animal was cuter without having a blanket attached to it. That left me with a purple hexagon and no idea what to do with it.

It was big enough that I didn't want to toss it. One of my least favorite things to do when crocheting is tearing out work I started. So, that didn't seem like an option either. I decided I liked the hexagon shape, so I just started building on to it. I had no idea what it was going to become. I love projects like that!

If you've been watching the news at all, you know that the midwest is experiencing an extreme heat wave. I'm talking heat indices of close to 120 degrees every day this week. Add to that the fact that my youngest child turned on the heat on our thermostat (which, of course, we didn't know she had done!), and that led to it being about 87 degrees in our bedroom. We decided that was far too hot for sleeping in. My lovely husband inflated an air mattress for the kids, and we headed to the spare room.

I sat down to crochet a little before bed. I had two purple and orange hexagons to work with. What could they become? That's when I decided I should make an enormous, hexagon-shape pillow. What family is complete without that? The finished product is 25 inches x 22 inches. And so, here it is:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Who Am I?

I am feeling self-reflective this evening, and I hope you will stick with me even if I take a break from posting about food. Today has been one of those "up and down days." You know, the days that start out really great, only for something to bring it down right away. But it doesn't stay down,  something wonderful happens followed by something lousy. I feel a bit like I hitched a ride on a yo-yo. I'll be honest, I'd really like to get off this ride. I was pitting some cherries this evening in preparation for tomorrow's lunch, when I blurted something out to my husband before I had really thought it through.

I said, "With everything that has happened today, is it a good day or a bad day? Should I feel good about it, bad about it, or just go to sleep and start over tomorrow?"

He said, "I vote for go to sleep and have a new day tomorrow."

I said, "I kinda knew you would say that."

But he's right. Any of you who know my husband are free to let him know that at this moment, here in cyberspace, I'm admitting that he was right and I, well, wasn't. What I was looking for was whether or not I should consider today a failure. Maybe I even thought I was a failure because of a few of the things that happened. But, none of today's events define me. I am not the sum total of all  the good and bad things that have happened around me since that day thirty years ago when I took my first breath of real, honest-to-goodness air. It isn't about how successful I am at my job, or about how many people like me, or about how many wonderful things I create (food or otherwise). My self-worth is not defined by whether I move up in this world or whether I am stuck in the doldrums. There is something deeper - something intangible - something that is there when you strip everything else away. That something is me. The real me.

Who are you? What are you allowing yourself to be defined by, trapped in, or stuck under? What things are preventing you from being who you really are?

As you end this day (no matter when you read this), I hope that you are able to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and smile. Tomorrow is a new day to be you.

***Coming Soon: Recipes for wheat-less wheat thins and gluten-free brownies, and a look at what you can do with a large, crochet hexagon...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oatmeal Cookies (gluten-free AND egg-free)!

Usually my husband leaves the cooking and baking to me. He is more than capable of doing both, but he knows I enjoy it, and he has no problem eating what I make! More recently, though, he has taken a liking to baking gluten-free treats so that I have home baked treats that I didn't have to work for. Very sweet of him! On this particular occasion, my darling husband decided to try his hand at gluten-free oatmeal cookies. He started out following a recipe, but quickly realized we were out of almost every ingredient he needed! He got online and started googling substitutions. Then he dumped what he could find into the bowl. I had serious doubts that the cookies would hold together, but we've made them twice now and they hold up great (and taste great, too)!

The first time he made them, it was a very hot day and they flattened more on the pan. Yesterday, it was a much cooler day and they stood up nicely. Either way, they were attractive and delicious. I took them to a meeting this morning and no one would have known they were gluten and egg free if I hadn't told them. And so, here it is:

The Husband's Gluten and Egg-Free Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup softened butter (2 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed loosely
3 Tbsp. oil
5 Tbsp. water
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla (McCormick brand is now certified gluten-free)
3/4 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup white rice flour
1/2-3/4 tsp. xanthan gum (I like to use as little as I can get away with, so I use the 1/2 tsp.)
1/2 tsp. salt
4 cups old-fashioned oats

Preheat oven to 375. To soften the butter, place the sticks of butter (in the package) on a microwave safe plate. Heat in the microwave for 15 seconds. Cream butter and sugars together. Beat in oil, water, baking powder, and vanilla until well combined. Add flours (pre-sift if desired, I often skip the sifting), baking soda, and salt. Stir in oats. Mix well. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake 9-10 minutes, or until tops turn light golden brown. Makes about 3 dozen small cookies.

