Tag Archives: gluten-free

Almost perfect gluten-free mac and cheese

15 Jan

Gluten free macaroni cheese

Regular readers will remember that last year the profile of my kitchen changed forever with the diagnosis that my youngest daughter was suffering from coeliac disease. Since then we’ve embarked on a gluten-free odyssey that has seen us come to the conclusion that:

  • however well meaning, the knowledge of the UK restaurant industry about the illness is pretty patchy
  • a two year old who needs a gluten free diet will actually try to eat her own body weight in chips before she eats a carrot

Macaroni cheese was a Saturday lunchtime staple before the diagnosis. I felt I had it down to a fine art, producing a gourmet mac and cheese with the minimum effort. We liked it and the kids liked it. Considering I still suffer night terrors about what passed for macaroni cheese at school, this was pretty amazing. In fact, school macaroni was surpassed only by the ‘pastry-free cheese and carrot pie’ in its foulness.

When you need to avoid wheat, macaroni cheese is one of the first dishes to go. There’s gluten in the pasta and there’s gluten in the cheese sauce. If you like to top your dish with breadcrumbs, there’s gluten in that too. Making it gluten-free is tricky and what I had learnt so far about gluten-free alternatives suggested it wouldn’t be particularly nice either.

But I missed my mac and cheese, so I resolved to tackle a gluten-free version head on and present it to the family as a Saturday lunchtime treat.

There are obviously two components to the dish – the pasta and the sauce.

There are countless gluten-free pastas and they are generally pretty good. The cooking time is much quicker than a wheat-based pasta and they go from crunchy, straight through al dente and into soggy in a matter of seconds. Constant checking is the order of the day.

Making a cheese sauce is also not quite as simple as it would be with wheat flour. The general principle is the same, but potato or rice flours, purely because they are lacking in gluten, do not bind together to produce a creamy sauce, but instead remain runny. The answer is a setting agent – xanthum gum – but you need to ensure you don’t over do it as the gum has a tendency to produce a slightly blamangey texture.

So, the big moment came. I served up my gluten-free magnum opus to the assembled hungry hoards.

“This is gluten-free?” asked my eldest with a slight look of worry on his face. He used to be the most enthusiastic advocate of macaroni cheese in the family, so he had the most to lose.

I took his concern as a compliment. It certainly didn’t look like it was gluten-free.

Most of the family were significantly less suspicious and dived right in.  There was a satisifed silence as macaroni cheese was devoured.

There was a big problem though.

My youngest, the coeliac light of my life, took one look at what was in front of her and pronounced “don’t like pasta”. This was news to us. Pasta is one of the staples. If I was coeliac (and for all I know I may be as it’s a genetic disease) I would live off pasta. She was obviously confused by the presence of a cheese sauce, something that we had avoided giving her for the last eight months.

We protested, cajoled and prodded, but there was no changing her mind. She dined on yoghurt that afternoon.

In contrast, everyone else cleared their plates, and I returned several times over the next few hours to pick bits of pasta out of the dish until long after it went cold. I make that a success.

My coeliac daughter will come round eventually. Now I’ve discovered that you CAN make a decent gluten-free macaroni cheese I won’t be leaving it long before I make it again.

I won’t write out the whole recipe as I don’t want to insult you by suggesting you don’t know how to make a cheese sauce, but for the record I used Doves Plain Flour, Sainsburys own-brand olive spread, xanthum gum and bog standard cheddar (lots of it). In my mind a good macaroni cheese also needs onions and garlic so I fried some up with some ham and mixed it into the pasta before pouring over the cheese sauce.

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No wheat please, she’s Coeliac

3 May

One of the missions of this blog is to promote frugal, yet good, eating. I don’t always hit the frugal mark – I just can’t resist spending money on great ingredients – but that ambition is soon to face a challenge I couldn’t have anticipated when I started writing at the beginning of the year.

