Jon Hatch

Author and chef Carol Fenster prepares a gluten-free pizza.

Gluten-free cooking provides challenge

By Susan Glairon, Camera Staff Writer
January 15, 2003

Ever since she could remember, Carol Fenster suffered from severe sinus infections.

Her eyes would get puffy, her nose got stuffy, she felt dull and groggy and her throat would ache. Sometimes she'd be sick the entire winter. She usually took antibiotics to clear her condition, sometimes for as long as three weeks.

But Fenster, 56, says it wasn't antibiotics she needed, but to change her eating habits. About 15 years ago, the Centennial resident was diagnosed with wheat intolerance. She no longer eats foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. Since removing gluten from her diet, she has been infection free and feels energized.

"I have my health back," Fenster says. "I don't have this chronic feeling of coming down with a cold."

After her diagnosis, Fenster's biggest challenge was finding foods she could eat. At that time, few cookbooks offered wheat-free recipes. Since then, she has published four gluten-free cookbooks. The fifth one, "Gluten-Free 101: Easy Basic Dishes without Wheat" (Savory Palate: $19.95) will be available in bookstores late February.

The recipes in Fenton's book can be used by those with Celiac Disease (a genetic disorder that prevents the digestion of gluten), wheat allergies or wheat intolerance and by autistic children placed on gluten-free diets as part of their treatment.

Cooking without gluten is challenging, Fenten says. Gluten gives baked goods structure and elasticity. Without it, bake goods fall apart. It also gives breads a nice chewy texture. The biggest challenge is finding ingredients that mimic the function of gluten, she says.

Her recipes use many items found in health food stores. She replaces wheat flour with flours made from rice, potato, tapioca or sorghum (a gluten-free grain in the corn family). Substitutions for gluten include xanthan gum (a polysaccharide produced by a biotechnological fermentation process) which is essential for providing a cell structure so breads and baked goods can rise without falling apart.

Many of Fenton's recipes include unflavored gelatin powder (Knox or Grayslake) as a protein source because gluten-free flours generally contain less protein than wheat flours. The gelatin also adds moisture and helps reduce crumbling. She also adds cider vinegar to some recipes to gives the yeast a boost.

In addition, Fenten uses herbs and increases seasoning to replace wheat's distinctive flavor. In her pizza recipe, Italian herb seasoning gives the crust flavor. Basic yellow or white cakes include grated lemon peel and vanilla to give the cake a more interesting flavor.

Cooking without gluten is different, she says. Batter or dough will be a little softer or wetter than in regular baking. Pizza dough will look more like mashed potatoes. To knead it, bakers need to lightly dust their hands with brown rice flour.

Lafayette resident Wendy Komarnitsky has two children, ages 1 and 4, diagnosed with Celiac Disease. She has to be careful because even just a bite of a cracker containing gluten can make her children violently ill. So even though she and her husband don't test positive for the disease, their home is gluten-free.

Komarnitsky says her two children eat organic corn chips and salsa, popcorn, peanut butter and rice cakes, jello, fruit and rice pasta for snacks.

But for variety she cooks her family peanut butter cookies or makes homemade Chinese food with wheat-free soy sauce. She also uses Fenton's books for inspiration.

"Children need nutrients to grow," Komarnitsky says "When (my children) get exposed to gluten, their food is passing out undigested, so they are not getting the food they need to grow properly."

But what does she do when she and her husband go out to dinner alone? She admits they prefer wheat products.

They order the biggest pizza they can eat, she says.

For baking tips and other gluten-free recipes, visit Carol Fenster's Web site