Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob’s Red Mill Vanilla Cup Cakes with Chocolate Chips – Product Review

I was one of a few lucky people who received a post-Valentine’s Day goodie bag from Lisa Williams over at Lisa Cooks Allergen Free. I felt a bit like Christmas when my goodies arrived. I opened a box full of gluten-free and allergen-free products to try, including this Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Vanilla Cake Mix.

To accommodate my family’s allergies I replaced the eggs with flaxseed meal mixed with water (1 tbsp flaxseed meal plus 3 tbsp water for each of the three eggs). This did add a bit of a darkened and speckled look to the final product, but didn’t affect the taste. The mix started dairy free, so no need to substitute there.

And, to satisfy my chocolate tooth, I decided to make mine chocolate chip cupcakes, and added ½ cup of Sunspire chocolate chips.

Here was the result:

These definitely passed the whole family yummy taste test! They disappeared a little too fast. I agree with Lisa that these don’t need frosting, but would make a truly decadent treat if you added the frosting.

More on the goodies from Lisa’s gift basket as I have a chance to try them all.

What's your favorite gluten-free cake mix?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Making the College Choice When You Have Food Allergies

In just a few short weeks, high school seniors across the country will find out which colleges they have been accepted to. Most students will need to make their choice by May 1st for enrollment in the fall – with only one month to make that tough decision.

For those with serious food allergies, this already very difficult decision comes with added complexity. In addition to weighing academic programs and financial aid, students with food allergies also need to make sure they choose a campus where they will be able to eat successfully.

As a Mom who has been through this process, I know how stressful this can be for both the parents and the student. Once you have narrowed down the choices, here are some suggestions for what you should consider, before you write that deposit check:

1. Understand the food plan – At first glance it seems like all college cafeterias are the same, but plans and food choices can differ dramatically. The two basic types of plans are all-you-can-eat and cash (also called declining balance) plans. In the former you may have a choice of number of meals per week in the cafeterias. In the latter you will pay as you go – paying only for what you eat. The food-allergic may be a little bit better off with a cash plan, as cafeteria choices tend to be very wheat-dairy-soy-corn centric, but this needs to be balanced with the next suggestion…

2. Understand where the food comes from – Large food operations that are vended or outsourced (i.e. the school has a contract with a mass food provider) will provide more complexities than a food operation that cooks meals in-house. Food staff and nutritionists have less control over food that arrives packaged in large vats or already prepared. The key here is consistency in ingredients, and the ability to know exactly what is in your food. An in-house operation generally makes it easier to both know what’s in the food, and to make adjustments.

3. Check on alternatives to the cafeteria – Many campuses have smaller eating facilities – including some that cater to special dietary restrictions (e.g. kosher or vegan). While these are not usually focused on food allergies, the adjustments made in these locations could be positive for the food-allergic. Also look off-campus. While pizza joints, sandwich shops, and ice cream parlors tend to surround college campuses, you might also find some allergy-friendly restaurants in the area. If there is a grocery store within walking distance to the campus, check that out too – do they carry your favorite allergen-free packaged snacks and foods?

4. Eat in the cafeteria – if you are able to visit the campus again, and you haven’t yet eaten in the cafeteria, now is the time to do so. If you attend a “decision day” (special visit day for accepted students designed to help the students make their selection), you might find that a special menu has been prepared for this day. I strongly advise you not to skip this step for that reason. Choosing to eat in the cafeteria will give you first-hand knowledge of how the food service team handles food allergies. You want to get in line with everyone else, let the first staff person you encounter know that you have food allergies, and watch how they handle it. Are they clear about what options you have? Are they willing to make special accommodations for you? And most importantly, are you comfortable with how they handled it?

5. Check on emergency health facilities – Hopefully you won’t need to use the health facilities due to food allergies, but you will want to understand what is available. I suggest calling the health director for the college. Ask where the emergency facilities are located, how easy it is to contact them, and where the nearest hospital is. Does the college have emergency transport services, should they be needed?

6. Search for the colleges you are interested in on the FAAN College Network. While this site is relatively new, some colleges and universities have submitted information on their food allergy approach, college representatives, and student ambassadors.

