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Sweet sorrow

30 Dec

“I just want to be friends.”

Those words startled me midway through a magical second date this past summer.

It had already become a season of endlessly empty encounters–from the rushed affair with the overly eager engineer to the coffee date with the already involved lawyer–but none of the inevitable endings had surprised me as much as this abrupt revelation.

“I felt as if I’d been sucker punched . . . in the stomach,” I told my mom the next morning as we crossed the quaint, sunshiney streets of downtown Hinsdale, Ill., and parked before a tiny new shop named Sweet Ali’s Gluten Free Bakery.

And because I leaned across one of their few small tables to recount the past night’s confusing particulars–the initial awkward conversing, the gradual lengthening of gazes, the midnight swinging . . . and touching at a deserted playground, and then the sudden shifting of his behavior–I will always associate Sweet Ali’s with sadness.

But what could soothe the sorrow of that summer infatuation–or my frustrating diet limitation–better than an impossibly light angel food cake paired with an equally airy whipped cream? And what could dissolve the stress of subsequent workdays better than a thick, chewy chocolate chip cookie delivered by my mom during lunch breaks?

For breakfasts at my desk toward the end of summer and then into fall, the flavors of carrot and pumpkin muffins proved as deep and complex as a kiss from a new man. He took me for magical dates filled with comfortable conversations, long gazes, midnight walks–and caresses–in secluded parks, and then a pledge of his commitment.

His consistent sweetness has lasted into the holiday season of red velvet cupcakes, iced sugar cookies, and m&m treats that have inspired my New Year’s Day dessert–to be compiled with the reasonably priced flour mix responsible for the enigmatic authenticity of Sweet Ali’s entire product line.

But its most delicious offering–the tomato focaccia–is the most anticipated element of my New Year’s Day meal. Expected to accompany the gluten-free lasagna, the inconceivably elastic dough of this cheesy roll rivals any pre-dinner bread ever enjoyed at Macaroni Grill during pointless past dates.

So to celebrate the sweetness of my next magical date–and erase the sorrowful memories of 2010–I might share a Sweet Ali’s focaccia . . . or cupcake . . . or cookie with my best friend: my boyfriend.

Sweet as love

24 May

“Food is love,” wrote one of my myriad new pen pals acquired throughout my recent adventures in online dating.

And during the sometimes stilted, sometimes sizzling conversations I’ve exchanged with various strangers both in person and over e-mail, IM, and text throughout the past four months, I, too, have remarked a certain conflation—or, perhaps, confusion—of love and food.

The requisite “how do you like your coffee?” chat, a staple at that jittery start of each first date, has segued into countless culinary conversations, including an odd “why I once was a vegetarian” discussion and a fascinating low-fat chocolate-chip cookie recipe exchange.

But the most unusual—and memorable—of these dialogues occurred not on an extended date, but on a brief instant message encounter. The writer seemed far too young and far too far away for a possible relationship (the presumed objective of dating site users), and, unsurprisingly, he wanted to discuss not a relationship with me, but his relationship with food.

“You’re gluten free?” he began. “I just started the diet a week ago!”

Remembering the initial confusion and frustration of the Celiac Disease diagnosis, I offered the expected platitudes. “The diet gets easier.” “You can find gluten-free options at more and more places.”

And my first recommendation of those providers was not, to my own surprise, the long Trader Joe’s gluten-free list or the online ordering form for Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery and Cafe.

My immediate suggestion was Whole Foods. And their unsurpassed vanilla cupcakes.

“You just like the frosting,” my mom recently told me after one of my inordinately lengthy monologues on these cupcakes’ indescribable perfection. “No,” I retorted. “I lick the wrappers.”

After all, the last gooey crumbs of the impossibly delicate yellow cake easily equal the icy sweetness of the decadent frosting spirals. And both components, unlike those of too many other gluten-free desserts, prove just as satisfying when eaten alone as when eaten together.

The combination of calories (480) and grams of fat (22), however, may give pause, but with all the deprivations inherent in this sometimes trying diet, everyone—especially boys just going gluten free—deserves a frequent indulgence.

And for my next one, I’m planning on Whole Foods’ chocolate cupcakes—recommended by yet another recent online date.

Best in brownies

10 Sep

I had boiled broccoli for tonight’s dinner—a simple but satisfactory solution to one of those rare vegetable cravings resulting from an overindulgence in chocolate for far too long a period.

But it’s that time of month.

