December 6, 2016

What Xanthan Gum Really Does to Your Bread

breadEver wonder what xanthan gum really does to your bread? If you’ve done much gluten-free shopping or baking, you’re familiar with xanthan gum. It’s an ever present ingredient in packaged gluten-free foods like bread, doughnuts, muffins, and cookies. It’s included in many gluten-free cake mixes, pancake mixes, and measure-for-measure flour blends. Gluten-free recipes often recommend the addition of xanthan gum.

Sometimes described as a thickener, stabilizer, or binder, xanthan gum is a polymer composed of sugar residues secreted by the microorganism Xanthomonas campestris — the same bacteria that creates black spots on broccoli and cauliflower. It was approved for use as a food additive in the US in 1968.

While it’s generally accepted within the scientific community that it is safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum per day, you may want to think twice before consuming too much due to its laxative effect. Many people with compromised or sensitive digestive systems report experiencing increased discomfort and bloating after consuming even minor amounts.

Now that you know what it is, let’s look at what it does. I’ve been baking bread — lots of bread. I’m trying to finish up the original recipes that will comprise Volume 1 of Cooking2Thrive’s Breads and Crackers recipe card set. I begin each new recipe by creating a gluten-free flour blend that will give me the mix of protein, starch, and texture needed to create a pleasing crumb and appropriate rise for the particular muffin, biscuit, cheese cracker or bread I’m baking.

After several tests, I baked a delicious sandwich bread with a good rise. My tasters loved it! My only concern was that the slices tended to crumble a bit on the 2nd day. Without too much thought I decided to try the traditional gluten-free solution to this problem. Don’t ask me why. I haven’t used gum in a recipe in the past four years.

Nonetheless, I went out and bought two small packets of xanthan gum and added 2.25 tsp to the bread recipe — slightly less than was recommended for a recipe containing just over 3 cups of flour. I left everything else the same. The dough immediately seemed drier and more gooey, not really more sticky to the hands, just more glommed together. The amount of rise totally changed. And the bread had a slimy texture I couldn’t stand to eat.

You may have read that xanthan gum increases the elasticity of gluten-free dough. That is not my experience. What it seems to do is function more like glue that pulls the flour grains closer together. In the case of bread, that means more density, a lower rise, and a slightly slick texture. 

Rather than abandon the idea of using xanthan gum, I baked a second variation using .25 tsp xanthan gum. The result was better, but still noticeably different from the original recipe containing no gum. Finally, I baked a loaf that included .125 tsp xanthan gum. As you can see in the illustration below, even that tiny amount changed the texture of the bread, but the result tastes good and holds together better than the original as the days go by.
When the final version of this recipe is published, I may have landed on an even better way to reduce crumbling over time, but you can benefit from my trial and error right away. Now that you can see what xanthan gum is really doing to your bread, you can explore the options of minimizing or eliminating xanthan gum for improved taste and texture.

November 29, 2016

When You Least Feel Like a Party is When You Need One

tableWhen you least feel like a party is when you need one most. I’m tired. My sons are worn out. The holidays are here with family expectations to fill. Sounds like a nightmare! So what am I doing? Planning a party. Have I lost my mind? Maybe, but here’s what I’m thinking…

It’s been an unusual year. I lost my mother. With that my sister & I inherited 3 tenants and numerous properties to clean up and oversee. I inherited my 96-year-old cousin’s care. Soon after, she broke her leg. She’s been to the hospital, rehab, temporary long-term care, rehab, and now to permanent long-term care. Add her house to the properties I’m maintaining — all of which are 3 hours away from where I live.

My ex-husband lost his mother. My kids lost two grandmothers. One son got married 1700 miles away just a month after the other had a baby. I had to be at each place for each event. One son starts finals today for his 5th semester in law school. The other one is working 18 hours a day to please some difficult clients.

I’ve traveled many times, accommodated extended family, sorted boxes of papers, dealt with appraisers, lawyers, and bankers, gathered information for 4 tax returns, and now keep my 4-month-old grandson two to three days a week. Oh, and I work.

Blah, blah, blah. The point is, we’re all stretched so thin physically, intellectually, and emotionally, we’re not much help to each other. In order to keep our sanity, we all have to be focused on self-care and being patient with each other. I won’t say it’s easy. I certainly won’t say it’s fun.