I hope you enjoy them! I know my kids keep sneaking them when I turn my head!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zucchini Crust Pizza

Giving up wheat was really hard for me. I have always craved bread. I remember going to the kitchen and eating bread right out of the bag during snack time. At Thanksgiving I would eat 10-12 of my grandma's Parkerhouse rolls. She made extra because she knew I would eat them. Pizza combined two of my favorite foods: bread and cheese. When I first discovered that wheat was the source of many of my health troubles, I was devastated. This could not be happening. I love food. I love bread. I love bread too much.

I'm sure some of you have had this conversation with yourself as you thought about the prospect of giving up wheat/gluten. It's hard. It is a lifestyle adjustment of huge proportions. The first two times I tried to give up wheat, I didn't stick with it. It was too overwhelming for me. And then, I realized I was only going to get through the change if I took it one day at a time. And so, I started with a favorite food. Pizza.

I gave myself the challenge of making a homemade gluten-free pizza. Fortunately, it did not take long for me to find something I loved. In fact, I preferred it to the previous pizza crusts I had baked before I quit eating wheat. I highly recommend the recipe for "Plain Pizza Crust" in 125 Best Gluten-Free Recipes by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt. My all-time favorite for a long time was "Plain Pizza Crust" topped with the "Roasted Vegetable Pizza Topping" recommended by the same book. It felt so good to eat pizza again. I made it when I had company, baked it for my family when they were in town, and my kids would ask for it. If I could make and eat pizza, things were going to be OK.

I was totally happy with my homemade pizza. I never really thought about switching it up. But then, on an online forum I was browsing, someone recommended making a zucchini pizza crust as a way to cut carbs and add in veggies. Zucchini? Really? Zucchini is one of my favorite veggies, but in a pizza crust? I was unconvinced. Unconvinced, but still a little intrigued. Imagine my delight when my wonderful husband came home from the grocery store with FOUR zucchinis because they looked so fresh on the produce shelf!

I used this recipe from Your Lighter Side: Zucchini Pizza Crust . The only change I made was that I baked the crust longer than the recipe called for. In my oven, it ended up being close to 20 minutes, but you have to be careful not to burn the edges of the crust. I used one huge zucchini, and it yielded three cups of grated green goodness. I decided to split it in half and make two pizzas and that worked wonderfully! Should you choose to make this on a pizza pan that has holes in the bottom, be sure to stick a cookie sheet on the rack below it to catch anything that might drip from the pizza pan.

I highly recommend Dei Fratelli pizza sauce. No high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients, and it says "Gluten Free" right on the can. Best part? It is in with the regular ingredients, and is actually one of the more economical sauces I've seen in my grocery store. Top with some cheese (I used mozzarella, parmesan, and a tiny bit of cheddar for some color difference) and whatever toppings you desire. I just used a yellow bell pepper because that was all I had in my refrigerator.

The pizza was fantastic! And the best part was that I fooled my oldest child! He had NO IDEA that there was zucchini in this pizza and he ate two slices!

For one pizza you will need:

1.5-2 cups grated zucchini
2 eggs
2 cups mozzarella for the crust
Pizza sauce (one can of Dei Fratelli easily tops two pizzas)
Desired cheese and toppings

Once you've topped your pizza, increase the baking temperature to 425 and bake for about 15 minutes, or until cheese turns light golden or starts bubbling.

I hope you enjoy this pizza as much as we have!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gluten-Free Birthday Cake - A Prehistoric Endeavor

I have two kids and their birthdays are only two days apart. They are two years apart in age, but their birthdays are so close together that we've had a combined birthday party for the past two years. As we were gearing up for "Birthday Land" at my house, I asked each child what theme they wanted for the party. My oldest requested dinosaurs. My youngest wanted zoo animals. I thought each theme was wonderful, but I had no idea how I could create one cake around both of those themes. Our birthday parties are small - just my husband, my kids, me and grandparents, so there would simply be no need for lots of cake. But, I also wanted each child to feel special at the birthday party and to enjoy the cake I made for them.

In addition to this challenge, I also wanted to make the cake gluten-free. I wanted to be able to enjoy the cake with my kids on their day, and my youngest child has shown some small indicators of food allergies as well. I wanted a cake that would be safe for all of us. I also wanted it to be something my gluten-eating relatives would enjoy.

