Cooking without gluten has become something of a trend in itself over the past few years, as a lifestyle choice as much as (in many cases) a medical necessity. When it comes to vegetables and meats, skipping wheat proteins is no big deal — but bring baking and pastry into the picture, and suddenly there’s some serious science at hand. On Shauna James Ahern’s blog Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, that science melds with art: not only does she develop virtually foolproof gluten-free versions of pie crusts, breads, and cakes, she also tells honest, soulful stories through words and pictures.
Gluten-Free Girl is a site we love because of Shauna’s inimitable storytelling style, candidly sharing the ins and outs of daily life (falling in love with a chef, raising a young daughter, running a restaurant) through the filter of what she’s cooking that day. But also because of the voice she brings to people with food sensitivities, restrictions, and allergies.
Here’s what Shauna had to say about her site:
Live since: May 31, 2005
Posting rate: about 3 times a week (sometimes twice if life announces it)
Geographic location: Vashon Island, Washington, just off Seattle
Why is it called Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef? When I was seriously ill in the spring of 2005, a friend of mine joked, “We just have to call you the sick girl!” (A little black humor helps in those situations.) When I was diagnosed with celiac, and flourished immediately on a gluten-free diet, the same friend said, “Now we just have to call you the Gluten-Free Girl!” When I went to start a blog, I liked that story. And I liked that alliteration. I never knew I’d be 44 years old and still known as a girl! A year after I went gluten-free, I met my husband, Danny. I introduced him on the blog fairly quickly, since we knew we were going to be together forever. And his presence changed the blog immediately. He’s a talented chef, and our recipes together were much better than the ones I created on my own. And so, a couple of years ago, we changed the name to Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I do the writing, and it’s in my voice, but believe me — the blog is an equal effort.
What’s been your most popular post? There have been a number of posts that seem to have struck a chord with readers. A huge number of people seem to love the love story between me and Danny, and particularly when it was unfolding. So that Meet the Chef post seemed to move a lot of readers, as did my Yes post, where I announced we were engaged. We let readers experience a bit of our wedding. One of the most powerful connections we felt with our readers is when we announced our daughter had been born and we were in the midst of a terrifying ordeal in the ICU. We were scared out of our minds and trying to stay strong. Reading comments from people all over the world who had come to our site to find a recipe for apple crumble and stayed because they liked us? It was an enormous help. People all over the world said they were sending out breaths and chanting in yoga classes and praying for her. We realized then that this was far more than food blog we were writing. We’ve been humbled by it since.
Probably the most popular post, however, in terms of comments and emails I received was this piece called Carry That Weight. I just lay myself bare with that one, talking about my struggle with my weight in the midst of Lucy’s surgery and a year of sleep deprivation and the stress of editing the manuscript of a cookbook with all this. And how I, like so many people, turned to food as comfort. The response to that one still astonishes me. However, people also love bread and pizza.
What’s your favorite post? Our favorite post was a quiet one. It’s when we wrote about bringing our daughter home from the hospital, finally, away from all those machines and the fear of the ICU. And we closed the door on our lives for awhile and just lived. We also made berry jam with all the berries friends had brought us in the hospital.
What’s something great that you’ve learned or that’s happened to you since starting your blog? I just wrote about this: learning to bake by ratios and weight instead of cups. When I first began baking gluten-free, I did as everyone else does. I substituted 1 cup of combined gluten-free flours for every 1 cup of all-purpose flour in a recipe. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it flopped. I didn’t understand why. About 18 months ago, I realized — through reading Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio — that I was missing the entire point. There’s nothing magic about a cup. It’s just that a cup of all-purpose flour usually weighs about 140 grams. (I say usually because every person measures differently and even gluten recipes flop if you put too much flour in.) So, if you substitute 140 grams of combined gluten-free flours for every 1 cup of all-purpose flour in a recipe, the baked good works.
