By Paul Graham
One of my earliest holiday food memories is of a German cookie called lebkuchen, pronounced (in our kitchen, at least) “lepkoogan.” I don’t know for sure that these cookies were historically made at Christmastime, but that was the only time my family made them, and I have to think it was much the same elsewhere. The recipe included spices like cloves and allspice, which for most of history were expensive and reserved, among the masses, for holiday meals. The rest of lebkuchen’s ingredients are humble: sugar, lard (yes, lard), eggs, and—flour.
Cups and cups of wheat flour.
This was a cookie that was so dense with gluten and saturated fat that after a few moments of mixing, my mother had to surrender the bowl to my father, who used his height and longer arms to leverage the dough until it was combined enough to shape with the cookie cutters. The recipe came from his family, and no matter what the American Heart Association might have had to say about it, we made and ate lebkuchen every December until my mother’s disgust for the lard finally led her to put an end to them, probably for the better.
Of course, throughout my youth and young adulthood I ate other cookies from December first to New Year’s Day, too: simple sugar cookies dusted with colored granules, Mexican wedding cakes or Russian tea cakes (depending upon where you come from), ginger snaps, and pfeffernusse. Over time, as I grew older, sampled more cuisines, and my tastes changed, I moved on to the Italian holiday bread known as panettone, Florentine wafers, and brioche.
When you are sensitive to gluten, you inevitably begin to notice that most holiday treats—unless your family has a long tradition of tempering chocolate, using almond paste, or noshing on marzipan—tend to feature gluten. The main courses often do, too: homemade rolls and breads make an appearance at this time of year, poultry dressing, even ravioli and spätzle. There’s probably a case to be made for calling the holidays the Season of Gluten. And so, depending upon your attachment to holiday traditions, your predisposal to the powerful forces of nostalgia, and your list of favorite foods, there may come a point when you feel not like you are celebrating the holidays, but surviving them.
There are pre-made gluten-free options and baking mixes, of course. Many of them are good and they are more numerous every year. The problem is that the holidays are a period when people often choose to bake and make their own food from scratch, even if they’re too busy to do so during the rest of the year, or not normally interested. It’s part of the festiveness, the nostalgia: get in the kitchen, whip up a batch of something.
And in the midst of the good cheer, it can be easy to forget that gluten-free flours do not behave like traditional flours, and the cherished recipes trotted out every year before you went gluten-free may not be so reliable now that you’re working with gluten-free flour blends. Then they come out of the oven or off of the stovetop, and suddenly you remember: Oh, yeah. Right. Rice and wheat. Not equal.
As a home cook who has experienced more than his share of recipe-conversion disasters and gluten-free baking letdowns, I quickly learned that I had to give up my “spur of the moment” approach to cooking. For as much as I cook, I’m not exactly methodical in the kitchen, but I did come to know that one of the surest ways to avoid disappointment and frustration at a time of the year when you need things to go well is to begin with a little research: some exploratory cooking and baking, if you will, in advance. Among the most sensible advice offered to those who are cooking for guests is, “Never attempt to cook something for a crowd that you’ve never made before.” In recent years my wife and I have adapted this advice to figuring out how to make gluten-free versions of foods we love that will not disappoint: Never think you can just make something awesome on the first try, even if people swear by the recipe.
It’s actually not onerous research. It’s delicious research, and it can be fun when you approach it with the right frame of mind. This year, my wife began her R&D on pumpkin pies in October. This way we were sure to perfect the recipe well before the stressful weeks of the holidays in November and December. Yes, there was a lot of pie in the house when she was testing crust recipes, but I was willing to take one for the team and keep sampling (pie freezes well, too). After only three iterations, we had a recipe we knew we could depend on—reliable, stress-tested, and ready to be used a few days before a holiday meal, or even day-of. The hours of experimentation were well worth avoiding Gordon Ramsey-styled meltdown in the kitchen. We have repeated this process with other foods we wanted to make sure we had good gluten-free versions of, whether holiday poultry stuffing, pumpkin bread, or even gravy.