First, I happened upon this recipe for gluten-free yellow cake. I decided to do a trial run about a month before the birthday just to make sure the cake would turn out well. I turned that cake into chocolate covered cake balls (oh, yum! Will definitely share this recipe in the future!). The cake was a success. My husband said the cake balls tasted as good as the Starbucks Cake Pops. What a compliment!

Then, the night before the birthday party, I baked the cake again. This time I lined the 9x13 cake pan with parchment paper. I followed the recipe I linked above, poured the batter into the cake pan, and then baked for about 25 minutes. It might take more or less time in your oven. Check the center of the cake with a toothpick, and it if comes out clean, it is done. My cake began to turn golden brown on top. Once the cake was cool, I gently lifted it out of the pan and placed it on one of my nicer-looking cookie sheets. Then I trimmed away the excess parchment paper. I left the paper on the bottom of the cake, but you could remove it if you were feeling adventurous.

When I decorate my cakes, I prefer to use pre-made frosting. I'm a busy mom, and what I care about is giving my kids a cake they will love and remember. I've never dabbled in fondant. Maybe sometime I will. But, for now, I'm able to do most everything I want with store bought frosting. I was pretty geeked to learn that Betty Crocker frosting is now certified gluten-free. Check the back of the can yourself. Let me know if you do a little jump right there in the store. I know I did, and it would be nice to know I'm not the only one! For this cake, I kept some of the frosting white (I used vanilla. Whipped white will also work.), made some of the frosting green, and made a small amount of it blue.

I started the decorating process by making a t-shaped path on the cake using white frosting. Next I iced the remaining quadrants with green frosting. I also made the sides of the cake green.

Once the basic design was iced onto the cake, I created a "cobblestone" path using Rice Chex. Can you tell I love that Rice Chex are a gluten-free food? I left a little bit of white frosting visible on either side of the path. This allowed me to add a "fence" later on in the decorating process. I'm not sure how much Chex I ended up using. Maybe a cup or so. We keep Chex at the house for making "bread crumbs" and as a breakfast option, so we had some in the house already.

Next, I "fenced" off each green rectangle with gluten-free, vanilla wafer cookies. I used Schär brand cookies, but I hear Glutino makes them as well. I had to cut a few of the wafer cookies with a knife so that they would fit properly on the cake.

The only other thing I had to make for decorating involved pink tootsie rolls. I took one pink tootsie roll, broke it into two pieces, flattened the pieces and put a little strip of white frosting down the center of each piece. These served as "T-bone steaks" for the cake. The rest of the cake was created using little plastic toys my kids already had. I washed the toys thoroughly first, of course, and then arranged them on the cake. When all was said and done, we had a PREHISTORIC ZOO! Both kids loved it (and it tasted great too)!

Prehistoric animals were paired up with their modern relatives in each zoo exhibit. The king of the dinosaurs (T-rex) was paired up with the king of the jungle (a mighty lion). A long-neck brachiosaurus was eating leaves from the treetops next to a giraffe. A rhino and a triceratops drank from a pond (blue icing outlined with gluten free Rice Krispies). An armored euoplocephalus was next to an armadillo. Give a few candy steaks to the meat-eating T-rex and lion, stick on a few trees with icing to the cookie sheet, and VOILA! A birthday cake that two kids can agree on. It tasted great, it was gluten-free, and no one felt like they were missing anything.

In addition to the ingredients for the yellow cake and the Betty Crocker frosting, you will need:

Around 1 cup of Rice Chex
A few Rice Krispies to outline the pond, and maybe a handful more to make a desert environment for the armored animal/dino
1 pink tootsie roll
1 pkg. Schär brand vanilla wafer cookies
Food coloring: green and blue
1 skewer cut in half and sanded until ends are smooth
Small piece of paper for creating a "Prehistoric Zoo" sign (personalize as is appropriate for you)
Desired dinosaur and animal plastic toys
Plastic trees, cactus, or other desired zoo decor
1 or 2 plastic people to visit the zoo

Total decorating time was not much more than an hour. Allow more time if you've never decorated your own cake before. And then, trust yourself! You can do this and your kids (or other family members/friends) will love it!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Please pardon my dust...

I'm in the process of updating my blog. If you get error messages, or if you find that my links are incomplete, please bear with me. I promise to get things up and running smoothly as soon as I can.

Coming this weekend...step-by-step construction of a gluten-free, prehistoric zoo cake. Perfect for a child's birthday - or in my case, a happy compromise for both of my kids' birthdays.