For the five to seven days following my monthly mother-daughter pilgrimage to Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery & Cafe in Evanston, Ill., I revel in a refrigerator and freezer overflowing with pizza crust, pastry, bread, . . . and brownies.

Always, we call ahead and reserve a dozen (graciously supplemented with an extra birthday brownie this past weekend!). And always, upon returning home, I seal each generously sized square into its own Ziploc bag for the coming workweek’s breakfasts (and desserts and snacks).

Then, while navigating a monotonous or confusing editing assignment, I alternately savor and devour these simultaneously cakey and fudgey treats. “People like either cakey brownies or fudgey ones,” Rose once speculated as we chatted over her cafe counter. “I like both,” I told her. And I can somehow miraculously enjoy these dual textures in her incomperable concoction.

Perhaps their unique, indecipherable flavor is due to extra vanilla, I once mused during a workday brownie break before I’d discovered the list of the brownie’s simple ingredients. Or maybe I detect banana! I rushed online for a banana brownie or banana chocolate cake recipe, but the results, while boasting a lovely depth of flavor, lacked that je ne sais quoi.

Whether or not they contain a secret ingredient, these brownies surpass all of my former life’s contenders, including even my childhood memory of that homemade pan of underbaked, gooey goodness served with chilled milk from the car trunk during my family’s outing at a snowy winter festival of dogsled racing and ice-sculpture carving.

In fact, the only potentially better brownies may be Rose’s now long-discontinued brownie base topped with a layer of smooth cheese cake.

Thankfully, she’s given no indication of ever discontinuing—or even changing—this winning recipe. And although I’d prefer the elimination of frequent stray eggshells, I’m more than willing to endure this minor foible . . . and the inducement of a craving for broccoli.

Chocolate chip crackers

2 Sep

My own personal Julie & Julia experiment is complete.

And my drastically less ambitious project to bake through all four of Betty Crocker’s gluten-free dessert mixes in whatever length of time needed has left me with an insatiable craving for sugar, a couple of extra pounds, and a mouthful of cottony dryness.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have consumed an entire container of Betty Crocker’s gluten free chocolate chip cookies, along with a few handfuls of popcorn, as my only sustenance throughout the workday today, but I had no way of anticipating the enormous amount of sodium I’d ingest from these crackers masquerading as dessert.

Perhaps the intense salty aftertaste is unsuccessfully attempting to mask the cookies’ distinct gluten-free aftertaste—a trait disappointingly shared with all gluten-free chocolate chip cookies in my experience.

But before delivering these two unpleasant surprises, the cookies manage to achieve an impossible combination of crisp and chewy and crumbly at the start of every bite. And in nearly every nibble is a delightful explosion of pure (not semi-) sweetness from the mix’s generous portion of chocolate chips.

The baking of these cookies was pleasant as well. Although, as promised by the box’s instructions, the batter proved quite crumbly, it formed firm, tablespoon-size mounds and transformed into perfectly finished cookies. And for that, the credit is due not to my capricious ovening skills, but to the Betty Crocker mix.

So I thank her for enabling small triumphs like this, and for contributing two delicious additions (yellow and devil’s food cake) to my gluten-free dessert menu. And, of course, for inspiring four posts on this short-lived Betty & Bianchi blog.

Pass on the pizza

2 Sep

“Hey—I saw on ur fb that u went to pizza fusion. How is their GF pizza????”

The moment my brother’s text arrived in the middle of a workday earlier this week, I rushed him my reply: “Not very good. The crust has a weird, chewy taste . . . kind of sour, too. Why do you ask?”

I wanted to halt any possible plans to take his new girlfriend there on a date.

My boyfriend and I had tried our local strip-mall location of the chain, now in 11 states, on a lovely Sunday night this past summer. We’d both done some research first, and while I’d enticed my left-leaning love with facts about the company’s admirable environmental friendliness, he’d excited me with an even better discovery: The crust came from an out-of-state bakery, and I’d never eaten any of its products before!

I may never eat any again. While I did relish the normalcy of enjoying pizza in a bustling pizza joint next to my boyfriend relishing a delicious portobella grill sandwich, I found the gummy, bitter thin crust far from normal.