This was liberation. So I’ve explained this and showed it and given out recipes. And I decided to not put the cup measurements on the recipes anymore. Each of the gluten-free flours weighs something different than the next flour. 1 cup of teff flour weighs 120 grams. 1 cup of sweet rice flour weighs 204 grams. Substitute one for the other by cup? That banana bread is going to be a disaster. This is why I don’t use the cup measurements anymore. Because I know that someone is going to make my recipe with the cups listed, ignore the grams, run out to corn flour and substitute with sorghum instead. And when those cookies are flat and dense, they’re going to blame the recipe and me. I’d rather have people succeed. And kitchen scales cost $20! I’d rather use the technique that is more precise, easier, and guaranteed of success.
What’s the usual process for developing one of your posts? Posts these days always come from the food first. Danny and I get jazzed about something that has just come into season. (There’s nothing in March. I’m so ready for spring.) Or a new cooking technique we want to demonstrate. Or a dessert we have converted that we know everyone will like. We cook it or bake it. I take photographs. We write the recipe. And then I have this blank screen facing me about what to write. That’s my favorite part, actually. That unknown. It always scares me. And it always surprises me.
What are your favorite ingredients and tools? Ingredients: good salt, lemons, fennel, garlic, pork of all kinds, chocolate, almond flour, olives, smoked paprika, potatoes, and anything that is in season at that moment.
Utensils: the battered old KitchenAid I have owned since 1995 and it’s still spinning out great baked goods every day. **
What are your favorite food and cooking resources?** We love ChefShop.com. They’re located in Seattle and the owners are friends of ours. They work to gather every great ingredient they can from around the world. A bottle of really good olive oil doesn’t have to be that expensive but it makes a big difference in a salad. We just bought a Thousand-Honey vinegar made in Umbria from them, and we just want to drink it with a spoon. We love cookbooks and own too many of them. But the book that inspires nearly every dish is The Flavor Bible. We’ve opened it so many times to see what ingredients go well with chocolate or beets or fennel pollen when we’re thinking of dishes that the pages are ripped and battered. We’ll always have it in our kitchen.
What photography equipment do you use? I have a beat-up old Nikon D-100. I see bloggers with these massive, new cameras, and I hope they’ve read the manuals! That’s a lot of camera. Mine is about 10 years old, I bought it off Craigslist, and it’s still going strong. I want to keep using it until I know everything about it possible and I feel bored. I’m nowhere close. I use a 35 mm lens most of the time. I also shoot film, which I’m going to be using more and more on the site with an old Nikon FE.
Where else can we find your work? My first book, Gluten-Free Girl, came out in October of 2007, and it’s still going strong. I’m really honored that I receive an email nearly every day from someone who has just found it and says it has lifted her/him out of the funk of first finding out that gluten has to go. The cookbook that Danny and I wrote together, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, came out in September and we’ve heard from a lot of people that they love that one too. (We were floored and honored when the New York Times said that it was one of the best cookbooks of 2010. My jaw’s still on the floor on that one.) We’re developing gluten-free recipes for the Food Network website now. The Washington Post asked us to develop a gluten-free king cake recently, which was wonderful fun. I write a regular column for Allergic Living. And you can always find me on Twitter.
What food blogs do you follow? There are so many food blogs now! I’m a little dizzied by it. When I first started mine, I think there were about 150 of us doing this weird little thing. Now there must be 100 times that. So I don’t really try to keep up. I just read the blogs of people who have become my friends through this journey. Molly Wizenberg is a dear friend and one hell of a writer, so I read Orangette. I also love The Wednesday Chef, 101 Cookbooks, In Jennie’s Kitchen, White on Rice Couple, Matt Bites, David Lebovitz, Eat All About It, Eat the Love, Celiac Teen, Fed Up with Lunch, What’s Gaby Cooking, Sprouted Kitchen, A Baking Life, The Yummy Mummy, Cannelle et Vanille, La Tartine Gourmande, The Pioneer Woman, Dorie Greenspan, Hogwash, Rambling Spoon, Use Real Butter, Not Without Salt, and Penny de los Santos’s blog, Appetite.
Do you know a blog or blogger who deserves to be featured in this space? Email a nomination — including a link to the site and a few sentences on why they’re worthy of love — to firstname.lastname@example.org.