Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Spiders, and Worms, and Bears, Oh My!

It seems that the Northeast just can’t catch a break on Halloween. Last year it was a blizzard that brought down tree limbs and power lines. This year it’s Hurricane Sandy.

Despite the grim forecasts for my area, we were very fortunate most of the storm’s wrath. We still have power, and (unlike last year) tree limbs appear to be mostly where they should be (on the trees). Of course that means we will have trick-or-treaters tonight and I haven’t had a chance to get to the store, but I do have these fabulous treats that the folks at Surf Sweets sent me to try:

Aren’t those Spooky Spiders just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? But wait – the best part is these sweets are safe for most with food allergies. While the specific ingredients vary for the different products, they are all gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, and egg-free. They are made with only natural, non-GMO ingredients. They are, of course, full of sugar (natural sugars only), but it’s Halloween and if you can’t have sugar on Halloween, then when can you?

If, like me, you don’t yet have a stash of Halloween candy, this is a great option. It’s also a fabulous choice to have on hand to swap for the stuff the kiddos can’t eat when they get home from trick-or-treating.

What are you handing out to the trick-or-treaters tonight?

Monday, October 29, 2012

More Obsessions – Jacob's Jam

I’ve mentioned my recent obsession with jam.

I have also been obsessed with a fellow blogger’s challenge to feed her son. Jenny, who blogs at Multiple Food Allergy Help, has been struggling with a severely limited list of foods her son can eat. Like my son, he suffers from EE, but he reacts to many more foods – and there is nothing that tugs at my heartstrings more than a child who lists the only ten foods he can eat, when asked what he is allergic to.

Jenny just recently made the decision to put her son on a feeding tube, but he can still have a very short list of foods – and that list includes cranberry and pear. So, guess what I made?

Jacob's Jam (Cranberry-Pear Jam)

1 ½ cups cranberries (whole)
2 cups pears, peeled and diced (2 medium pears)
1 ¾ cups sugar
2 tbsp water
½ tsp vanilla (optional)

Combine the cranberries, pears, and sugar in a large non-reactive saucepan:

Let it sit for about 30 minutes until the sugar starts to liquefy:

Boil the mixture on medium heat in a nonreactive saucepan (stirring frequently), about 12-15 minutes until the cranberries have popped. Use a potato masher to mash the pear chunks:

Add the vanilla (if desired). Boil for another 3-5 minutes (stirring frequently) until the jam has thickened. Cool completely before serving.

Cranberries are just starting to show up in the grocery store, so this is the perfect time to make this jam. It can be made and preserved (as I am doing above), or simply made to eat right away. It will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

Jacob can’t have any grains (which means no bread). Clearly this can be eaten alone as a bowl of fruit, but here are a couple more ideas:

Freeze it in ice cube trays with a lollipop stick, and serve it as a popsicle.

Serve it on top of a baked sweet potato (another one of his safe foods) (sounds Thanksgiving-ish, doesn’t it?)

Dip spoonfuls into melted Enjoy Life chocolate chips, and eat it off the spoon after cooling. These can be chocolate covered “lollipops.”

What else might Jenny do with the jam?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Obsessed (with Jam)

I’ve been known to become obsessed with a new interest, or solving a problem, or finding the right answer. I am rarely happy with “just okay.” That perfectionist streak is one of the reasons I love creating recipes. And while I can drive the people closest to me crazy at times, they (and you) get to reap the benefits of my obsessions.

Lately I have been obsessed with making jam. Ever since I saw a jam-making demo by Marisa McClellan, author of Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, I have been making jam non-stop. Oh, I made jams before, but not in as many varieties and flavors as I do now.

One of the things I love about making my own jam is the ability to control the ingredients. I usually use considerably less sugar than most jam recipes call for, and I avoid the use of pectin or other thickeners or preservatives. There is no end to the variety of jams you can create, and the result is just plain goodness!

Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas this year?

Do you still have blueberries? Check out my recipe for Blueberry Jam.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Where the Food Allergies Are

Earlier this year, Northwestern University released the results of a study that showed that children who live in the city are more likely to have food allergies than children in rural areas. In urban centers, 9.8 percent of children have food allergies, compared to 6.2 percent in rural communities. While the study noted that as an almost a 3.5 point difference, another way to look at this data is that city kids are one and half times more likely to have food allergies than those who live in the country.

Fascinating, right?

As I have been traveling to different locations – all in the Northeast – over the past few months for book signings at food allergy walks, I have noticed something interesting as well. Each area I go to seems to have a different cluster of top food allergies.

Keep in mind that my observations are strictly anecdotal, and do not come close to constituting research. Also note that while most of the locations I have been to would be classified suburban, none of them are rural.

In the Philadelphia area, about half of the food allergy families had a child with EE (eosinophilic esophagitis). These families would often describe their food restrictions in two buckets, “My son has EE triggered by wheat, dairy, and eggs, and he’s anaphylactic to peanuts.” Also in the Philly area I talked to a number of parents who had very long lists of food allergies for their child – some parents would even describe the allergies in terms of what their child could eat (because those lists were shorter). But the Philadelphia area is a prominent center for treatment of food allergies and EE, with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia right there, so that could explain what I heard.