Which brings me back to the party planning. In my previous job, I had lots of people contact. In my current job, I have very little. Most of my people time is spent with the helpless. While I’m not a full-time care giver, I am experiencing some of the isolation that can result from overwhelming obligations at home. I recognize that I need more lighthearted moments, more joy, more fun!

I am not alone. In the US, about 43.5 million people have provided unpaid care to a child or adult in the past 12 months. About 75% of those are women. Unpaid caregivers report that positive activities in their daily lives are reduced by 27.2% as a result of caregiving activities.(1) And the truth is, when you’re emotionally and physically exhausted, it’s harder to enjoy anything.

I have no patience left for immature or selfish behavior. I don’t even have the energy to get mad about it. It just reduces me to tears which makes it even harder to socialize. I feel like I have to have my guard up or I might start crying. I have plenty of tears. I hold them in when I’m encouraging my cousin to overcome her fear and try to stand. I hold them in when the long-term care facility staff tries to push me into changing doctors. I hold them in when the facility staff can’t find the time to call me when the doctor’s orders change, but can call and email me repeatedly over internal staff gossip. I hold them in when we have to remain on the waiting list at a better facility for months and months.

Aware of the sheer number of tasks I must accomplish and the stress they bring, I regularly prioritize eating healthy, exercise, and rest. I recognize I must or I’ll be consumed by the weight of the responsibilities. What I haven’t done as well is spend time with people who renew me. While it may be lumping them altogether, a party seems like a good way to spend some time with my friends and have some fun. With a little planning, I think I can pull off an event that leaves me more energized than exhausted.

First, I’m carefully choosing the participants. I only want to invite people with whom I feel I can be myself. I am including those who leave me feeling upbeat. I am leaving for another time, friends who require emotional support themselves, special treatment to avoid offending them, and anyone who leaves me feeling drained for any reason. I’m not hesitating to include people I don’t know well, but who I feel good about. This can help me expand my circle of support.

Second, I’m partnering with some friends. My house is filled with baby stuff and I don’t have time to decorate for the holidays. A friend has agreed to host at her house. That eliminates clean-up and decorating time for me! The other friend travels for work, so she can run by the liquor store and provide drinks. Both are inviting their friends. I have an opportunity to meet new people who may turn out to be new friends.

Third, we’re throwing this together the week of the party. That means no time to build it up in my mind into something big. It also means I’m texting the invitations and not worrying about who can or can’t show up.

Fourth, I’m choosing food I can prepare in advance over a period of days. With one friend hosting and another bringing the drinks, much of the food falls to me. I’m keeping it simple. Party mix, sausage balls, and individual panna cotta topped with leftover cranberry/orange relish. I have milk and cream left from Thanksgiving so this is a great chance to use it.

I can supplement with a relish tray, some Wholly Guacamole with chips, and fresh veggies with hummus purchased from the store. Since I’ll be providing the food, I know there are plenty of gluten-free choices. That means I don’t have to worry about pre-eating or carrying food for me in my purse.

Finally, I intend to be mindful and present at the party. I want to fully experience the friends who show up. And, I intend to be open to receiving. If someone compliments me, I will take a moment to feel and appreciate the compliment. If someone offers assistance, help, or relief, I will accept it. If something is funny, I’ll laugh. I will not make anyone else’s enjoyment my responsibility. I will express appreciation to those I appreciate.

Yes, it can feel like a stretch for me to plan a frivolous event right now, but I know it’s important to my long-term mental and physical health and my family isn’t available to help at the moment. If I can shoulder the care of helpless relatives, I can undertake some self-care on my own behalf. It is not selfish. It is necessary.

If you have a caregiver in your family, please give them a break this holiday season. Don’t complain if the house isn’t decorated, a large meal isn’t planned, your present isn’t exactly what you wanted, or if they don’t want (or do want) to discuss how things are going at the dinner table.

Instead, do the dishes, take a shift with the person for whom they care, express appreciation even if it’s just for the effort it took to get you a gift and wrap it, invite them to a party or, better yet, plan a party for them ’cause when they least feel like a party is when they need one most.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

November 21, 2016

Lighten Up!

