By Jessica Hanewinckel
For Encinitas-based Elizabeth Kaplan, avoiding most conventional breads, cakes and cookies isn’t something she only does begrudgingly during Passover. Rather, it’s a lifestyle she and her family have adopted out of necessity. And actually, it’s even more restrictive than Passover (since she’d have to pass on the standard matzah, too), and — here’s the kicker — it’s not something she dreads. In fact, Kaplan, her husband David and their three kids Isabelle, Ryan and Dolan all happily live a gluten-free lifestyle (with 12-year-old Ryan also avoiding a host of other foods to which he’s allergic, and 3-year-old Dolan also steering clear of dairy). The common denominator? Gluten intolerance, and to a greater degree, celiac disease.
As Dr. Stephen Levinson, a Burbank-based gastroenterologist, explains, celiac disease occurs when the ingestion of gluten (a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat, barley, rye and other related plant species) sets off an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine. This reaction then causes malabsorption of essential nutrients, not to mention stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea and a host of other unpleasant digestive maladies. There’s no cure other than to simply stop ingesting any and all gluten. And, he adds, there’s a genetic component to this autoimmune disease.
“About 30 percent of the population [in Europe or descending from Europeans] actually has the genetic marker for celiac disease,” he says, adding that though this 30 percent is predisposed, only about three percent of that 30 percent actually go on to develop the disease. “There are either some genes that are not yet known or some environmental factors that unmask it [in those who de develop celiac].”
Though Dr. Levinson admits that he’s not aware of an increased predilection for celiac among Jews, for Ashkenazi Jews, who are part of the larger European group, the predisposition is there.
When Kaplan was in her 30s, she was diagnosed with celiac disease shortly after her son Ryan was diagnosed. Isabelle and Dolan are both gluten intolerant as well. (Her husband, Kaplan says, smiling, eats gluten-free in solidarity, though he doesn’t need to.) And after Kaplan was diagnosed, her uncle was, too.
When Kaplan first learned she and her family would have to forego all the delicious gluten-based foods she loved, she admits she had the same reaction a lot of people do upon learning their fate.
“When I looked into it, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, giving up all that? There’s no way,’” she says. “And that’s a lot of people’s reaction. They really can’t imagine giving up bread pasta, cake, muffins.”
But, she says, as soon as the family stopped eating gluten, they immediately felt better. Ryan, who’d been having grand mal seizures, stopped seizing, he was better able to focus at school, and the dark circles caused by allergies faded from under his eyes.
“It isn’t a problem anymore,” she says. “All around, everyone’s health is great.”
But the adaptation from a pretty average, albeit already healthy, American diet to a completely gluten-free one took some tinkering.
“Once I figured out what was going on, I knew we all had to go gluten-free,” Kaplan says, “and I just started playing around with recipes and figuring it out, and it kind of just took off from there.”
Going gluten-free isn’t necessarily an easy task, and figuring out how to convert conventional recipes to gluten-free without losing nutrition, taste, texture or quality can be tricky. But Kaplan was lucky. Not only had she grown up in a home with organic foods prepared from scratch, but she had always had a fascination with recipes and cooking from the time she checked out cookbooks in the school library as a kid, shut herself in her room to pour over her newest subscription copies of Bon Appetit or Gourmet magazines as a teen, and ran her own cheesecake business as a college student.
Before she was married, she took courses at the California Culinary Academy in the Bay Area and volunteered and took cooking classes elsewhere, too. So needless to say, if anyone had to be tasked with preparing three gluten-free meals a day for a family of five, Kaplan was a good person for the job.
In fact, Kaplan, who in the past worked in fundraising consulting and art education, decided to take her family’s unique circumstances a step further and share her knowledge of gluten-free cooking with the world two years ago.
Not only does she now speak publicly about the benefits of a gluten-free diet and conducts cooking and baking classes (where gluten-free challah, latkes and hamantaschen are often part of the repertoire) at Sur la Table and other venues, but she also created her own line of gluten-free baking mixes, The Pure Pantry (sold at health-centered supermarkets and natural foods stores) and released her first cookbook, “Fresh From Elizabeth’s Kitchen: Gluten-Free and Allergy-Free Recipes for Healthy, Delicious Meals,” in January. As an extra step of professionalism and to really fine-tune her skills, she even took a gluten-free baking series at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.
Now, her product line and cookbook are finding their way to countless grateful home chefs in need of an easier, tastier, healthier way to live their lives gluten-free.
“I had a book signing at a small bookstore,” she recalls, “and everyone had a story. There were those people who were just trying to figure [gluten-free eating] out, and there were those who needed help because it’s hard when you’ve got kids and you’re trying to entertain and be normal.”
In fact, it was that aspect — trying to please a whole family, including those who don’t eat gluten-free — that was important to Kaplan in the development of her cookbook.
“We tried hard to make The Pure Pantry products healthy and delicious, because so much of the stuff out there is junk, with sugar and white rice flour, and it’s not going to do you any good,” she says. “It may be gluten-free, but it’s not healthy, or it tastes like cardboard. So we really solved that problem. Everything tastes good and it’s nutritionally formulated, so if you’re eating a chocolate cake, it’s a healthy one, it tastes good, everybody likes it, and it’s not like you’re the only one eating it.”