7. Meet with the Food Service Director and/or Nutritionist – You will have a much more detailed meeting with the nutritionist at whatever school the student selects in the summer or fall, but for now you want to know enough to feel comfortable with the college choice. This could be done on the phone, or in person. The single most important question to ask is, “How do you accommodate food allergies?” The goal of this open-ended question is to determine what procedures are in place for the staff, and what kind of support system is in place for the students. You might also ask:
  • Can special allergen-free meals be prepared? For example, if pasta is on the menu for tonight, can the student call ahead and ask for wheat-free pasta?
  • Can special foods be ordered? If your student has a favorite bread, cereal, or milk, that they can safely eat, will the college purchase them in bulk? Will they designate this food for your student?
  • If it’s a cash-based plan, will substitutions be allowed? For example, can a salad be substituted for the bread when purchasing a burger?

And, last but not least, if the student’s allergies are so severe that eating in a cafeteria is simply not an option, ask what special accommodations can be made. Are there dorm rooms with kitchens? Will they allow the student to opt out of the meal plan and cook in their room? Most campuses require on-site living for at least the first year – can an exception be made if there are no other choices?

Yes, there’s a lot to consider, but you will be really glad you did this legwork now, rather than waiting until after the decision is made. What additional questions or suggestions do you have for students making the college choice?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Brownies – Product Review

We don’t have a Trader Joe’s market in our town, so when a friend brought me this brownie mix from a trip to Trader Joe’s, I was thrilled. My objective was to transform this gluten-free mix into an allergen-free mix. The mix starts with no wheat, milk, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts or tree nuts – so it was an ideal candidate for one of my transformational baking projects.

My experiment was a dismal failure.

Despite my best effort at substituting ingredients, I have to admit that my approach just didn't work.

The first ingredient in this mix is evaporated cane juice, followed by sweet brown rice flour. And with cocoa as the third ingredient, I was expecting a very fudgy brownie.

My substitution attempt was simple – replace the egg with ¼ cup of applesauce. The other added ingredients – oil and water – were according to the package.

So why didn’t this work? 

While I can almost always make a gluten-free mix work allergen-free, my first attempt with this mix failed. Next time I will try it with Ener-g egg replacer, and reduce the baking time. In the meantime, I'm off to whip up a batch of my favorite Pamela’s brownies.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book – Book Review

Kelly Rudnicki’s The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book promises dairy-free, egg-free and nut-free treats, and does deliver exactly that. Kelly includes great recipes for breads, desserts and snacks, all without milk, eggs and nuts.

Warning: almost every recipe uses all-purpose baking flour, and many of the recipes use soy ingredients.

If your allergies include wheat and/or soy, you will find yourself needing to make lots of substitutions. That said, the eggs and milk ingredients are among the most difficult to replace while baking, and Kelly provides some great alternatives there.

Rudnicki starts with the premise that if you have food allergies then baking at home is the only way to go. As a food allergy mom – one who advocates that the world needs to adapt to food allergies and that we need solutions to eat safely away from home – I find this advice impractical for busy parents. But she does provide some simple and straightforward advice on how to transform your kitchen into an allergen-free baking zone.

The bottom line?

This book may not be the best choice for anyone with a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance. It’s also not the best choice for anyone who doesn’t like to bake. If your allergies are confined to milk, eggs and nuts, and you like to bake, then this is a good addition to your cookbook shelf.

Has anyone else tried this book? What do you think?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Allergen-Free Blueberry Muffins

Being a busy parent I don’t have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. So I love it when I find something that simplifies the baking process for me.

The Perfect Flour Blend from Namaste Foods is a great example. If you’ve been mixing your own flour bread to avoid gluten or food allergens, you know that getting it right can be tricky – and invariably you will run out of one of the many flours you need in the middle of the baking project. The Perfect Flour Blend solves that by putting them together for you.

Here’s my recipe for Allergen-Free Blueberry Muffins to try:

2 cups Namaste Perfect Flour Blend
4 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp Ener-G egg replacer mixed with 4 tbsp vanilla hemp milk
¾ cup vanilla hemp milk
¼ cup honey
¼ cup walnut oil
½ cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Makes 9 large muffins.

What is your favorite allergen-free flour blend?

Monday, February 8, 2010

When a Server Doesn’t Take Your Allergies Seriously

Most of the time when we go out to eat, we find the staff and the servers to be very accommodating to our food allergies.

But every now and then, it’s a different story.

A few months ago we had a family celebration at an upscale restaurant. I called ahead to make the reservation, and made sure they would be willing to accommodate food allergies. This was a busy place, and considered one of the nicest restaurants in the town we were visiting.

My son was very clear with the server that he was allergic to milk and butter, and asked her to check to make sure the meal he ordered could be prepared without it. Without going back to the kitchen, she assured him that the steak had no butter on it, and that the vegetables were sautéed without butter. He asked if they were done in oil. She told him they were sautéed in a dry pan. That was a red flag, so I asked her asked her to check with the kitchen. She assured us there was no need to do that.