In Albany, nearly every family I spoke to was dealing with a tree nut and/or peanut allergy.

In the greater Boston area, nearly half of the families were dealing with fruit and vegetable allergies of varying sorts, with a variety of other coincident food allergies.

In Westchester I heard the most varied list of food allergies – many different combinations of the top eight, a great deal of shellfish, and a lot of wheat/gluten allergies.

On Long Island, I was surprised that the vast majority of families I spoke to were dealing with dairy allergies – and among those, about half also had an egg allergy.

Again, none of this is scientific, but I find it fascinating. What have you noticed? Where you live are there lots of other families with the same food allergies as your family?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Crowds Come Out to Support the Food Allergy Community

It was a busy weekend. On Saturday I got up bright and early to drive from Poughkeepsie to New Rochelle, where the Westchester Walk for Food Allergy took place. Glen Island Park was right on the ocean – it truly is an island, a fact that I should have gleaned from its name. So it was even chillier than I expected, and I was glad I threw a down coat in the car. (Yes, I’d rather look ridiculous than freeze.)

It was so much fun to share a table with two other authors – Sloane Miller, author of Allergic Girl and Susan Weissman, author of Feeding Edenwere both there.

That’s me on the left, Susan in the middle, and Sloane on the right. They each wore a hat, I wore a puffy coat. Check out the beautiful view behind us.

Not only did I get to hang out with Susan and Sloane, but also the incomparable Lori Sandler of Divvies Bakery was there. What a pleasant surprise! Divvies makes fabulous chocolate chips and candy bars (that most with food allergies can eat safely). Perfect for Halloween!

On Sunday I was at the FAAN walk on Long Island, and I have to say, those Long Islanders know how to have fun. When the DJ didn’t have the kids singing and dancing, they were taking advantage of all kinds of kid-friendly amusements.

Among the many event sponsors, I saw some of my longtime favorites – Enjoy Life, So Delicious, SunButter… but I made a couple great new finds at these two events.

In Westchester I learned about IZZI B’s allergen-free bakery. As you can probably imagine, I set a very high standard for baked goods. IZZI B’s Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cupcake with Chocolate Ganache Frosting was nothing short of fabulous. It was so good that I went back for a second sample. Everything IZZI B’s makes is top eight allergen-free and gluten-free.

At the Long Island event I met Tarah from Allergic Traveler. Tarah could probably be described as the “original” allergic traveler. Her company sells international dietary alert cards. I’ve known Tarah online for at least a year now, and it was great to meet her in person!

One of the walk traditions is team T-shirts and I love checking out the creative team names. This one really caught my attention:

The part I enjoy most about these events is helping moms with their food allergy baking questions. I love to solve problems, especially if they involve baking pans and an oven. On Sunday I’ll be at the FAAN walk in Ridgewood, NJ, so stop by and ask me your questions!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Food Photography: How to Create Your Own Tabletop

There’s a lot more to food photography than meets the eye (pun intended).

One aspect of food photography that causes some complexity for me is what I call tabletops. A tabletop could be an actual table, a tablecloth, placemat, tray, large sheet of paper, marble board, cutting board, etc. Anything that is flat and large enough for your scene, is a possibility.

When I set up my studio I started with a table from IKEA (they actually call it a desk but it’s a table) that has a basic particleboard surface. The size is perfect, and it’s perfect for laying “tabletops” on top. On its own, it’s a bit shiny and blah to show off a muffin. So I’ve been searching for props that can be tabletops.

I recently decided I wanted a white wood tabletop, something that looks finished but not covered with paint. Something simple that shows off my baking projects. I searched the internet for how to create tabletops for food photography, and came up with very little that was useful. There are lots of tutorials on how to distress wood – maybe I’ll do that someday – but I wasn’t really going for the old distressed look.

After much research (and numerous trips to Home Depot – a place that I’m just starting to get familiar with), I decided to use a whitewashing technique. Here’s the recipe:

1. Start with an unfinished a pine wood tabletop. Lightly sand the top using 150 grit sandpaper.

2. Having read that pine may need priming before staining, I then applied a coat of water-based pre-stain wood conditioner. This is like a primer, but will not affect the color. Once dry, lightly sanded again.

3. Next comes the first layer of whitewashing, using a water-based whitewash pickling stain. This is applied like any other wood stain. Use a brush to liberally spread the stain. Let it sit for 5-20 minutes (depending on how much color depth you want), then use a cloth to stroke from one end to the other, removing most of the stain. The more you wipe, the more stain you will remove. Always wipe with the grain of the wood. Let it dry. The wood will now have a distinctly white cast, but it will still look like wood:

4. I used two layers of whitewashing, as I wanted a little more depth of color. You can repeat the stain/wipe step as many times as you need to, to get to the color you’d like.

