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Food Forum

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Cornbread: no gluten, plenty of taste

When my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago, we weren’t really surprised. His mother has it, and he’s always been sensitive to wheat. And because we don’t buy much processed food and have experience cooking without wheat, we didn’t figure it would be too big of a deal.

Celiac is an autoimmunne disease of the small intestine, and people with celiac cannot eat anything with gluten in it. That means no wheat, rye or barley, or any product that is processed with those grains. The results of accidental ingestion of gluten are unpleasant, to say the least.

I have a couple of good friends with celiac, and I’d been cooking for my mother-in-law for years with no problems. But my in-laws only visit once or twice a year, and my friends don’t live with us. And I soon found that keeping wheat out of everything, all the time, isn’t easy.

Plus we have kids, and kids need cookies sometimes, and bread and biscuits, too. And my husband was determined not to make them suffer for his condition. “I don’t want you to stop baking,” he told me.

But we had not figured on how sensitive he would be to crumbs or flour dust, or mystery ingredients in foods — like “modified food starch,” which could be corn or potato, but is sometimes wheat. It took a while to train the whole family not to cross-contaminate — not to, say, touch the butter with the knife that had just touched toast.

Limiting contamination

If we make mistakes, we have to label them, which explains why there are two jars of mayonnaise in the refrigerator. One is marked “DAD” and the other “TAINTED WITH WHEAT!” courtesy of my daughter, who likes a strident message.

When I’m doing regular baking, I do it when my husband will be out of the house for a few hours, and do a major cleanup before he gets home. We learned the hard way that flour dust can get on surfaces and contaminate everything.

If I’m doing a lot of baking — Christmas cookies, for instance — I borrow a friend’s kitchen. Last week when I was cat-sitting for a vacationing pal, I whipped up a batch of cookies for my son’s lunch box and some biscuits for his breakfasts. The cats seemed happy with the company, and my son was happy for the baked goods.

Mostly, though, I’ve been perfecting gluten-free recipes that the kids will eat without noticing or complaining.

The main issue with baking without gluten is that gluten is the stuff that holds bread together. If you are a bread maker, you know that as you knead a yeast bread, the dough becomes elastic and springy. That’s gluten.

For gluten-free recipes, you need something else to hold everything together. Otherwise breads, cakes or cookies all crumble. Gluten-free recipes tend to have more eggs in them, and often have xanthan gum, a bacteria (Don’t panic! Yeast is a fungus!) that helps bind the batter together. It only take about a half-teaspoon per recipe, and you can buy it in health food stores and keep it in the freezer.

Passing the son test

I mix up my own gluten-free flour, using brown rice flour, sorghum flour, garbanzo bean flour, potato starch and tapioca starch and a little xanthan gum. I like it better than premixed flourless baking mixtures, which are very expensive and have some sort of taste I don’t like, and I haven’t figured out what flour it is. Maybe it’s the fava bean flour.

I use my own mix in a lot of recipes. A gluten-free pie crust will never be as flaky as my regular crust, but it works well for savory pies, like quiche or potpies. I make yeast breads with gluten-free flour so my husband can have the occasional sandwich. The taste and constancy is fine, but there’s no way you can pretend it’s a normal wheat bread. Still, my son ate a grilled cheese sandwich on gluten-free bread this weekend and didn’t seem to notice a thing. So I gave him some more the next morning, as toast, and he ate that, too, without a comment.

There are some baked goods — pancakes, cornbread and brownies, for instance — that taste just as good gluten-free as with wheat. Cornbread works because there’s not that much flour in it compared with the cornmeal. Pancakes work because of all the eggs. And brownies work because there’s not that much flour AND there are a lot of eggs.

Here’s my recipe for gluten-free cornbread. And I have never had a guest say, “This cornbread tastes weird.” In fact, they are far more likely to say it’s delicious and ask for another slice, so I don’t think most people even notice the lack of wheat.

Gluten-free cornbread

I make mine in a good-sized iron skillet, which I preheat with the oven. You can also use a cake pan.

Mix together:
3⁄4 cup gluten-free flour mix, or use rice flour, or half rice and half sorghum flour
1 1⁄3 cups cornmeal
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, mix together:
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs
1 cup milk

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix together in as few strokes as possible, just enough to moisten. Add about 1 1⁄2 cups of fruit — I use fresh or frozen blueberries, strawberries or chopped cranberries. My favorite is half cranberries and half blueberries.

Pour into a greased pan and bake at 400 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

It’s best eaten immediately, but it’s fine warmed up the next day, too.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at

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