It’s strange to fall out of love when you least expect it. When the object of your affection has lost its sheen, and you find yourself playing the part of a child again, sorting through your toys and falling madly in love with a shiny new doll to only abandon it when something new comes along. But you remember in those few halcyon moments how that doll consumed you, how you couldn’t imagine loving anything else with such ferocity, and you become surprised by just how quickly that love wanes, becomes dull around the edges, and one day you regard that doll with nostalgia. I once loved you, you might have said, and then you placed the doll on the shelf with the others, not even noticing the way its clothing fades. How the dust settles over its hair and face. Admittedly, you’ve become neglectful, careless, and one day the doll falls (you might have been running around, as you were prone to do) and its face shatters. For a moment your heart swells and breaks, but as quickly as that nostalgia comes it fades and what you remember is the bits of its face in the garbage bin.
Someone asked me about my love of food and how I write about it. I said that I loved how we have a propensity to be our truest selves when we settle down to a meal. I love the intimacy of eating, of sharing a primal need with someone else, and the kinds of stories that get told as a result of that connection. And while I love what the food is, I linger more on what the food can do, if that makes any sense. Food binds, creates, connects, and some of my most beloved memories have occurred while sharing a meal. I remembered sharing an early dinner with my friend Amber while we were in Bangkok. Evening fell, and we sat in the pool in the space between when parents and their children splashed their way around and when women in gossamer dresses and men in their cotton pants would order cocktails, light their smokes. Amber and I had two watermelon drinks and a meal off the pool menu, but I remembered feeling sick because we had laughed so hard. That we told each other private things about ourselves–the kind of stories you share when confined in a space for long periods of time. We left that trip better friends than when we arrived, and I can’t help but think that food was at the center of all that magic. As it continues to be.
So, this shiny doll of which I spoke–what of it? I never imagined that I wouldn’t love baking. That the alchemy of simple ingredients would cease to please me, but over the past few months this is precisely what’s happened. Perhaps it’s because I still haven’t truly accepted baking without gluten and dairy. Because while limitations have liberated me in terms of cooking, I feel shackled when I turn to baking. And while some recipes have surprised me by their taste and flavor profiles, I can’t help but think this:
Gluten- and dairy-free baking simply isn’t as good. I’m sorry, it just isn’t.
I’ve made extraordinary cookies and loaves with coconut oil (an oil I do love and used even before I was diagnosed with my food sensitivities); I’ve performed magic tricks with almond and coconut milk, but still. Not the same. Never the same. So I’ve been baking a little less, as you might have noticed. Cooking has been that new glinting object, and I only hope that when I can eat gluten and dairy again, I can return to the kitchen with a newfound affection, even more so because I’m forced to regulate how much gluten and dairy I eat for the rest of my life. So the pastry I make better be worth it because another one won’t come around for a couple of weeks. No more of the random cookie or the pumpkin loaf on the regular. The stakes are higher now, I suppose.
It’s true what they say that you crave what you consume. If you eat garbage, you crave garbage–it’s as simple as that. With very minor exceptions (read: accidents), my diet has been free of gluten and dairy since July, and I don’t crave pasta, bread, cheese or cookies the way I use to. I may pass a bakery and get a waft of fresh bread that will momentarily put my heart on pause, but as quickly as that need comes it dissipates. So it’s natural that when I broke down this week and savored a piece of crumb cake (the real stuff) the size of my thumb (literally) and dealt with the relentless four-hour itchfest as a result (true life), invariably I craved coffee cake.
So I made it and tried to dress it up in finery, and it was good, yes, but not the same. I felt mechanical in the kitchen, and when it was time to have my small piece of cake I had it and moved on. Perhaps it was because I didn’t savor it in the context of time spent with someone, but baking left me cold. And I’m not sure if this is something temporary or the definition of forever. I just know, right now, if given the choice, I’d rather be cooking.
INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Fork & Beans
For the cake
1 1/4 cup unsweetened almond (or coconut) milk
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 cups gluten-free flour (I recommend Cup4Cup so you don’t have to worry about xanthan gum)
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp coconut oil, melted and slightly cooled
For the crumb topping
3 tbsp + 2 tsp gluten-free flour
1/3 cup coconut palm sugar
1 tbsp cane sugar
pinch of salt
2 tbsp. melted coconut oil
1/2 cup vegan chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted coconut flakes
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix the almond (or coconut) milk and vinegar and set aside to curdle. This should take seven minutes.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugars, baking powder and salt. Whisk the oil into the milk and vinegar mixture. Using a fork, add the combined wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing well. Warning: the mixture will be a bit thick and not as fluid as normal batter, it’s okay. Breathe it out. You’re just not in the fanciful world of gluten anywhere where every cake made sense. You’re in the world of vegan, a world of which I’m still trying to navigate.
Pour the mixture into a well-greased 8inch cake pan (I use coconut oil), and, using a spatula (or fork), smooth it out until the batter covers the pan and is even. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the flour, sugars and salt. Add in the melted oil and mix until you form clumps. Add the mixture (you won’t think there’s enough, and it’s okay, really), chocolate chips and toasted coconut flakes to the cake.
Bake 25-30 minutes or until knife is clean when inserted in the middle. Rest on a rack until it is cooled completely, approximately 1 hour. Use a knife around the edges and turn the cake out onto a dish. Serve at room temperature.