The additional $7 (if memory serves me) for that special crust brought my rather petite plain cheese pizza to $20. And even on my (probably final) return trip there with my mom a few weeks ago on “buy-one-regular-pizza-get-one-small-pizza-free” Monday night, the price seemed unwarranted. “Thursday night is ‘gluten-free night,’ so there’s no extra cost for the crust,” my helpful waitress had told me during my first visit, however. But after letting my final leftover piece languish in the office refrigerator until the cleaning service’s monthly fridge scouring this past Friday, I know better than to return.

The only possible allurement might be Pizza Fusion’s Fresh Homemade Brownie, which, according to the same helpful server, is gluten free. Served with amazingly rich vanilla ice cream, the brownie could almost transport an adult back to the chocolate birthday cake and ice cream of childhood. Alone, however, the brownie is puckeringly bitter and dry.

So I didn’t tell my brother about the dessert. He’s not much of a sweet tooth. And besides, enduring the pizza to get to the dessert is surely not worthwhile.

Cheap chocolate

30 Aug

During my childhood, I developed a sophisticated chocolate-cake theory: The less healthful, the better.

So I inevitably always preferred the manufactured Sam’s Club or Dominick’s or Jewel chocolate sheet cake at holiday gatherings or church socials to the made-from-quality-scratch-ingredients (and sometimes even made-from-whole-wheat-flour) cakes I’d bake at home.

What a surprise, then, to discover that “bad-for-you” goodness of a cheap chocolate cake in the few, simple, and, most important, healthful ingredients of the Betty Crocker Gluten Free Devil’s Food Cake Mix!

After adding the required water, butter, and eggs to the mix’s sugar, rice flour, potato starch, cocoa, tapioca starch, leavening, salt, and guar gum, I worried over the thin batter’s blandness. (Yes, licking the spatula and mixing bowl is an essential part of baking in my kitchen!)

But the next morning, when I whipped up my usual buttercream chocolate frosting and then took the first forkful of cake, I marveled at its substantial flavor and gooey texture. In fact, almost every morning for last week’s breakfasts, I pushed each piece’s slab of frosting aside and enjoyed the cake on its own at room temperature.

I was so excited to have found such a close match to those cheap cakes of long ago that I sacrificed a small wedge for my boyfriend to experience. “You can really tell it’s gluten free,” he immediately determined. “It has that weird aftertaste.”

Apparently, I’ve officially forgotten the flavor of normal food; either my taste buds or my memories have shifted. So now, all I have left are relative reviews: this gluten-free bread or cereal or cake vs. that gluten-free bread or cereal or cake. And, childhood memories aside, this is the most unhealthful one I’ve ever tasted!

The yellow cake of yesteryear

22 Aug

My brother, a weight lifter with a passion for protein, has never liked desserts.

I, a vegetarian with a weakness for sweets, have always liked baking.

So, to ensure I’d have a market for my products in the days before either of us was gluten free, I used to specialize in the only brother-approved dessert: yellow cake, made from a recipe in my gigantic, red Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, and topped with homemade buttercream frosting.

After a year and a half of gluten-free eating, however, I’d forgotten—and despaired of ever again tasting—the satisfying sweetness of that cake.

But then, Monday night, feeling experimental, I gathered up some water, butter, McCormick pure vanilla extract (guaranteed gluten free by the company), and eggs, set up for the first time the mixer I inherited after my Grandma’s death last year, and poured in Betty Crocker’s gluten free yellow cake mix.

The directions are explicit (mix on low speed for 30 seconds, then on medium speed for 2 minutes), but they ensure a light, almost frothy batter—quite a surprise to me after years of probably undermixing batters by hand! My first lick of that batter off the mixer’s beaters was heavenly. If I don’t like the cooked version, I told myself, I can always just eat the batter next time!

But the final product proved even better. Unlike any of my previous baking attempts, the cake rose beautifully, although it was slightly undercooked in the center and disappointingly rubbery around the edges. I blame my oven or my ovening skills, not the baking mix, for those minor deficiencies, however. I frosted the cake, as I once did, with a mixture of confectioner’s sugar, butter, vanilla, and Rice Dream enriched vanilla beverage.

And every morning this past week, I ate a piece for breakfast at my desk. At just the right temperature, about 35 minutes after removing the piece from the refrigerator, that cake transported me back to my favorite childhood yellow cake. The sweet, smooth frosting balanced the lighter flavor and texture of the cake. But even alone, the cake had distinct character. And it didn’t taste remotely gluten free.

Either I am too far removed from my last real cake experience to have any point of reference, or Betty Crocker has achieved a dessert miracle. And I can’t wait to share it with my brother.