Imagine if you were told that you would never again bite into a slice of sweet-smelling freshly baked challah, that lockshen pudding was out of bounds and a salmon and cream cheese bagel just a memory.
This was the dismal news that faced Tim Stander when, in his 40s, he was diagnosed as suffering from coeliac disease.
“Tim was in his 30s,” recalls wife Lisa Stander-Horel “when like a clutz, he fell and broke both elbows. It was pretty unusual for someone so young and the doctors found that his bones were weak.”
As well as weakened bones, Stander had been suffering for several years from a range of ailments including migraines. However, it took 10 more years for doctors to diagnose him, in 2000, as suffering from the digestive condition — which renders sufferers unable to tolerate gluten.
The only remedy for this was to eliminate gluten from his diet. So Stander-Horel immediately decided she would make their California kitchen gluten- free.
“It was like cleaning for Passover,” she laughs, but initially it was a pretty miserable place to be.
“We used to attend Friday nights or holiday dinners and while everyone was tearing off a slice of challah we would have to get out a piece of gluten-free bread from a plastic bag. We wanted to create a challah that everyone could eat and enjoy together. We managed to figure out a gluten-free challah that tasted just like ordinary challah.”
She promised her husband that no cookie, no tart or pie would be left behind and they would all be just as tasty.
“That was crazy,” she laughs. “It was the dark ages for gluten-free then and we had one flour available to us; rice flour — which was a good substitute for kitty litter. I’d make mandelbrot which would just dissolve in a pile of sand.”
Nonetheless, Stander-Horel, a recipe writer and Stander, who builds computer hardware, worked together to figure out common baking ratios and ingredients to recreate their favourite bready snacks. Once they had gone gluten-free, Stander-Horel found that a range of ailments like skin rashes and stomach pains from which she had been suffering cleared up.
“I found out that I was gluten-intolerant,” she explains.
Stander-Horel had lost her mother as a child and had no family recipes — only her memories of tastes and smells which she tried to recreate in gluten-free form.
The pair started a blog to chronicle their recipe development and share the results with their children. The blog started to attract an audience and when they published gluten-free recipes for Jewish holidays that audience grew even larger.
This inspired them to put together a little book of their recipes for which Stander took the photos and Stander-Horel wrote all the recipes.
“I’m just a home cook, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s important to think of what people can do in their kitchens and that simplicity is the way to go,” she says.
The pair were rigid in ensuring that the finished products were as good as their gluten filled counterparts and laughingly admit that their waistlines suffered from all the tasting. They admit it did get to a point where they would just taste a mouthful before sending a batch to Stander’s office for his colleagues.
“We had a large pool of people and he would watch them as they ate. They had to totally love it for it to pass.”
Stander-Horel explains that none of the recipes are hard or complicated, you do need to master certain methods common to gluten-free baking. The book contains precise instructions as well as glossaries of frequently used ingredients and methods.
“If you are new to gluten-free it might feel weird but if you can bake already it should be ok.”
Stander explains that gluten- free flours are not as hydrophilic (able to take on water) as regular flours, so they take longer to absorb water; in addition gluten-free doughs behave much better when chilled so there is a lot of resting doughs in the fridge.
“It is actually quite handy as you can leave the doughs to rest and make them in steps, chilling them until you are ready to continue.”
The California-based Standers say that over the past 13 years the range of products available to the gluten-free baker has grown hugely.
“There are now probably 20 different flours and lots more grains available to use, including amaranth. You can get superfine brown and white rice flours which, if mixed together in the right proportions are indistinguishable from regular flours with no bitterness and a light nutty flavour.”
Since recreating her family recipes, the pair say they miss nothing from the baking world, and there seems no need. True to her word, Stander-Horel has provided a gluten-free recipe for almost every traditional Jewish sweet treat.