The Secret Ingredients of Prayer and Gratitude

She'd gone gluten-free, but would she have to stop baking her favorite Christmas treat?

Posted in , Nov 12, 2013

Jennifer Clark Vihel

They looked right, at least. Golden brown oblong slices speckled with bits of candied cherries, orange zest and almonds, glistening with sugar crystals. Then I took a bite...blech. Like cardboard. Not enough sugar, that was for sure, and still way too hard. I slammed my recipe binder shut in frustration.

“Here you go, Butch,” I called, tossing our Rhodesian ridgeback my latest rejects. He scarfed them down. That’s how several previous attempts had ended up too–great dog treats, but not fit for human consumption. If I left these out for Santa, I’d get coal in my stocking.

Soft Christmas biscotti. That’s what I was trying to make. I had a recipe that I had perfected over the years, with all the flavor of the Italian original, but less of the tooth-shattering crunch.

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I loved baking biscotti every Christmas, taking the fragrant loaves from the oven, cutting them into diagonal slices and giving them a dusting of sugar, packaging portions into little cellophane bags, each tied with a bow. My husband, Mike, and I delivered them to neighbors, extended family and good friends on Christmas Eve. “These are amazing, like no biscotti I’ve ever had,” I’d been told more than once. They were my favorite holiday tradition.

Until the Grinch of a gluten allergy turned up.

For the past few years, I’d been suffering unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms that no doctor seemed to be able to explain. Food I’d eaten all my life began to make me violently ill. Finally, a naturopathic doctor diagnosed me as gluten sensitive.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye,” she said. “Most baked goods–in fact, anything that uses flour–contain it.” If I ate the smallest amount, or even breathed it in, I’d have terrible discomfort.

Mike came into the kitchen and saw Butch chomping away. “Still working on those gluten-free biscotti?” he asked.

“I’ll never get the recipe right,” I said. “Why does someone who loves baking end up having to avoid flour? It’s so unfair!”

“Come on, Jennifer, don’t get discouraged. You’ll figure it out.” He patted my hand. “Be thankful your illness is one you can control.”

I shook my head. Be thankful? How could I be thankful for this?

Baking had been a passion for me from the time I was a kid. I collected recipes from my friends’ grandmothers, from neighbors, from the parish cooks at church potlucks. Anytime I tasted a recipe better than my own, I upgraded.

I even got up the nerve to ask my biggest rival in high school for her incredible cookie recipe. She looked surprised but the next day gave me a handwritten copy. I took culinary classes with professional chefs and filled three large binders with recipes that delighted Mike, our kids, dinner guests.

Then came my diagnosis.

No rolls, no pasta, no cakes, cookies, pies. The clam chowder at my favorite seafood restaurant? Thickened with flour. The succulent ribs from our local barbecue place? Marinated in teriyaki sauce, which is made with wheat.

No more battered, fried food. Taco salad in a flour tortilla bowl? Hold the bowl. Burger on a toasted bun? Try wrapped in a flimsy lettuce leaf. All of that I’d dealt with, grudgingly. But this was a Christmas tradition. How could I give up my biscotti?

I sighed and opened my binder again. Three cups of flour. That’s what I needed to replace. Sweet sorghum, rice, tapioca, almond, garbanzo bean, amaranth, chestnut, millet: none of these substitute flours passed for the real thing.

My first batch, made with almond flour, was gritty. My second tasted like garbanzo beans. Yuck. By now, my original recipe was covered in so much chicken scratch from revisions it was barely legible. God, show me what I am doing wrong.

“Be thankful.” Mike’s words echoed in my head.

I looked at the cellophane gift bags waiting to be filled. Wasn’t the whole point of this undertaking to spread joy during the holidays? Maybe a recipe change wasn’t enough. Maybe I needed an attitude change too. Maybe I, not my gluten sensitivity, was the one being a Grinch.

Lord, thank you for helping me find out why I was sick, I prayed. Thank you for all the food choices still available to me. I’m grateful that there are so many gluten-free flour substitutes. And that I can share the joy of Christmas with so many people.

The next day, I had a new energy. I studied my notes. Okay, half a cup of almond flour, half a cup of rice flour, one and a half of sorghum.... Then it came to me. More cornstarch might thicken the biscotti to just the right consistency.

I reached for my tub of sticky candied cherries. Another prayer came to mind. Thank you, Lord, for the sweetness of these festive cherries. I snipped each one in half and imagined I was snipping away at my anger and stress.

I washed the residue from my hands and gave thanks for the convenience of running water in my kitchen.

Do I have enough almonds left? I scattered what remained into the skillet for dry roasting. Just enough. Thank you, Lord, for your bounty.

I mixed the ingredients, formed the loaves and transferred them to cookie sheets. Thank you, Lord, for being with me through all this trial and error, I said, finally putting the biscotti in the oven.

The timer went off. Butch padded around my feet, sniffing for his latest treat. I took the biscotti out of the oven. They looked good and had browned nicely. But I would have to wait until I took that first bite.

Butch wagged his tail, looking up expectantly. I picked up a slice, closed my eyes and took a bite. The baked dough crunched pleasantly between my teeth, releasing a flood of sugar, cherry and almond sweetness onto my tongue. I took a second bite. And a third.

Butch barked, staring at the cooling tray on the counter.

“Today you only get one,” I said, tossing Butch an end piece. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of baking.

Try Jennifer's Gluten-free Soft Christmas Biscotti for yourself.

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