One of the things I found most troubling after my food allergy (and then gluten & casein intolerance) diagnosis was the sudden difficulty with baking. You see, ever since I learned to bake reasonably well, I’ve loved to do it—and not just because it provides me with tasty food. Baking is a rare activity in that it provides me a finite outlet of extensive pleasure. Most of life—and much of what is worthwhile in life—is ongoing, requiring you to adjust your behaviors and expectations regularly as you go. Things change; people change; ideas change; you change. Baking, on the other hand, generally does not change; if today you use the ingredients and processes you used to bake yesterday, you’ll most likely get a similar result as your previous effort. Unlike much cooking, baking involves an alchemy that you can, at some point, stand back to watch, without giving further effort. And the reliable end result of baking, once you’ve mastered the basic concepts, tends to be a rather marvelous and often beautiful product . . . that is then eaten, bringing it all to closure. A relationship asks for ongoing consideration, but a cookie simply asks to be prepped, baked, and eaten. Baking is an aesthetically pleasing, reliable process wrapped up in a finite package, and I love it for that reason.
Baking soothes me. When the stressors of life’s ongoing issues overcome me, you’re likely to find me in the kitchen digging a wooden spoon into a bowl of batter. Thus, when I got the life-changing diagnosis of food restrictions, my inclination was to head toward the kitchen and bake my upset into peace, if only temporarily. But in the kitchen, I now found frustration instead of ease. The old rules were largely out the window. The flours to master seemed overwhelmingly complex, especially given that I was likely to feel overwhelmed emotionally to start. (I mean, that’s why I was in there in the first place!) I didn’t know how to sub flax in for eggs; I couldn’t be confident my butter substitutes would work well; I wasn’t sure what to use instead of milk. Several of my early creations were throw-in-the-garbage awful, which drove me to rage over both the financial loss of those ingredients and the emotional loss of what had been a form of solace for me.
Thankfully, I’ve adjusted over time. I’ve developed a better sense of gluten-free flours and how they play into recipes; I’ve familiarized myself with good substitutions for dairy, soy, and eggs. I’ve come to accept that of the billions of recipes that exist in this world, there are some that I will simply not be able to prepare, and that will only fill me with frustration if I try. (That light-as-a-feather cake that calls for nine egg whites? Not so much.) If I really want to try a recipe but do not have faith my requisite recipe alterations will turn out well, I make that recipe when I’m feeling fine and save recipes I feel more confident about for when I need to destress. I accept that, no matter what, there are going to be some experiments that are merely okay and some that need to be tossed in the garbage right away. When a recipe fails, I pay attention to what went wrong (too moist? too dense? too crumbly?) to make the wasted food instructive rather than merely frustrating. Generally, after a year of experimenting in this process, I’ve learned to bake up foods that will at least be edible, if not great. And some are marvelous, which makes the other attempts worth trying. (These days, I usually don’t even eat but a small amount of the finished product when I bake. I’m just as happy to watch other people’s faces light up while they savor the creation, and when I do partake, I find a small amount of the baked goods, entirely relished as I eat, to be more satisfying than discomfort-inducing overconsumption is.)
My husband is coasting over the Atlantic now on a flight to Amsterdam for a conference. He’ll be gone for a week. I adore my husband, but I usually enjoy the first couple of days of his absence on these trips; it gives me a chance to live like a single girl in terms of my day-to-day priorities. It’s pleasurable to, say, sleep with the windows open if I feel like it. (Makes him too hot and unable to sleep, but I find it soothing as long as it’s under 80 outside.)
Today, this time . . . I feel a bit different. Perhaps it’s partly because I was supposed to accompany him on this trip, but could not after I had to use my vacation time for surgery recovery. Perhaps it’s partly because he left at the start of a long vacation weekend. Perhaps it’s partly because some events at my job have left me working through a very complex set of emotions. I know it’s partly because it hit me yesterday that my best friend—who has been my best friend since sixth grade, and who has once again lived down the street from me (in a different city than where we grew up) for the past two years—is moving 2500 miles away in less than a month. Whatever the contributing factors have been, I spent the hours before his departure sighing and trying not to weep. He was going; he had to go; I want him to have a good time while he’s there.
I dropped him off at the public transit station that would take him to the airport. Then I made a beeline to Whole Foods for chocolate chunks and roasted, salted pecans. I came home and unpacked my canvas bag, pulled flours out of the freezer, mixed up flax eggs to let them gel. I opened my inaugural bag of mesquite flour, mail-ordered after I’d read in Heidi Swanson’s latest cookbook, Super Natural Cooking, that mesquite flour “has a slightly sweet and chocolaty flavor, with a touch of malt and smokiness.” Dairy-free, gluten-free malt flavor? Yes, please. I put my nose to the bag and inhaled. My eyes flew open wide at the wonderful accuracy of Heidi’s description, and I giddily added mesquite flour to the bowl of flours. Then whisking, mixing, folding, scooping, and dropping—and the cookies went into the oven.
Ten minutes later, I had these tasty gems ready to cool, and I was feeling a bit more relaxed myself. I give these an unqualified recommendation when you feel the need to bake your worries away . . . or when you’re just in the mood for a treat.
Mesquite Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Gluten-free, Egg-free, Casein-free, Vegan
6 Tbsp. hot water
3 Tbsp. ground flax seeds
1 tsp. oil
3/4 c. sorghum flour
3/4 c. teff flour
3/4 c. buckwheat flour
3/4 c. mesquite flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (use a bit more if you don’t use salted nuts in your version)
1 c. Spectrum shortening or ghee
1 c. turbinado sugar
1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 c. dairy-free chocolate chips
1 c. roasted, salted pecans (or sunflower seeds, for a non-nut option)
1 c. certified gluten-free oats (might work fine or even better without this addition)
Put the oven racks in the top half of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Mix together the flax meal, hot water, and oil in a small bowl (I use a ramekin for this). Allow to gel while you perform the next steps.
Combine the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Cream the shortening/ghee with the sugars and vanilla until well-mixed. Add half of the flax egg replacer, and mix well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, and add the other half of the egg replacer. Mix well again. Add the flour in three or four doses, mixing between each dose. Fold in the remaining ingredients.
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop or press about two tablespoons of dough into a ball or somewhat flattened ball. (The cookies will not spread much.) Place the cookies about an inch apart.
Bake 10 minutes, or until starting to darken in spots on top. It is better to underbake than overbake these cookies. Remove the cookies from the oven, and transfer to a wire cooling rack after a couple of minutes.
I ate one cookie warm and another after the cookies had cooled. While they were both good, I think letting the cookie cool so the flavors will meld and shine is the better option.
Makes a lot of cookies. My batch made about 40.