Make your table diabetes friendly when you lighten up on carbs this Thanksgiving. More than 9% of the US population has diabetes and more than an additional 25% has prediabetes. Combined, that’s about 1 in 3 of us. A few simple changes to your Thanksgiving menu can make it healthier for diabetics, prediabetics, and, well, everyone really.

I understand that tradition plays an important role in holiday menu selections. When I begin planning for Thanksgiving, I always envision my grandmother’s table. I can’t help it. The image just pops into my head and the next thing you know, I’m craving corn, green beans, cornbread stuffing and that cranberry relish made with frozen cranberries and oranges.

And I know that the holidays are a time when most of us allow ourselves a splurge on the calories. With that in mind, I’m not suggesting you suddenly serve nothing but raw kale and arugula with a squeeze of lemon. You don’t really have to change much at all.
Here are 5 simple ways to reduce the carbs in your Thanksgiving meal.
1)Leave the crackers and bread off the appetizer platter. If you serve dips, offer fresh vegetables or fruit instead. Better yet, serve deviled eggs, butternut squash soup, stuffed mushrooms, roasted nuts, or a relish tray.

2)Add turnips to the mashed potatoes. Turnips have a high water content, less starch, and fewer calories than potatoes. One cup of turnips has 34 calories and 8 grams of carbs. One medium potato has 161 calories and 37 grams of carbs. Try replacing 1/3 of the potatoes in your recipe with turnips that have been peeled and cubed. Boil them right along with the potatoes and adjust the seasoning as needed. I love the resulting mash.

3)Make a sweet potato soufflé. Instead of adding brown sugar and marshmallows to canned sweet potatoes, begin by baking fresh sweet potatoes. Mash the baked potatoes, add a little flour, seasoning, eggs, and sweeten with natural unsweetened applesauce. When you reduce the sugar, you automatically reduce the carbs.

4)Prepare less stuffing and fewer rolls. When there’s less on the table, everyone will automatically reduce their portions so that there will be enough to go around. You don’t have to make anyone share a roll, but provide one for each person rather than two or three.

5)Serve panna cotta for dessert. Adorned with fresh berries and served in glassware, panna cotta looks fancy, but only takes about 15 minutes of prep and cooking time (plus 6 hours of cooling time in the fridge). There’s one tablespoon of sugar in 6 servings and no crust to add carbohydrates.
panna cotta
If panna cotta is too much of a divergence from your traditional desserts, then consider cheesecake with a nut crust, a cherry tart, or an apple tart. If none of those suffice, you can still reduce carbs by limiting the number of dessert selections or the serving size.

As you can see, a few small changes can make a big difference when it comes to carbs. Why not make this Thanksgiving just a tiny bit healthier for the diabetic at your table? You’ll be making it healthier for yourself as well.

And once you’ve finished the meal, don’t forget to laugh. Life is always better when you lighten up!

November 14, 2016

Hosting Thanksgiving is Easy

Hosting Thanksgiving is easy when you set intentions. Are the holidays really right around the corner? They must be because I’m sitting here planning my Thanksgiving menu. It’s been awhile since I’ve done an all out Thanksgiving production and I’m wondering just how big it should be?

I know the point of the holiday is not the food, but I always look forward to a table full of freshly made dishes that I prepare only once a year. There’s no crossover between my Thanksgiving and Christmas menus because we celebrate Christmas with breakfast rather than dinner. Just thinking about that makes me want a steamy hot biscuit with strawberry jelly, but that’s beside the point.
Or maybe it’s not. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that we long for most – my Aunt Opal’s cherry pie, my grandmother’s beef and noodles, my mother’s cinnamon rolls made from canned biscuits. For you it may be the chicken soup your mom fixed when you were under the weather, or the grilled cheese sandwich she grilled with butter and served with tomato soup.

Obviously, it’s cliché to say that food tastes better when it’s made with love, but any dining experience is enhanced when the food is made by someone who cares how we feel; someone who shows up for Thanksgiving with a pie because they like to spend time with us; someone who hopes to bring us comfort. Offering and sharing food is one of the ways we express love beginning the first moment we hold our babies close to feed them.