As more and more healthy and tasty gluten-free products like Kaplan’s line supermarket shelves and as more restaurants offer gluten-free menu options, awareness — and diagnoses — are increasing. Says Dr. Levinson, celiac disease is much more recognized now, and the medical community’s understanding of the connection between celiac disease and a multitude of other health conditions is growing. Specifically, he mentions links between celiac and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, anemia, infertility and childhood growth retardation.
“There are all sorts of associated conditions,” he says (though, of course, correlation does not always imply causation).
Whether people find their way to Kaplan and her recipes due to celiac or some other reason for eliminating gluten from their diet, they’ll find a plethora of recipes (all tested, approved, and some even prepared by her kids, she says) for every course of a meal, and many are kosher.
“[My family doesn’t] keep kosher,” she says, “but what’s interesting is there are so many things I do that are kosher [style] anyway. All the Pure Pantry products are certified kosher. [In our home] we do cook all the Jewish foods and do all the holidays at our house. It’s easy to convert Jewish foods to gluten-free. I do kugle, matzah brie, matzah balls, latkes.
“[Our business] is growing. I can’t believe it, and I never imagined. I understood on a small level, but not on a global level, how gluten-free eating is growing. It’s amazing.”
Kaplan is holding a gluten-free challah baking class this fall at Temple Solel in Encinitas, where she and her family are members. The class is limited to temple members only and includes a lecture on going gluten-free in addition to the class. For more information, visit www.templesolel.net.
UCSD is home to the Wm. K. Warren Medical Research Center for Celiac Disease and is a good local resource for medical questions. Visit www.celiaccenter.ucsd.edu.
Learn more about Elizabeth, her story and her products, or purchase her cookbook, at www.thepurepantry.com. (Her cookbook is also available locally at Whole Foods in La Jolla and all Jimbo’s locations.)
Ryan’s Berry Blintzes
Makes 8 blintzes
1 batch homemade Gluten-Free Crepe batter (see recipe below) or 1 batch crepe batter using The Pure Pantry Gluten-Free Organic Old Fashioned Pancake and Baking Mix
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange peel
½ cup cottage cheese (for dairy-free, omit cottage cheese)
½ cup vanilla non-fat yogurt (or coconut vanilla yogurt)
½ cup whipped cream cheese (for dairy free, increase to 1 cup Tofutti cream cheese substitute)
½ teaspoon grated orange peel
1 cup strawberry fruit spread, preferably Croffer’s Organic
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh strawberries
½ cup vanilla yogurt (or coconut vanilla yogurt)
Prepare crepe batter as specified in Homemade Gluten-Free Crepes and add grated orange peel. Make crepes and layer between waxed paper.
Prepare filling by mixing cream cheese (or Tofutti cream cheese) with electric mixer until creamy. Add vanilla yogurt (or coconut vanilla yogurt) and cottage cheese (omit cottage cheese for dairy-free and increase Tofutti cream cheese to 1 cup) and blend. Mix in ½ teaspoon grated orange peel.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×12-inch baking pan with butter or vegetable shortening. Place a crepe on work surface. Place 1 tablespoon strawberry fruit spread in center of crepe and spread toward the outside edges of the crepe leaving a 2-inch border. Place 2 tablespoons cream cheese mixture in the center of the crepe. Fold in opposite edges of each side of the crepe, then roll one side up to make a packet (like a burrito). Place side by side in baking pan. Once all blintzes are complete, bake for 10 minutes.
Remove blintzes from oven. Stir remaining ½ cup vanilla yogurt until smooth. Pour ribbon of yogurt over blintzes and bake for 3 more minutes with pan on top shelf of oven. Place two blintzes on each plate. Top with blueberries and strawberries and serve.
Homemade Gluten-Free Crepes
Makes 8-10 large crepes
1 ½ cups Elizabeth’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see below)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ cups milk of choice (regular, rice milk or coconut milk)
1 teaspoon safflower oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whisk together flour blend and baking powder in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, oil and vanilla. Pout wet ingredients into the well in the flour mixture. Mix together until smooth. Batter can also be made in a blender. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Grease crepe pan with cooking spray. Preheat pan over medium-low heat. Using a ¼-cup measure or ladle, pour crepe mix into crepe pan and rotate in circular motion to spread the batter out to the edge of the pan. If batter does not spread easily, add 1-2 tablespoons of rice milk to batter. Once tiny bubbles have popped, lift edges of crepe with spatula and flip over. Cook for additional minute. Place cooked crepes on platter with waxed paper in between each crepe. Fill with favorite filling.
Elizabeth’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend
Makes 4 cups mix
1 ½ cups organic brown rice flour
1 ¼ cups organic white rice flour
½ cup organic sorghum (for cakes and cookies), or millet or amaranth (for breads, scones and biscuits)
½ cup organic potato starch flour
¼ cup organic tapioca flour
2 teaspoons xanthan gum