Going Gluten-Free: Lessons from Elizabeth Barbone
Earlier this month, Dominique Ansel published his recipe for the Cronut. The Cronut is a heavy treat: both in caloric value and cultural weight. It is a pastry with trademark, a Saturday Night Live parody, and now, a recipe with instructions rivaling those of Ikea furniture. It is immensely difficult: the recipe requires specialized tools and multiple days to complete. Its baroque nature has home cooks stumped, and the food blogosphere whipped into a pastry frenzy. It was refreshing to speak with baker and cookbook author Elizabeth Barbone, whose approach to baked goods is radically simple. Barbone specializes in another baking trend: gluten-free. Her food philosophy, however, is very different from Ansel’s. It’s not about being hip—it’s about creating recipes that people can actually make and enjoy. “My number one goal,” she says, “is to think, ‘What will make someone want to get up and into the kitchen?’”
This goal is something Barbone has accomplished with zeal, even before the gluten-free trend took off. “To be honest,” she said, “it sort of caught me by surprise. I’d been baking gluten-free for years. It just sounded like a fantastic challenge. But I was not expecting it to become as popular as it did.” In this sense, she stumbled into a good deal of luck. Her success, however, is no product of fortune. Barbone is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where she studied the delicate science behind baking. She understands the chemistry behind gluten-free baking—when to add xanthan gum, when and why rice flour will work better than another substitute. Barbone’s truly impressive feat, however, is that she’s able to dilute this information into simple steps for the home cook. “Sometimes there are gluten-free recipes that are really difficult,” she says, “for reasons that are, from a basic food science perspective, unnecessarily challenging. They make people leery. Others, I have to work more to simplify them. It’s all about meeting people where they are.” Barbone works hard so that her readers don’t have to. Most recipes have relatively short ingredient lists, and many require a single bowl. Several free recipes are featured on her website, glutenfreebaking.com.
The site a second component: in addition to offering recipes, it serves as a forum and advice column for those living a gluten-free lifestyle. As a lifelong sufferer of food allergies, Barbone understands the complications involved in transitioning to a new diet. The intro to her first book, Easy Gluten-Free Baking (Lake Isle Press: 2008) explains that she is writing for an audience that had a gluten-free died imposed upon them: doctor's orders. “If you’ve spent your life buying your bread, cookies, and cakes, the thought of having to bake can be frightening!” This is, of course, less relevant now, as grocery stores regularly stock gluten free goods. Her advice, however, still rings true: “Start with the basics: white bread, chocolate chip cookies, pancakes. When you begin with easy recipes that return favorite foods to your diet, living gluten free becomes much more enjoyable.” Barbone also offers counseling services for clients eager to learn about how to live gluten-free. She recognizes that she has different kinds of readers. “There are those eating gluten-free because they elect to and those because they have to—but there’s a lot of nuance. Corn is naturally gluten-free, however, cornmeal will be gluten-free (or not). I just want to educate the public about this.”
Barbone exhibits a deep desire for her readers have the freedom to eat the foods they like, even ones that usually contain wheat products. When I asked her what she's been working on recently, she said, "I like to bake seasonally, and there's so many great fall desserts that I want gluten-free eaters to be able to have. Rice krispy treats have always felt like a fall dessert to me, so I've been doing that. I also made a lovely pumpkin bread the other week." For subscribing members of her site, she offers recipes for hearty fall meals and holiday dinners. Barbone's second cookbook, How to Cook Gluten-Free (Lake Isle Press: 2011) showcases her ability to create simple, family-style meals. Though she loves cooking, Barbone says, "I'll always be a baker at heart." Maybe one day she'll bake an easy, gluten-free cronut.
Charlotte Dillon is an intern at Lake Isle Press.