There’s a scene in the movie “The Blind Side” that shows the Tuohy family focused on football and TV rather than each other on Thanksgiving Day until they realize their house guest Michael Oher is sitting at their dining table by himself. Seeing him there as alone at their table as he is in life, they are moved to gather around and share the meal with him. This sharing enriches the family and the bond they are forming with Michael. It’s a great illustration that we inherently understand breaking bread is an action affirming trust, confidence, comfort, and acceptance within a group.

For the host, a holiday meal, or any family gathering, is a delicate balancing act. If you go all out cooking for days making everything from scratch and no one seems to notice, it can be disheartening. If you go to a restaurant because you’d rather focus on the family than the food, you risk the ridicule of someone who thinks you’re being lazy or don’t care about family traditions. Which brings me back to the decision at hand. How large should I make this Thanksgiving’s production?

No matter what I’m deciding, I like to start by settling on some intentions. I’ve done this enough to recognize that my intentions will automatically reflect my priorities, so setting intentions and determining priorities are a simultaneous process (there’s a time saver right there). Setting intentions rather than goals gives me a path to feel successful even if the soufflé collapses and the pie crust is soggy.

So, what are my intentions for Thanksgiving?

I’m going to start with being kind to myself. That looks like not doing too much. It’s not unusual for me to work so hard to provide for other people that I feel worn out, so I have to be deliberate in my intent to prevent over-doing. Luckily, my sister has offered to bring dessert and rather than ask for pie, I asked for pie and cake. My daughter-in-law’s parents will also be joining us. Her mom offered to bring two vegetables. Instead of trying to make it easier for her by limiting it to one, I happily accepted the offer.

Next, I intend to make a workable timeline so I’m not rushing and flustered at the end. If I’m in a panic to get things done, I’ll be irritable and unable to enjoy my guests. Today I’ll review my menu and determine what can be done in advance and when I will do it. For the past two months, my now 4-month-old grandson has spent two to three days a week with me. When he’s here my work time is limited because he needs lots of tummy tickling. He’ll be here this week and next week, so a timeline is even more critical than in past years.

I intend to scale the menu to fit the time available. If that means there’s no pecan pie or fewer leftovers, then so be it. It won’t be the end of the world, and it won’t cause me to feel as though I’ve let anyone down.

I intend to tailor the menu to my guests’ dietary needs. There are only 8 of us this year, so I’ve had a chance to poll everyone to make sure each person will have plenty of options on the table. I have a friend who keeps a set of index cards noting the dietary restrictions and food dislikes of her close friends and family. As her guest, this makes a gathering easy to enjoy and I appreciate the thoughtfulness.

I intend to make everything from scratch. I am not suggesting that you should do this. For me, it means the food is more delicious and automatically free of preservatives, coloring, stabilizers, and artificial flavors. It also means I can control the amount of sodium and fat and be confident that everything is gluten-free.
I intend to make the table-setting beautiful, but simple. Using my grandmother’s tablecloth, real china, and beautiful serving pieces means candles or a simple bouquet will be all I need to add. Even though I can’t put china in the dishwasher, I like to use it for holidays plus I intend to let my kids wash the dishes. On years when I’ve had 25 guests, I’ve been known to sit the china atop folding tables covered in brown kraft paper scattered with crayons. Hey, I like weird juxtaposition and I have a lot of china.

I intend to be present in the moment once the guests arrive. Enjoying the company is more important than the food, the table, or the mess I just left in the kitchen. My dining room is separate from the kitchen so no one has to look at cluttered countertops while we’re eating.

I intend to make time for yoga and rest on Friday before driving to share leftovers with extended family.

I intend to make a list of things for which I’m grateful. It’s been a difficult and emotionally exhausting year. Remembering that even such a year has brought many things for which I’m thankful is a great way to refocus my energy on the positive.

With these intentions, I feel confident I’ll have a great Thanksgiving. My food may not be perfect. My front porch may not get swept. There may be a drop of dough on top of the stove or flour on the floor. None of that will matter. I will be able to let it go and focus on gratitude.

If you’re feeling dread or pressure about hosting Thanksgiving, consider setting intentions to make it easier. I can tell you from experience, it makes a huge difference for me.