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A Better Batter (Article About Elizabeth)
Jennifer Gish

By JENNIFER GISH, Staff writer Times Union First published: Wednesday, October 25, 2006 Copyright Times Union

Elizabeth Barbone breaks one of her homemade chocolate chip cookies in half. She appreciates the way this cookie crumbles: a few crumbs on the plate, not too many, just enough.

Golden brown cookies sit stacked atop a footed cake plate on her dining room table in Troy. The smell of chocolate and carmelized sugar still wafts into the room from her oven, like sweet afternoons spent with grandmother.

These cookies represent what most of her baking instructors at the Culinary Institute of America years ago told her couldn't be done: to bake delicious food without gluten, a binding plant protein found in wheat and thus in flour.

It's why those who suffer with wheat allergies and those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body can't tolerate gluten, speak of her as a kitchen-based hero, the person who has given them back their food favorites. And why, after subscribing to her monthly newsletter "Gluten-Free Baking and More," they urged her to write a cookbook, which she's just self-published, called "Easy Gluten-Free Baking."

"I'm a big advocate of just having joy around your food," Barbone says. "That's part of our socialization in our culture, and that's important."

Left behind

Her first encounter with gluten-free food was less than joyous. Ten years ago, while she was still a student at the CIA, she discovered a book about gluten-free eating.

As a child, she was left behind during an eighth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C., because the teachers didn't want to deal with her nut allergy. She knew what it was like to feel alienated because she couldn't eat the same foods as everyone else, to have to worry that a stray sesame seed at a picnic could send her to the hospital. And having dealt with these and other food allergies since she was an infant, she wondered what it would be like to live without a staple of her own diet, wheat.

So she went to the health food store and bought a loaf of gluten-free tapioca bread.

"It was so heavy and crumbly and dry. It was disgusting. I thought maybe this is just a bad loaf of bread, then I went and I tried some premade brownies and they were gummy. They didn't taste like chocolate."

The gluten-free waffles were grainy and pale. And all of it was expensive.

She wondered, using her knowledge of baking science, if she could come up with something better. She wanted to make chocolate chip cookies that weren't just good for "gluten-free cookies" but were good on their own, every bit as delicious as a Tollhouse.

"The first ones were really anemic because gluten-free flour I learned really early does not carmelize like wheat flour," she says. "My first attempts looked like batter with mounds of chocolate chips poking their little faces off the baking pan."

A good combination

She learned how to use brown sugar to get the carmelization she wanted. She experimented with flours until she found a good combination: white rice flour and sweet rice flour.

Many attempts later (she tests most of her recipes between 30 and 60 times before they're right), she made cookies that could easily pass for wheat-based. By 2001, she was teaching her gluten-free baking classes in the Capital Region to folks like Laura Bailey from Latham, who called Barbone before the class started and said it was unlikely Barbone could really help.

Bailey's son had dealt with multiple food allergies, including wheat and eggs, since he was very young, and she'd tried every recipe book she could find, creating one failed dish after the next.

Her two poor attempts at a gluten-free birthday cake devastated her, and the family was forced to smile through crumbly, tasteless cake. At Thanksgiving, she worried about him feeling left out of the meal, unable to eat stuffing or pumpkin pie like everyone else.

"I remember just wanting to cry, and I'm not one of those sappy 'Oh my cake didn't turn out so I'm going to cry' people. I just wanted to cry," she says. "I felt limited, because a lot of things I couldn't give him that I felt kids should have."

Despite her skepticism, she came to Barbone's class. As the class passed around her banana muffins for sampling, Barbone heard Bailey saying "Oh, my God" from the back of the room.

"Her recipes are great, and I think the reason why her recipes are different -- it's not someone writing a cookbook from grandmother's recipes trying to make it better. She went to the Culinary Institute. She has the background, the education, and she knows what good food should taste like," says Bailey whose now-12-year-old son always requests Barbone's spice cake for his birthday. "She really is a hero to me, because I didn't think it was possible after all those years."

