If you think buckwheat is a kind of wheat (it isn't) and you don't know how to pronounce quinoa (KEEN - wah), keep reading. As a junior in high school, my daughter started having unexplained crampy stomach aches and gas, which she described to her pediatrician. After nearly six months of blood tests, missing school for early morning appointments with a pediatric gastroenterologist, and even a doped-up intestinal biopsy, she was diagnosed with celiac disease. No more pizza parties!

Approximately one in every 200 Americans, whether or not they are experiencing any symptoms, will test positive for celiac disease. The Celiac Disease Foundation estimates one in 133, which would make it more common than Type I diabetes. Since most people don't know about celiac disease, it remains largely undiagnosed.The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates between 1% and 2.25% of the population of the United States has celiac disease, making it the most common genetic autoimmune disease.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat. Gluten is the sticky, stretchy fiber that, together with yeast, makes it possible for bread dough to rise. For people with celiac disease, or celiac sprue, as it is sometimes called, gluten is toxic to the intestinal tissues. Gluten occurs naturally in all forms of wheat (members of the Triticum genus), including spelt, semolina, and durum wheat. In addition, rye (the Secale genus) and barley (the Hordeum genus), wheat's close cousins, and Triticale, a cross between rye and wheat, all contain gluten, the offending protein. An excellent list of what foods do and don't contain gluten can be found at the Celiac Sprue Association's website.

Rye in the field.

There is currently no treatment for celiac disease other than complete avoidance of all sources of gluten. There are over 200 different possible symptoms, and the disease can be asymptomatic while still damaging the small intestine and its ability to absorb nutrients from food.

These innocent, healthy-looking foods all contain gluten!

Gluten, thus, is present in breads, cakes, cookies, pancakes, crackers, biscuits, waffles, muffins, etc. Other sneakier sources of gluten include soy sauce (wheat is added to most brands), malt (comes from barley and is found as a flavoring or sweetening in crisped rice and corn flakes breakfast cereals), beer (made from barley) and other alcoholic beverages which come from fermented grain. Adults can still indulge in wine (from grapes or other fruit), rum (from sugar cane), vodka (from potatoes) and tequila (from agave).

This list is not complete; there are many, many hidden sources of gluten. Wheat is frequently added for bulk or as a thickener or texturizer to foods like burgers, processed meat, gravy, soup, and so on. If you have celiac disease or think you might, please consult your doctor, or a gastroenterologist specializing in celiac disease.

All of these (expensive) convenience foods are gluten-free.

Bad news/Good news

So, that is the bad news for people with celiac disease about what they can't eat. The good news is that they can eat corn, rice, potatoes, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Information from the Celiac Sprue Association and other help groups indicates that many people (working with their doctors) find they can tolerate oats if the oats are processed in a dedicated facility.

Before high nitrogen fertilizers were found to be so effective at increasing yields of wheat and corn, the people of the world relied on a wide variety of grains and cereals to fill their stomachs, many of which are perfectly delicious as well as perfectly appropriate for a gluten-free diet. Foods we wouldn't normally think of as starches, because they are legumes (beans), nuts, seeds or tubers, can be ground up and used as flours.

Buckwheat growing

Without going into details about individual grains and seeds here (that will come in a later article), I can tell you that at our house, we now eat quinoa and buckwheat regularly. Also less usual but edible and nutritious are wild rice, amaranth, millet, teff and sorghum.

Maybe because they aren't "mainstream", these alternatives to wheat are frequently more nutritious than ordinary all-purpose wheat flour. Quinoa, for instance, is considered to rank nutritionally as high as milk, in terms of being a complete and balanced protein. Most of us know that whole wheat flour is vastly superior nutritionally to bleached white flour, which has had the most healthful parts stripped away.

Right after my daughter's diagnosis I went to an international market not too far away, where I found noodles made from rice and noodles made from beans, coconut flour and cassava flour, and still other ingredients I didn't even recognize. It took me a while to figure out how to cook some of them, since I don't read Chinese and my Spanish is rudimentary at best, but at least I was certain they didn't contain wheat. My point is that other cuisines do not rely as heavily as the current, mainstream American culture does on wheat, both as a filler and as a main dish.

Second best?

One pre-mixed version of gluten-free flour (available online, see sources, below) contains the following ingredients: garbanzo flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, sorghum flour, and fava bean flour. Usually xanthan gum or guar gum is added to improve the texture. There is also Amaranth flour, Buckwheat flour, Corn flour, and that's only A, B and C of non-wheat flours! Some people mix their own flours, trying to acheive the perfect consistancy that is neither too heavy, too bean-y, nor too insubstantial. I haven't tried that, well, at least not yet.

