A pastry chef who can't eat flour? How's that for irony?
Last April, after years of constant illness, my world was flipped upside down by two words from my doctor - celiac disease.
Life after that diagnosis would never be the same. My life revolves around one of the very things that make me sick - flour. As the pastry chef of 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert, my hands are covered in it every day.
Because of this autoimmune disorder of the small intestine, I cannot digest gluten without getting sick. That means I can't eat anything made of wheat, rye, barley, or any wheat by-products.
Family and friends suggested opening a gluten-free bakery, starting a new line of products, or becoming a personal chef for the plagued.
Believe me, those thoughts have crossed my mind. How could I work in an environment my body cannot tolerate?
But I was too smitten to care. Restaurant life is my life, and I love my job. So, I took my diagnosis as an opportunity to face a new challenge - to improve my health while not compromising my goals, and to change the way people see and eat gluten-free.
Once acceptance set in and my health started to improve, my awareness of the potential hazards in a restaurant also heightened.
After watching as one of the cooks chopped lettuce on the same cutting board previously used for slicing bread, I realized the need for education. I explained cross-contamination to the staff: Any residual crumbs on the cutting board rendered all that lettuce unsafe for celiacs.
I've also discovered and continue to point out any hidden gluten that staff might not recognize on our menu, such as the white soy sauce used in brining our pork belly or the roux used in the halibut poaching liquid. So our kitchen is much safer for guests with celiac and other dietary concerns.
As for myself, as my health improved, I became more inspired to create desserts that make everyone happy, with or without wheat.
What ingredients can be substituted for flour? How can a dessert be built from a humble piece of fruit? What components of desserts already on my menu can I tweak for a last-minute gluten-free request?
Countless hours surfing the Internet, reading books (Gluten-Free Baking With the Culinary Institute of America, Babycakes, and Gluten-Free Baking by Rebecca Riley), perusing ethnic stores to find more unusual gluten-free ingredients, and testing and retesting the plethora of gluten-free flours and alternatives available, gave me a new perspective.
Buckwheat flour's earthiness can elevate a tart rhubarb crisp. Shortbread made with chickpea flour is a textural tease - crumbly, but melts in a moment. Almond flour transforms a no-frills chocolate cake into a moist, seductive rhapsody.
Sweet-corn sorbet sits on a pillow of powdered freeze-dried corn (corn flour or cornmeal could also be substituted) in a creme fraîche mousse dessert. Quinoa and coconut flours lend a subtle nuttiness to banana bread. Friends were astounded by brownies made with Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour. The possibilities are limitless.
With each new menu, I strive to offer two gluten-free and two nut-free options, and at least another one or two that can easily become safe with the omission of one component.
Current gluten-free offerings are the Banana Creme Brulée and Creme Fraîche Mousse. The Yogurt Panna Cotta and Passion Fruit Parfait are two examples of how swapping out the small round of cake holding accompanying sorbets with almond flour or cocoa nibs can produce two more options.
But I don't make only gluten-free desserts.
People are surprised to learn that I have celiac disease but work with flour. They often ask how I create desserts when I can't eat them. I utilize what I call mental tasting.
Years of eating and tasting experiences are vividly catalogued in my mind. I recall the flavor profile of a certain ingredient when I want to "taste" it. Each flavor is then gradually layered until a more complete vision forms, from which I can begin testing recipes.
Tasting is a required and welcomed part of the job. Since my body will revolt if any gluten is ingested, only just enough to judge the mouth-feel, texture, aroma, and flavor will make its way into my mouth, and it is always discreetly disposed of. A very dedicated team of taste testers is also always willing to help me out. I've found that working and breathing in a room suffused with flour does aggravate my symptoms somewhat, but it's a choice that I make every day.
Sure, it is deeply disappointing not being able to eat old favorites. A supple slice of bread slathered with peanut butter - I still haven't mastered an acceptable substitute. Brownies tease with gooey centers and crispy edges. Whiskey ice cream whispers sweet nothings. Those airy puffs of sugared goodness called beignets - fuggedaboudit.
But I'm not resentful. It's hard not to feel sorry for yourself, but why waste time being bitter when you're basically hand-fed a reason to explore what else the world has to offer?
Food doesn't have to be foe. There are so many other amazing things we celiacs can eat and still enjoy. Sometimes it just takes a little more creativity to satisfy cravings.
Though some of my ingredients may have changed, my goal remains unaltered: not only to create the best desserts possible, but also to inspire and make people happy.
I am nowhere near the end of my journey. But I've learned that with some patience and creativity, eating gluten-free is quite manageable, and life is pretty sweet, with or without wheat.
Fudgy Gluten-Free Brownies
Makes about 24 brownies
1 cup plus 4 tablespoons butter, room temperature, divided use
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 68-72% cacao)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon salt
1. Butter and line a quarter sheet pan (12-by-8- or 13-by-9-inch) with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter with the sugar in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream on medium speed until light and fluffy.
3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter with the chocolate, whisking to make sure they are completely emulsified.
4. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla. Add to the creamed butter/sugar in three additions, mixing until well combined.
5. Add the melted butter/chocolate mixture and mix until thoroughly combined.
6. Add the flour and salt and mix lightly until just combined.
7. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan and bake until still fudgy but set, about 30-35 minutes.
Per brownie: 285 calories, 3 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 27 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 61 milligrams cholesterol, 178 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes about 20 cookies
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon rosewater
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups chickpea flour (or Bob's Red Mill Garbanzo Bean Flour)
1. Combine the butter, sugar, and rosewater in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream until smooth.
2. Add the salt and about half of the chickpea flour and mix on low speed. Gradually add remaining flour, mixing just until blended. The mixture will look moist but crumbly, and if you squeeze it between your fingers, it will come together.
3. Press the dough together and roll to about ½-inch thickness between two sheets of parchment paper. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
4. Once thoroughly chilled, cut into squares or rounds. Reroll and cut any scraps. Place on baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for about 8-10 minutes. Let cool on sheets for 5 minutes, and then transfer to wire racks.
Per cookie: 135 calories, 2 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydtrates, 7 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 96 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Banana Crème Brulee
Makes 8 servings
1 3/4 cup banana puree, from approximately 3 bananas
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Purée banana and 1/2 cup of cream, just until smooth. Reserve.
2. In a saucepan, combine milk, 1 1/2 cups of cream, vanilla bean, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, eggs, and sugars. Temper hot cream mixture into eggs. Whisk in banana purée.
4. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Divide among eight 4-ounce ramekins. Place in a water bath and bake, covered with either a sheet pan or aluminum foil, at 300 degrees until set, about 15 minutes for shallow ramekins or 18 minutes for deeper. Cool completely and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 4 days before serving.
Per serving: 315 calories, 5 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 213 milligrams cholesterol, 85 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Monica Glass is pastry chef at 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.