My youngest daughter – MicroGast as she’s called here – has just been diagnosed with coeliac disease – a complete intolerance to gluten. This is not your common or garden wheat intolerance. This is the real deal. Ever since she was weaned nearly 18 months ago it turns out that a lot of the food she loves has been doing terrible things to her insides resulting in what we thought was a distinctly dodgy digestive system and that eventually we realised was just not normal.

So, in a few weeks time she will have a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and when that happens she must go gluten-free. Forever. Even so, it will take several months, and possibly even a year, before her guts recover and the symptoms disappear.

The irony is that before that biopsy she must continue to eat wheat like it’s going out of fashion in order not to skew the test results. We have been feeding her all manner of wheat-based delights that will probably never grace her plate again in the years to come. It feels wrong to be poisoning your baby by design, but that’s what the doctors tell us we must do.

Introducing a gluten-free diet into the family is pretty low down the list of things I planned to achieve in food this year. I know that the rest of us can eat what we like (for now – we will probably all need testing as the disease has a genetic link) but we want to make sure that we adjust our lifestyles to accommodate where possible.

It’s a challenge to be sure, not least because there seems to be gluten in a lot of foodstuffs you would never expect. And if it doesn’t contain gluten it might have been made in a factory that also handles wheat, so is it worth the risk?

There’s going to be even more home cooking than normal.

Last night, in an attempt to lighten the mood and to normalise the situation I brought home a pack of gluten-free wholemeal  ‘flour’ to bake a loaf.  This was exciting – a whole new world of baking to enjoy!

For the first attempt I decided to go for a bread machine baked loaf. There was a recipe on the back of the flour pack and so I decided to go with that. This was no normal bread recipe. It had eggs in it. And vinegar.

The bread machine was fired into life. It churned and kneaded for a while, then paused to allow the dough (if I can call it that – it was a distinctly grey-looking slop) to rise.

An hour later, my yeast curse appeared to be striking again. There was not a whole lot of rising going on. Hopes of cheering ourselves up by proving to ourselves that this gluten-free lark was going to fun were looking unlikely.

The beauty of the breadmaker is that even if you have lost interest in the whole idea, and I’m known for throwing my toys out the pram when cooking goes wrong, you can just walk away and let the beast do its stuff.

An hour of grumpiness later, the loaf was ready. It was with a fairly heavy heart that I tipped it out of the tin. It was grey and the crust looked plastic.  Suddenly I felt even sorrier for my poor daughter who was going to have to eat this muck for the rest of her life.

I tried to tear off a chunk, but it didn’t really behave like bread. It crumbled, more like a cake. Come to think of it, it smelt a lot like a cake as well. Not surprising with all those eggs.

Did it taste like a cake?

Not exactly, but it was surprisingly good. The closest thing I can compare it to is the brioche muffins that Mrs G made a couple of months ago. This is a compliment indeed as Mrs G’s muffins are a wonder of the modern age.

“Not bad is it?” I said to Mrs G, or more accurately “Mmmf baf ifih?” as I was enjoying it so much I didn’t stop eating.

“Snoff reog breh oh,” said Mrs G which I think meant “it’s not really bread though”. This was true, but it’s was a pretty fine substitute and one that I was already imagining toasted, buttered or turned into stuffing.

The next morning I slipped some into the kids’ breakfast. “Try this bread,” I smiled.

There were suspicious looks, after all no one wants to eat grey food. After a few seconds of cautious sniffing a few nibbles took place, then a smile, and then it was all gone. It wasn’t quite so successful on the lady of the moment who threw hers on the floor, but as that fate can befall even the nicest of food without any warning I didn’t take this as a bad sign.

So, gluten-free experiment number one was a success of sorts. Since then I’ve had a slice with some butter (nice) and turned the rest into a sage and onion stuffing (indistinguishable from the real thing). Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about this after all. There’s a long way to go and the organisation that will have to be put into keeping a wheat-free environment is yet to be comprehended.

Being a lazy gastronome is going to be a whole lot harder, but no less fun.