Testing new versions is only half of the approach, though, and it may not even be the most important half.
A few years ago, my wife and I set out on a new path, and created our own new holiday traditions. Christmas morning’s breakfast will, for the foreseeable future, consist of what we have affectionately named “The December 25th Breakfast Tower of Decadence,” a breakfast casserole of potatoes, sausage, onions, braised kale, fontina cheese, and béchamel (based on a recipe I adapted from The New Joy of Cooking). The first time I made this recipe I did it on pure instinct, and now I make it Christmas Eve day and refrigerate it. The next morning we pop it in the oven so it’s hot for a late breakfast or brunch. This we follow with a few of GF Jules cinnamon rolls, a recipe we’ve tested and know we can rely on. The point, here, is to focus on foods we loved and can still eat but do not often eat (we don’t eat sausage every day or even every week, and I make a béchamel but a few times a year).
Creating new food traditions has been easy because, to be honest, I cannot remember any longer what I used to eat throughout the holidays when I was a kid, or even in my college years. Was it pancakes? French toast? A pile of Christmas cookies? I remember the lebkuchen because they sounded weird (and tasted weird, at least to a child), and the other confections are easy to name because they turn up just about everywhere. But what was really special? I can’t recall. Maybe I’m fortunate in that sense, but I have used it to my advantage. Every year, now, we look forward to the Tower of Decadence, which we enjoy with a very mediocre cranberry juice-white wine blend from an area winey. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and it’s totally ours.
I first began thinking about this approach to eating during the holidays after I read a book-length defense of vegetarianism (not related to gluten intolerance or celiac disease, I know, but stay with me) by Jonathan Safran-Foer, an author I teach in my food journalism class. Safran-Foer makes a case for “cultivating forgetting.” He encourages his audience to imagine Thanksgiving without a turkey, and asks if the food on the table in the turkey’s place, whatever that food may be, would actually diminish, in any deep and permanent way, the relationships between the people around the table. Would the meaning of the celebration, whether spiritual, secular, or otherwise, really be compromised? For most people, the answer is no; it’s the repetition of the past that gratifies us as much as the food, Safran-Foer suggests. I take this as good news when it’s simply not possible to repeat past food traditions because of medical reasons. Of course, “cultivating forgetting” is easier if the foods are not imbued with religious significance (as some seasonal foods are).
The idea sounds weird, because most forgetting is unintentional: we drop the name of someone we met a few times, and get embarrassed; we forget where we parked our car in the mall parking lot, because we were distracted; time erases, with a force like erosion, the neighborhood we grew up in. But to “cultivate” forgetting means to willingly, even joyfully exchange one memory for another—say, from pancakes to a casserole, from fruitcake to pumpkin custard, or flourless chocolate cake. Soon, the replacement feels natural.
It was in this way that I figured out that it’s actually not the foods themselves that matter. What matters is the people, the atmosphere in the home, and the fact that you are healthy, which means you’re truly able to enjoy all that the season has to offer.
All the optimism to the contrary, certain rituals and events during the holiday season remain difficult, and they probably always will. That’s okay, too. It has to be. For years, my wife hosted a holiday cookie exchange. A few weeks after Thanksgiving, friends and friends of friends would come to our house with a pile of cookies, and everyone would lay theirs out on a table. Then, the guests circled the table filling their tins with the assortment until all the cookies were claimed. We were introduced to sweets from around the world, things we’d never heard of before. In the years after I was diagnosed with celiac disease and my wife went gluten-free with me, we attempted to partake, but it was just too difficult.
We knew we had to let it go. And so we did. Now we don’t exchange many holiday treats with others [though we might, if there were a big support group or GIG Branch (www.gluten.org/community/local-branches) in our area], but there is an upside: we get to keep, and freeze, whatever we make just for ourselves and guests who would like to sample. And we’ve learned that there are other ways to share the season’s joy, if we’re willing to step outside the holiday nostalgia factory, take stock of the things we really love, and build new memories.
Paul Graham, an English professor at St. Lawrence University, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. He is the author of In Memory of Bread: A Memoir.