Rather than trying to imitate what I would do with wheat flour, I prefer to enjoy other foods when my daughter is around (which is less often than it used to be, see this article). She still loves those expensive gluten-free breads and gluten-free brownie mixes. Now, I 'bread' fish with coconut flour and make gravy with cornstarch instead of wheat flour. I serve rice and beans or chili more often. I still bake nut tortes, chocolate roll and Aunt Hélène's oatmeal cookies, none of which ever had any flour in them to begin with! Here are a few of my recipes:

1. Nut Torte

This recipe comes from Abby Mandel's Cuisinart Classroom, which came with the food processor I got in 1981. Both the machine and the cookbook are still with me. She recommends lining the pans with parchment paper. I'm not sure I've ever even seen parchment paper, but the circles I trace out of brown paper bags or plain white paper seem to work fine. Her recipe involves a second, even more complicated step: splitting each layer of the torte in half again horizontally, then spreading chocolate mousse (made during the 22 minutes it takes the torte to bake) between the layers, on the sides and on top. She does concede that you can make the torte by itself, luckily for me.

She makes it with walnuts, but it is just as wonderful when made with pecans or hazelnuts. And it is from one of her other recipes that I fell in love with the combination of dark rum, vanilla, and nutmeg. I think it is delicious in this recipe as well—I substitute one tablespoon rum and one of vanilla for the 2 tablespoons of rum that the recipe calls for. I serve it with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. And I eat the leftover torte for breakfast the next day!

Nut Torte

First, preheat oven to 350º F and make sure the rack is in the middle. Grease two 8" round pans and line with paper circles. Then grease the papers too. I use butter. For a gluten-free recipe, I dust everything with cornstarch; otherwise, sprinkle the paper and the sides of the pans with flour.

2 cups walnut pieces (8 ounces)

7 egg yolks and 7 egg whites

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee

2 tablespoons dark rum or vanilla, or1 tablespoon of each

(optional) nutmeg, salt, cinnamon, clove, other spices you like!

Process the nuts in a food processor for a few seconds, or grind them by hand with a nut grinder. If you must use a blender, only grind a quarter of a cup at a time, and stop and start often. Be VERY careful not to make nut butter—you want light and fluffy pieces!

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together for a few minutes, until thick and light colored. Add the nuts and all the flavorings, that is, everything else except the egg whites.

Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Carefully fold the egg whites into the nut mixture. Divide the mixture between the two pans, spreading to distribute it evenly.

Bake in a preheated oven for 22 minutes. Transfer the pans to wire racks to cool, then invert the pans onto the wire racks. Gently peel off the paper.

Spread 3/4 cup sweetened whipped cream between the two layers and on top. You can flavor the whipped cream with rum, vanilla, coffee or chocolate.

2. Chocolate Roll

For my grandmother, my father's mother, style and presentation were terribly important. For special occasions, she would serve chocolate roll with ice cream and chocolate sauce. (This was after a lengthy dinner featuring roast beef or a whole poached salmon.) My mother emulates her in a few, select ways; chocolate roll is one of them. (Not the whole poached salmon, I'm afraid.) This recipe is from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook of Little Brown & Co., 1965.

Chocolate Roll
Butter and flour* a jelly roll pan or a cookie sheet (or line with aluminum foil). Preheat oven to 350° F.

Beat 5 egg whites until stiff. Beat in 1 cup confectioner's sugar and 3 tablespoons cocoa.

In another bowl, beat 5 egg yolks until light and fluffy, and fold them into the egg white mixture.

Spread evenly in the pan and bake about 20 minutes, or until it shrinks from the edges.

Cover with a slightly damp dish towel, and cool in pan for half an hour. Invert onto the dish towel, trim off any uneven edges, and roll. My mother rolls it up in the dish towel until ready to serve. Then she UNrolls it, transfers it to a serving dish, and rerolls, filling it with sweetened whipped cream. Like her mother-in-law once did, she serves it with ice cream and chocolate sauce.

* "flour" contains gluten. If you're trying to be gluten-free, use corn starch or another type of flour, or simply use aluminum foil!

3. Aunt Hélène's oatmeal cookies

Aunt Hélène, my grandmother's sister, was famous for many wonderful recipes, but these fragile, flourless cookies are known throughout the generations of both sides of the family as "Aunt Hélène's oatmeal cookies." They have only four ingredients (egg whites, butter, sugar and oatmeal); they are simple but delicious! We bake them on cookie sheets lined with aluminum foil. They need to be carefully peeled off the aluminum foil, and can scorch because of the high proportion of white sugar, so watch them carefully. At Christmas I sprinkle them with a little red sugar and take them to my father. I make them with oatmeal that is processed in a "dedicated facility"; that is, where no cross-contamination from wheat or gluten can occur in harvesting, processing, packaging, storing or shipping.

Aunt Hélène's oatmeal cookies
Preheat oven to 350°. Beat 2 egg whites until stiff. In a large saucepan, melt 1 stick (salted) butter, stir in 1 cup sugar and 2 cups oatmeal. Fold in the egg whites. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheets lined with aluminum foil. Bake for about 14 minutes. Slide the aluminum foil off the hot cookie sheet onto a flat surface as soon as you take the cookies out, or they will continue to cook on the bottom.


The Celiac Disease Foundation


Celiac Sprue Association

Celiac Central

American Celiac


Vegetarians in Paradise

Sources for Gluten-Free Ingredients:

Arrowhead Mills

The Gluten-Free Mall

Better Batter

Bob's Red Mill


Photos: buckwheat is by dave and rye is by Farmerdill; thank you both for being good growers and good photographers. The rest are my own.