You can guess where this is going, can’t you?

When the meals were served, the vegetables were glistening. Luckily I could taste them for him, and it was clear they had some kind of oil or butter on them. It was a special event, and the veggies were separate from the rest of the meal, so he cast them aside and just didn’t eat them.

I didn’t speak to the manager, but I should have.

What would you have done? How often do you run into these kinds of problems when eating out?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Eighth Wonder of the World – Miss Roben’s Soft Bread Mix

With allergies to wheat, soy, milk and eggs, breads are one of the most difficult food issues for my family. There are lots of gluten-free choices out there, but most prepared breads contain eggs, and many have soy and milk ingredients.

When it comes to breads that can be used for sandwiches, the truly allergen-free bread choices that I have found so far have been things that need to be kept in the freezer, and work best when toasted. More on those allergen-free breads that work at a later date.

Right now I am in heaven, because Miss Roben’s has just delivered what I think might be the eighth wonder of the world – a soft bread mix that really truly looks, tastes, and behaves like traditional bread.

I took advantage of their introductory offer, and made my first loaf yesterday. The mix (which is primarily brown rice flour-based) includes a quick yeast packet. Even though this is a fluffy bread, no rise time is needed.

The recipe I used was:

1 package Miss Roben’s Soft Bread Mix Finally (with the yeast)
1 cup Living Harvest unsweetened original hemp milk
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp Ener-G egg replacer mixed with 4 Tbsp water

Forty minutes later I had a perfect loaf. This particular recipe combination resulted in Italian-like bread, and could easily be sliced for sandwiches. I thought this loaf would last a few days, but everyone liked it so much it disappeared very quickly!

I can’t wait to play with this mix and try different combinations.

For a limited time Allergy Grocer is offering the new mix at an introductory price, and they are running a contest to find the perfect name for this great product.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A New Twist on a Classic – Kenzoil

I recently discovered a fabulous alternative to the classic olive oil. And while oils are not typically a problem for us, it’s terrific to find an allergen-free solution that isn’t just plain oil.

Kenzoil took the classic and made it better by adding fresh (yes, fresh!) herbs and spices – and it is entirely allergen-free.

Kenzoil is a great alternative to just plain olive oil and vinegar for salads. It makes a great ‘butter-free’ sauce for pasta, and is the perfect substitute for pesto. I have also used this as a marinade for chicken and I love it on veggies of all kinds! This new product is now a pantry staple in my family, but I should note that it does need to be refrigerated (due to those great fresh ingredients).

There is an introductory offer on your first 5oz. bottle by using the code TRYKENZOIL, which allows you to get the first bottle home for just $6.99 including shipping. Orders over $41 (that would be 6 of the 10 ounce size) ship free. Ordering this way brings the cost right in line with what you pay for extra-virgin olive oil at the store.

This is definitely one to try!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pamela’s Brownies – Adapted to be Allergen-Free

I am thrilled that so many vendors are offering gluten-free products these days, yet few offer true allergen-free products – especially when it comes to baked goods.

One of my favorite things to do is to adapt gluten-free mixes so they are indeed allergy-free. And one of my very favorite mixes is the Chocolate Brownie Mix from Pamela’s Products. I can find it in both the local health food store and my mainstream grocery store, and it’s one of the simplest treats to make. Best of all, it not only passes the family taste test, my kid’s friends actually ask for these brownies.

The key to adapting a gluten-free mix to be allergy-free is to start with a package that doesn’t contain any food allergens. Even if the recipe calls for adding eggs, butter, and milk, it can be made allergy-free with the right substitutions.

I should warn you that Pamela’s brownie mix does contain soy lecithin (not soy protein, and therefore should be safe in most cases), and it does contain a ‘may contain traces of milk’ warning. You should follow your own rules for that labeling, but my very-milk-allergic son has not had any difficulties with this product.

Here’s my simple allergy-free adaptation for Pamela’s Brownies:

1 package Chocolate Brownie Mix by Pamela’s Products
½ cup applesauce
½ cup oil (I like walnut oil)
¼ cup water (or 1/4 cup chocolate hemp milk)

Bake for 23-24 minutes at 350 degrees. Note that this is a higher baking time than the package suggests. The brownies will still be quite fudgy.

For true chocoholics, add ½ cup of Sunspire dairy-free chocolate chips, and add another minute of baking time.

Try them and let me know what you think!