5. The last step is to apply a water-based polycrylic finish. Before applying, I lightly sanded one more time. (As a side note, each time you sand, be sure to wipe down the board with a damp cloth to remove any excess dust, before proceeding.) If I were making this a tabletop to actually eat off of, or as a furniture piece, I would have applied more than one layer of finish (at least two is recommended), but as a photographer I want to avoid shine – so just one coat. Also note that polycrylic finishes come in satin, gloss, high-gloss, etc. I went with satin – as again, I wanted it to be camera-friendly. Applying the finish is much the same as applying paint. Use a small brush, stroking with the grain, and lightly cover the table. This needs to dry for a t least 4 hours before you touch it.

Here is the finished result on top of my work table:

And a few test shots:

(I'm obsessed about making my own jams. More on that in a future post.)

Here you can see the table beneath my brownies on the left, and a white napkin on the right.

Incidentally, all of these photos were taken with my new Canon 40mm pancake lens, which is ultra-affordable, and could become one of my favorites for food photography.

What's your favorite tabletop for food photography?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Four Ingredients You Can Add to Almost Any Baked Goods

Most bakers bake with wheat, dairy milk, eggs, and butter. I bake with gluten-free grains, non-dairy milk, shortening and oils, and use a variety of ingredients instead of eggs. But whether you are baking “with” or “without,” there are a few ingredients that can enhance nearly any baking project.

1. Pure vanilla extract
– There is nothing quite like it, and no other extract or oil comes close to performing like vanilla. A tiny bit (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) can take an ordinary muffin to extraordinary. A larger amount (one tablespoon or more) will lend a distinctly vanilla taste and aroma to your baked goods.

2. Cinnamon – This is one ingredient I probably don’t use often enough. When used sparingly (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) it will kick the flavor up a notch. Larger amounts of cinnamon should be reserved for Cinnamon Bread, or other goodies where cinnamon is the star. Cinnamon even works well with chocolate!

3. Applesauce
– Applesauce provides great texture, is a mild sweetener, and can also be used to reduce the amount of fat used in your baking. If you add more than a tablespoon of applesauce you should adjust the wet ingredients in your recipe to compensate. Choose unsweetened, or make your own.

4. Fresh lemon (or lime) juice – A tiny bit of lemon juice (1/2 tablespoon or less) can help an egg-free baking project rise. A tablespoon of lemon juice mixed with non-dairy milk will result in a non-dairy “buttermilk,” and of course – the more lemon you use the more of the citrus flavor will shine. Reduce liquids to compensate, and always use fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

Those of you who know me are probably wondering why I didn’t add chocolate (or chocolate chips) to this list. It’s no secret that if I’m choosing for myself, I choose chocolate, and I can find a reason to add chocolate chips to almost anything. But even a tiny amount will change the profile of the baked goods dramatically. So, if you’re like me, and chocolate floats your boat, then go ahead and add those chocolate chips!

What are your favorite ingredients to add to a recipe?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Attune Foods New Buckwheat & Hemp Cereal

Whenever a new gluten-free and allergen-free food comes along, I lament the fact that I live more than two hours from a Whole Foods – and of course, that’s where all the new products hit the shelves first. So I was very lucky that Annelies at Attune Foods offered to send me a box of the new Erewhon Buckwheat and Hemp Cereal to try.

The cereal combines two of my favorite foods – buckwheat and hemp. Really, how could it be anything other than fabulous?

The biggest decision I had to make when I tried the cereal was whether to try it first with coconut milk or hemp milk, and decided to go with coconut (but either would have worked quite well).

This cereal is most reminiscent of the bran flakes in raisin bran, although there is no bran (or wheat) in it at all. Nevertheless, adding raisins on top of a bowl of this tasty cereal would make a great treat, and you could probably fool someone into thinking it was raisin bran.

Buckwheat and brown rice form the flakes, while the hemp seeds give it a bit of crunch. A tiny bit of maple syrup has been added as a sweetener, but this remains a very low sugar cereal (6 grams per serving).

This cereal is unlike any gluten-free and allergen-free cereal I have tried, and a great addition to the breakfast table. Thanks Attune Foods for a great product!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Make Your Own Sunflower Seed Butter

Making your own sunflower seed butter is easier than you might think. I won’t go so far as to say that this is a food you should always make yourself; there are some great off-the-shelf sunflower seed butters available, including my son’s favorite SunButter. But…

If you happen to have sunflower seeds that aren’t being used,
Or you want to control the specific ingredients due to another food allergy,
Or you want to control exactly how creamy your sunflower seed butter is,
Or you just want a project for a mid-week afternoon (or a project for a science fair),

Here’s a video that shows you exactly what to do:

Sunflower Seed Butter Ingredients: 1 cup sunflower seeds Up to ½ teaspoon salt (I used ¼ teaspoon) Up to 2 tablespoons sugar (I used 1 ½ tablespoons Sucanat) Up to 2 tablespoons oil (I used 1 tablespoon sunflower oil) Have you tried making your own sunflower seed butter? How did it turn out?