Asking for favorites

Nearly every day, Barbone gets e-mails from her newsletter subscribers asking her to create a gluten-free version of their favorites. Most ask for a re-creation of family favorites or local traditions. One Iowa woman contacted her wanting a recipe for a gluten-free version of kolach, a danish-type pastry celebrated in her community with its own festival. At a celiac support group meeting in Philadelphia, they wanted a Pennsylvania favorite, soft pretzels.

Xanthan gum, derived from corn and found at health food stores, has become an adequate but not perfect stand-in for gluten. It doesn't have quite the elasticity, the thing that makes pizza dough bend when it's tossed in the air, but it binds enough to keep recipes from crumbling.

Creating recipes gets tedious. Barbone spends about half her time in her test kitchen, bowls filled with the ingredients for each recipe-in-progress so she can work on several at a time. When they're done, she'll record her taste tests and observations, and then try and try again.

Yeast breads and pizza dough really frayed her patience, she says, taking months to perfect.

But Barbone has given Deb Graulty, who was diagnosed with wheat allergies several years ago at age 52, one of her favorite foods back. On the recommendation of a dietitian, Graulty enrolled in one of Barbone's classes, and went home to Latham and started baking soon after.

"It was the first time I had a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich in a year," says Graulty, who now brings her own homemade toast when she goes to restaurants for breakfast. "It was like I'd died and gone to heaven."

Those are the kind of stories Barbone remembers when she works on her 30th batch of cookies, trying to get the texture just right.

"I still feel the miracle of gluten-free baking," she says. "When everybody says you can't bake without gluten, and then when you do it, and not only does it work but it tastes good, I want a cow bell. This is still exciting for me."

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at

Traditional Pancakes

Makes 4 servings

From Elizabeth Barbone's "Easy Gluten-Free Baking"

1/2 cup white rice flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup sweet rice flour, see note

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

1/2 cup milk

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. You don't need an electric mixer for this batter. Allow the batter to sit for two to three minutes before using.

Oil and heat a flat griddle pan. Pour batter, approximately 1/4 cup, onto griddle. Batter should "sizzle" when it hits the pan. If it does not, the griddle is not hot enough.

Flip pancakes when bubbles appear all over the surface of the pancake. Cook another 1 1/2 minutes.

Serve syrup and butter, if desired.

Note: Sweet rice flour can be found at Asian food markets.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 36 cookies

From Elizabeth Barbone's "Easy Gluten-Free Baking"

1 1/4 cups white rice flour

1/2 cup sweet rice flour, see note

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons gluten-free vanilla

1 bag gluten-free chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk flours, cornstarch, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing, cream butter, sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. (Use high speed on a hand-held mixer or medium-high speed on a stand mixer.) Add eggs, one at a time. Be sure to mix well between each addition.

Add dry ingredients and vanilla. Mix until a dough forms. Stir in chocolate chips until thoroughly incorporated. Chill dough for 15 minutes.

Drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto prepared baking sheet, about 2 inches apart.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove cookies from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

Store cookies in an airtight container or freeze.

Note: Sweet rice flour can be found at Asian food markets.

Old-Fashioned Spice Cake

Makes 12 servings

From Elizabeth Barbone's "Easy Gluten-Free Baking"

3/4 cup white rice flour

3/4 cup brown rice flour

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup tapioca starch

1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2 large eggs

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and rice flour 2 (8-inch) round pans or 1 (9-by-13-inch) pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk white rice flour, brown rice flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cornstarch, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs, vegetable oil and buttermilk. Add dry ingredients. Mix for 2 minutes. (Use medium-high speed with a handheld mixer or medium speed with a stand mixer.) Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake(s) comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes for the 8-inch cakes or 35 to 40 minutes for the 9-by-13-inch cake.

Allow cake(s) to cool in the pan for approximately 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Ice cooled cake with cream cheese icing.

Cream Cheese Icing

Makes 3 cups

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

4 cups (1 pound) confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon milk

In a large mixing bowl, combine cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract. Cream together until smooth. (Use high speed on a handheld mixer or medium-high speed on a stand mixer.)

Add confectioners' sugar and milk, beat until light and fluffy.

Use as desired on cooled cake.

© 2006-2014 Gluten-Free Baking and More/Elizabeth Barbone All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited.