29 August 2010

Health & Nutrition Goal - Week of August 29, 2010

I did very well with last week's goal to increase my hydration. I started bringing my water bottle to work and taking time to take swigs between customers, which really helped. I am still struggling with the restrictions on when I can eat while working (only on breaks every 2-3 hours, and I am usually forced to chow down with very limited time), but my hydration habits at work have improved tremendously. I've also starting drinking at least an 16 ounces of water before going to sleep each night and keeping not one but two full glasses of water on my bedside table (if I could have IV fluids all night I totally would). I made simple, manageable changes I will be able to continue moving forward so I'm happy. I also plan to treat myself to a new water bottle soon (I had to throw mine away at the gate entering a concert earlier this summer and have been using a $1.99 water bottle from Target ever since).

You may have noticed the title of this week's nutrition goal post has changed to include health as well as nutrition. As this is my blog (and my life) and I make the rules, I've decided to expand my weekly goals to include overall health goals in addition to nutrition. I want to incorporate all aspects of wellness into my goals. The primary reason in making this change now is my increasing interest in the safety of health and beauty products.

Did you know our body's absorb approximately 60% of the toxins and chemicals in the lotions, shampoos, hand soaps, cosmetics and other products we use every day? I was astonished to also find out that most of the ingredients in these products have never been tested by the FDA and are virtually unregulated by the government. Crazy, right?! In a world where scientists and medical professionals are frantically trying to understand why cancer, disease, illness and autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease are on the rise, I can't help by wonder how much of these issues can be attributed to our society's increasing obsession with personal appearance and the steps we take to achieve so-called perfection.

So my goal for this week is to pledge that each time I run out of a conventional beauty product, I will replace it with a safe, natural product. I can't afford to replace them all at once, nor do I like wasting anything, so I am looking forward to gradually implementing new items into my daily beauty and cleansing routine. As many products claim to be organic and natural but still contain carcinogens and other unwanted chemicals, I will be sure to thoroughly research my choices before purchasing. Naturally I am also concerned about the efficacy of these items; I'm very much a creature of habit when it comes to my simple beauty routine. I will be starting this process with my make-up removing cleansing cloths I use every evening before bed -- I am almost out of them and I buy them frequently so it will be a good first purchase.

If you have any interest in learning more about the potential dangers lurking in your medicine cabinet and make-up bag, a great resource is No More Dirty Looks, a book and Good Magazine column by Alexandra Spunt and Siobhan O'Connor. As this very informative interview in Time Magazine highlights, like me, these women were completely clueless until they realized they were blindly trusting the products they use daily were safe and harmless, which is false! Spunt and O'Connor are also realistic and do encourage using your favorite conventional products for special occasions, an idea I am very much behind.  You can also find out the toxicity levels of products you use at Skin Deep: Cosmetics Safety Database -- it's fascinating and disturbing how unsafe popular products are. Become an informed consumer today.

27 August 2010

Gluten-Free Restaurant Review: Zing! Pizza

On Wednesday evening my busy schedule finally allowed for me to attend Gluten-Free Slice Night at Zing! Pizza in Cambridge's Porter Square. As I hadn't eaten pizza since June (dinner at Charley's with my friend Joy), I was beyond excited. I love pizza! (then again, who doesn't?) Their gluten-free crust is provided by Glutenus Minimus Bakery in Belmont (a favorite of mine) and quite delicious.

I was especially anxious to try to the Blue October -- roasted butternut squash sauce topped with baby spinach, mozzarella cheese, caramelized onions and blue cheese crumbles. I had never had squash on pizza and I absolutely loved it. Combined with the onions and cheeses on a crispy crust, it was pizza perfection. I will definitely order a whole pie sometime this fall and enjoy with a bottle of red wine.

The other slice I tried was the Capitola -- sheep's milk feta cheese, baby spinach, mozzarella cheese and roasted red peppers. It was still very good, but in comparison to the Blue October, I just wasn't all that impressed. Zing! is hoping to eventually hold Gluten-Free Slice Night weekly but right now it's only a few times per month. Their tiny restaurant was absolutely packed with local twentysomethings and suburban families alike so it would be in their best interest to accommodate these hungry gluten-free patrons more often.

I did have one customer service issue in that I ordered a slice of a pizza variety which was still being baked in the oven and was told they would bring it to me when it was ready. Cut to 15 minutes later and still no pizza. I approached a staff member who profusely apologized and gave me a slice of another flavor  of my choice, as the Augustus Classicus had already sold out.

Although I obviously didn't try it myself, my dining companion really liked his "regular" pizza (The Sundance Kid -- tomato sauce, turkey sausage, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions and parmesan) so Zing! Pizza is a win for everyone. Check them out at 1923 Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of Porter Square, easily accessible by the T and metered parking. To be fair, I will have to check out Stone Hearth Pizza soon, as they also have gluten-free pizza.

25 August 2010

Gluten-Free Recipe: Zucchini Carrot Raisin Pecan Bread

It's been unseasonably rainy and cool in Boston the past few days, a preview of fast-approaching autumn. The weather has made me crave comfort foods such as soup, roasted meats, macaroni and cheese and hearty breads. Zucchinis are abundant right now and I've been mulling over creating my own gluten-free zucchini bread recipe for days. So I made a deal with myself -- I can bake today, if and only if, I start packing to move this weekend (or at least begin to de-clutter and organize).

As I began to tackle the papers in my desk drawers, my apartment became filled with the spicy aroma of the bread baking and I kept checking the timer. I am happy to report the recipe was a success and totally worth the wait -- moist and hearty, nutty and spicy. All the flavors work together and bread would legitimately pass as a regular bread made with wheat flour. Try other variations with dried cranberries, crystallized ginger or chocolate chips; these would also make fantastic muffins. I'm also contemplating a chocolate zucchini bread/muffins (adding cocoa powder) for later this fall so stay tuned.

Zucchini Carrot Raisin Pecan Bread

1/3 cup oil
1 cup turbinado raw sugar (I use Whole Foods 365 brand)
2 eggs
1/2 cup natural unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups Bob's Red Mill All-Purpose Gluten-Free Baking Flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons xanthan gum
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ginger
Zest of one large orange
1 large zucchini, grated
1 large carrot, grated
1/2 cup pecans (or walnuts)
1/2 cup raisins

Combine oil, sugar, eggs, applesauce and vanilla in large bowl and mix well. Combine flour, baking powder, xanthan gum, salt, spices and orange zest in medium bowl. Slowly add dry mixture into wet mixture until just combined (do not panic if this does not look like enough batter yet). Add zucchini, carrots, pecans and raisins until just combined (batter volume should nearly double). Pour into 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 loaf pan and bake in 350 degree oven for 65-70 minutes until brown and knife/toothpick comes out clean. If top of loaf browns too quickly, cover with foil. Cool, serve and enjoy!

23 August 2010

Gluten-Free Recipe: Chocolate Banana Almond Vegan Overnight Oats

Since first making them last week, I've had a variation vegan overnight oats for breakfast every day. I love preparing them the night before, experimenting with new ingredients and ratios, and how filling they are. My recipes prepare enough for a hearty breakfast with enough leftover small snack later in the day, which I really like. The oats I made last night were so wonderful I wanted to share them. Enjoy!

Chocolate Banana Almond Vegan Overnight Oats
1/3 cup Bob's Red Mill Certified Gluten-Free Rolled Oats
1/2 cup chocolate almond milk (I used Almond Breeze Unsweetened Chocolate)
1 packet Amazing Grass Green SuperFood Drink Powder (Cacao Infusion flavor would also work well)
1/2 medium ripe banana, mashed
1 heaping tablespoon chia seeds (I buy Navitas brand)
1 heaping tablespoon flaxseed meal (I buy Bob's Red Mill brand)
1 tablespoon natural almond butter or other nut butter (right now I'm using Blue Diamond Homestyle Creamy Almond Butter)
3 medium strawberries, sliced (or other fresh berries)

Combine oats, almond milk, banana, Amazing Grass powder, chia seed and flaxseed in small bowl and mix well (I used a whisk). Cover and refrigerate overnight. Mix in nut butter and berries. Add extra almond milk to thin if desired. Heat in microwave 45-60 seconds (oats will be room temperature) and enjoy!

22 August 2010

Nutrition Goal - Week of August 22, 2010

Last week's nutrition goal to eat more greens didn't go over as well as I had planned. I'm still adjusting to my new job and preparing to move and start classes, so my energy to cook dinner severely diminished. As a result, I made very simple meals and also went out to dinner twice. I will still carry this goal into this week and make sure I have leafy green vegetables on hand so I have no excuses.

This week, my nutrition goal is to hydrate more. This is very simple and something of which I have always been very cognizant, but the way my body has been behaving lately, it's like I'm not drinking any water at all. My analysis is the combination of now being on my feet six to eight hours a day at work plus starting my B.A.A. Half Marathon training plan has altered my physiology. I've also admittedly been anxiety-ridden in anticipation of all these major life changes happening at once. My metabolism has also gone into overdrive and I'm constantly hungry. I'm trying to eat more wholesome, filling foods and also eat and drink more throughout the day. I start the Nutrition & Dietetics program at Simmons next week and I am SO EXCITED to begin to learn about the human body and its dietary needs in-depth.

21 August 2010

More Gluten-Free Favorites

I realized it's been over a month since I shared new gluten-free products I've tried and liked. Here are a few with more to follow later this week...

Simply Decadent Cookie Dough Gluten-Free Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert - Did you know Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream was invented by Ben & Jerry's during our/my lifetime? As an ice cream addict, I always crave ice cream with lots of chunks, toppings and additions. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough was never a flavor I particularly lusted after until I lost my ability to consume it. My WFM coworkers and customers alike have been raving about Simply Decadent products so I decided to purchase their gluten free Cookie Dough flavor during my last grocery shopping expedition. I truly love this product. The "ice cream" has a very rich, creamy flavor with a subtle hint of coconut. The cookie dough chunks are large, abundant and taste like regular old cookie dough. This product deserves a gold star. I'm anxious to try their other flavors as well.
I purchased chia seeds to add to my vegan overnight oats as well as baked goods and other meals. Often described as a superfood, chia seeds have "long used by the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans as a staple food along with corn and beans... Chock full of healthy omega fats, protein, antioxidants, and dietary fiber, the little chia seed goes a long way." Along with flax seed meal, chia seeds are another fabulous food to implement into your daily dietary habits. They are also becoming popular with runners due to the outrageously popular literary adventure Born To Run. Navitas brand chia seeds are raw, gluten-free, kosher, vegan, and 100% organic; I purchased them in the Whole Body department of Whole Foods Market ($6.29 for 8-ounce package).

LaraBar (new flavors) -- I have discussed LaraBars many times on this blog, as I'm a huge fan of their delicious and nutritious bars. Much to my delight, last month they released four new flavors, all of which could easily substitute for dessert. Carrot Cake is my overall favorite new variety -- each bar provides 25% of the Daily Value of vitamin A, is a good source of potassium and is also ½ serving of fruit. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (are you sensing a trend here?) and Chocolate Chip Brownie are not quite as indulgent, but taste fantastic frozen then thawed for 10-15 minutes (an amazing tip from Alysa). Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip is a bit too rich for me, but I find myself keeping one on hand lately.

Ian's Natural Foods Allergen Friendly Chicken Nuggets -- Earlier this summer when visiting my parents in New Hampshire, I bought Ian's chicken nuggets because the grocery store in our rural area didn't carry many frozen, easy gluten free options (I used to be a huge fan of Morningstar Farms veggie burgers and other vegetarian products, but they are all made with wheat protein so they are now off-limits). They have since become a staple of my go-to simple meals. Paired with natural unsweetened applesauce (I despise ketchup so I've always dipped my chicken nuggets in applesauce -- strange, I know), asparagus and Food Should Taste Good tortilla chips, and can create a nutritious meal in about five minutes. Ian's makes a lot of allergen friendly products including fish sticks, breakfast sandwiches, French bread pizzas and French fries, which I may eventually try when seeking an easy frozen meal.

Bionaturae Gluten Free Pasta -- I was quite happy with my Schar brand gluten free pasta until my family purchased two bags of Bionaturae brand for me when on vacation in the Thousand Islands in July. The recipe took over a year to develop (by Italians and an American in 1994) and it shows in the final product, a combination of organic rice flour, organic rice starch, organic potato starch and organic soy flour. It's a bit pricey (over $4 per bag) but being half Italian/Sicilian, I will pay the extra money for a quality, tasty pasta.

20 August 2010

Gluten-Free Recipe: Vegan Overnight Oats

If you read any health and fitness blogs, you have undoubtedly seen other bloggers frequently gobbling up vegan overnight oats for breakfast. I decided to it was finally time for me to join the frenzy and attempt my own vegan overnight oats creation based upon ratios and ingredients I've seen used. Most people use chia seeds instead of flax seed meal, but it was a suitable, nutritious substitution. Bananas are often used in place of applesauce, but I wanted to save mine for a work snack today.

After preparing my concoction and placing it in the refrigerator, I couldn't wait to try it! I woke up this morning tired and hesitant to get out of bed immediately, but then I remembered my 'science experiment' waiting in the kitchen. So delicious! This combination is very nutty and well seasoned, but also sweet. It's a very filling meal (I have a few spoonfuls left in the bowl I am too full to finish) and definitely a winning way to kick-start your day. I'm looking forward to creating other vegan overnight oats recipes in the future. Especially as my schedule gets busy when classes start, having breakfast already prepared will be a huge help.

Vegan Overnight Oats

1/3 cup Bob's Red Mill Certified Gluten-Free Rolled Oats
1/2 cup almond milk (I used Almond Breeze Unsweetened Vanilla)
1/4 cup natural unsweetened applesauce
1 heaping tablespoon flax seed meal
1 tablespoon ginger syrup (I used The Ginger People) or maple syrup
Dash cinnamon
Dash nutmeg
1 tablespoon natural almond butter or other nut butter
3 medium strawberries, sliced (or other fresh berries)

Combine oats, almond milk, applesauce, flax seed, syrup and spices in small bowl and mix well (I used a whisk). Cover and refrigerate overnight. Mix in nut butter and berries. Heat in microwave 45-60 seconds (oats will be room temperature) and enjoy!

Update 08.21.2010 - I purchased chia seeds and added 1 tablespoon to this morning's oats along with my flax seed meal. Fantastic addition!

(note: I didn't include any pictures with this post because the oats looked very unappetizing, but I assure you they are fantastic)

17 August 2010

More Gluten-Free Goodies - Gingersnap Molasses Cookies

Ginger has always been a favorite spice in my family, especially in sweet treats like gingerbread and gingersnaps. In high school I devised a recipe for what I liked to call Gingersnap Molasses Cookies. Not quite a gingersnap, because I prefer a softer, chewier cookie, but not quite a molasses cookie due to all the spices. I became famous for them amongst friend and family -- the perfect balance of spicy, salty and sweet. People argued over whether they taste best warm from the oven, cooled later on or even three days later. They truly are a favorite of nearly everyone who tries them. I have even been told I could start a business just selling those cookies, that's how delicious they were. My techniques in baking these cookies are very specific; my brother has tried several times to bake them since I moved out of my family's house and he can never get it quite right.

My new, obviously gluten free as well as vegan, recipe has gotten rave reviews from two of my best friends and I have not been able to stop eating them as well, so they are definitely another big hit. Tonight my dear friend Liz and I enjoyed the cookies as ice cream sandwiches filled with local Salted Caramel Batch Ice Cream and a bottle of Malbec. Combined with our delightful conversation, it was a perfect pairing. Follow my directions exactly and you will be quite pleased with the results!

Gina's Gluten Free Vegan Gingersnap Molasses Cookies
adapted from BabyCakes Bakery

3/4 cup coconut oil
1/3 cup natural unsweetened applesauce
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups cane sugar
2 cups Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup flax meal
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoons nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking sooda
1 1/2 teaspoons xanthan gum

In medium bowl, combine the oil, applesauce, salt, molasses, vanilla and cane sugar. In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, flax meal, spices, baking soda and xanthan gum. Carefully add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until just combined. Chill dough in refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.

Roll spoonfuls of dough in palms of hands until 1.5 inch diameter round ball is formed. Place cookie dough balls on greased cookie sheet at least 2 inches apart. Gently flatten each cookie dough ball with the heel of your hand (to ease in spreading while baking). Bake for 12-14 minutes, until dough begins to crisp along edges but center does not nearly look done. Allow cookies to cool on hot cookie sheet for 5 minutes, then gently place on large piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper to further cool. Do not use a regular cooling rack or the hot cookies will become misshapen! Cookies will keep 3-4 days in airtight container and also freeze well.

Note: Do not double this recipe! The ratios need to be adjusted. I had my first baking blunder in years attempting to double them this weekend.

16 August 2010

Nutrition Goal - Week of August 15, 2010

Don't think I forgot about my new weekly nutrition goal although I did not post yesterday! Last week's goal of replacing almond milk in my breakfast cereal was very successful. I actually prefer the extra nutty flavor the almond milk adds to the meal -- this will be a very easy transition to continue going forward.

This week's goal is to eat more greens. I could just say eat more vegetables, but I am particularly interested in eating more leafy, green vegetables such as spinach, kale and arugula. I's not that I do not enjoy eating these types of vegetables, I just never seem to crave them despite their fantastic nutritional properties and delicious taste. But the produce section at Whole Foods Market is filled with so many varieties right now and I am very much looking forward to experimenting with them in my kitchen this week. I will be sure to share recipes I deem worthy of sharing.

09 August 2010

Nutrition Goal - Week of August 9, 2010

I recently had the brilliant idea that each week I am going to create a nutrition goal for myself in order to improve my overall diet, health and wellbeing. Each week's goal will carry over into the next and therefore become a standard of my daily life. This means by the end of 2010 I will have made 21 changes in my life! Making small changes transitions into making big changes. I hope you may also be inspired to analyze your diet and do the same.

My goal for this week is to replace skim milk with almond milk in my breakfast cereal. I love milk more than most adults and don't understand why so many people stop drinking milk when they grow up. From reading books like The Kind Diet plus articles and blog posts, as well as ongoing stomach discomfort, I am beginning to question my body's ability to process lactose. I already used almond milk when making smoothies, so it's not a new food being added to my diet, but rather a substitution. We'll see if I notice any difference in my body after making this adjustment.

I have been purchasing Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk, which is in shelf-stable packing for $1.99 at both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Only 40 calories, 3 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 0 grams of sugar in each serving of this lactose free, low glycemic and gluten free beverage. Try it out! There are even coupons $1 off coupons available on their website.

Gluten-Free Recipe: Mascarpone Polenta

My life has been quite a rollercoaster the past few months. So many unexpected, drastic changes have set me on a path I never imagined, but feel very blessed to have found myself on. Each day I experience such a wide range of emotions while reflecting upon past events and anticipating my exciting new endeavors -- happiness, anxiety, passion, hope, fear, pride, regret, enthusiasm, love, frustration, anger, excitement -- it's all there to make an overall confused but very much alive Gina.

Obviously a huge part of my quarterlife crisis has been navigating the challenges of my new gluten-free diet. But just because I stopped eating gluten and felt better does not mean my stomach issues have vanished entirely. Unfortunately, it's very far from it. Determining what symptoms are caused by stress and anxiety vs. something I ate vs. something I didn't eat vs. natural occasional stomach discomfort everyone suffers has been daunting. I'm keenly aware I have eaten far too many cookies in the past few days (they are seriously so incredibly good), but am also very cognizant of my varied diet the past few days. Ever since the incident at Treat Cupcake Bar, I just have not felt the same. Certainly having my body "poisoned" with gluten can and did have very negative ramifications, but I should have been able to bounce back, and I have not. I've been further researching making other adjustments to my diet (dairy-free, vegetarian, etc) to continue my quest for health and will undoubtedly share my discoveries and experiments in future posts.

Saturday afternoon after catching up with my wonderful friend Jessica over smoothies and cookies in Davis Square's Statue Park, I stopped at Whole Foods Market in Cambridge to buy ingredients for dinner. Unsure of my menu, only knowing I wanted to prepare a delicious, satisfying meal in my kitchen, I ended up purchasing a beautiful sockeye salmon fillet and mascarpone cheese (from Vermont Creamery - it is indisputably the best I have ever had). All the other necessary ingredients for my simple menu were already in my pantry at home.

Chef Barbara Lynch has always been one of my favorite Boston chefs. A true embodiment of the American dream, she has established a culinary empire in Boston rivaled by no one, male or female (this Inc. Magazine profile in her words is terrific, as is this Boston Magazine piece). Her cookbook, Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition, is filled with fantastic French and Italian inspired dishes for the accomplished home cook. On Valentine's Day this year, I prepared her Seared Duck Breast with Spiced Cherries, Braised Kale and Mascarpone Polenta, and it was without a doubt the best meal I have ever prepared. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Although I don't often have reasons to prepare duck breast (one of my absolute favorite indulgences), the polenta is a dish I have continued to include in my cooking. Still being able to eat corn, rice and potatoes has been such a lifesaver in my transition into gluten-free living. You will be shocked what a little cornmeal, butter, milk and cheese can become in this simple, hearty and delicious recipe. I paired the polenta with the salmon (seasoned with lemon juice and spices, baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, foil covering the baking dish) and a glass of cabernet sauvignon (I am not a follower of the "white wine with fish" belief) and I was more than content.

Creamy Mascarpone Polenta
adapted from Stir

2 cups milk (I always use skim)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal (I use Arrowhead Mills Organic)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese (I use Vermont Creamery)
Salt and pepper

In large saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil. Pour the cornmeal slowly into the milk, whisking all the while to prevent clumping. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add 1.5 tablespoons of the butter, season with two teaspoons salt and a few good grinds of pepper, and let the polenta cook gently, stirring occasionally, until its thick and the cornmeal is tender (about 20-30 minutes). Stir in the remaining 1.5 tablespoons butter and then add the mascarpone and cook an additional 5-8 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with more salt and pepper if needed and serve immediately. Serves 2-3 as side dish and 1-2 as main course. Bon appetit!

07 August 2010

Gluten-Free Goodies - Chocolate Chip Cookies

For a girl who has wanted to be a pastry chef her entire life, I haven't been doing much baking lately. The heat of summer combined with a bit of resentment toward my new gluten-free lifestyle has kept me out of the kitchen much more. But something in me clicked yesterday and my usual constant desire to cook and bake up a storm resurfaced full force (as you can see from the pictures below, I love any excuse to use my Cooknook Cookbook Holder, one of my best purchases ever).

Perhaps it had something to do with finally being able to check the BabyCakes cookbook out of the library after weeks of waiting. BabyCakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York's Most Talked-About Bakery is the cookbook of a (you guessed it) hip allergen and special diets friendly bakery in Manhattan. Everyone absolutely raves about their insanely delicious baked goods, even those without dietary restrictions; celebrities and civilians alike flock to BabyCakes to appease their sweet tooth. Top Chef head judge and James Beard Award winning chef Tom Colicchio (who I creepily dream about sometimes and therefore often feel is my friend in real life) wrote the forward; Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Jason Schwartzman all profess their love of BabyCakes in print! Unfortunately, I've never had the pleasure of eating at BabyCakes (despite being a Yankees fan, I don't get to Manhattan very often) but thankfully with the publication of their cookbook I can at least attempt to replicate their gluten-free goodies at home.

Deciding exactly which recipe to try first from the cookbook was no easy task -- Ginger Peach Corn Muffins, Chocolate Shortbread Scones with Carmelized Bananas, Red Velvet Cupcakes and even Almond Palmer recipes are included in this gorgeous book, which also features an extensive glossary of ingredients and tools, list of resources and purveyors and helpful guides on technique. Eventually I determined my first real foray into gluten-free baking should be simple. Chocolate Chip Cookies immediately came to mind, and the gorgeous image accompanying the recipe solidified my choice.

Despite knowing I am a talented aspiring pastry chef, baking something not only gluten-free but also vegan made me a bit nervous; baking without eggs, butter or wheat flour can go oh so very wrong. Some of my fears were quieted when after mixing coconut oil, applesauce, salt, vanilla and evaporated cane juice together, the mixture looked (and tasted) nearly exactly like mixing butter, eggs, sugar and vanilla. It was quite amazing actually! Combined with flour, flax meal, baking soda and xanthan gum, the resulting batter looked normal and tasted just as delicious as any other cookie dough (without worrying about salmonella poisoning as a plus).

After approximately 15 minutes in the oven, my apartment was filled with the glorious smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, which looked divine. I patiently waited for them to cool down a bit, then took my first bite. A thin cookie with crispy edges and a chewy center, as well as a subtle hint of coconut. I was in love - and so proud of myself! I truly could not believe the end result of mixing such seemingly random ingredients together to achieve such fantastic results.

The cookies have since been approved by my roommates and my dear friend/aspiring vegan Jessica, and have also been continuously taste-tested by the baker herself. I'm so in love with these cookies! Next time I am going to experiment with adding a touch of cinnamon and also some crystallized ginger, or perhaps some walnuts.

In this recipe, I was most intrigued by the use of coconut oil in place of butter. As the author, Erin McKenna, states in the cookbook "Coconut oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, is packed with lauric acid, stores in your body as energy and not fat, and supports the proper function of the thyroid, thus stimulating the metabolism" - wow! I remember my mother, who did an amazing job raising her four children on healthy foods, having a list of the Top 10 Foods You Should Avoid posted on our refrigerator when I was growing up. Coconut oil was on this list, so I've been surprised to learn how good it really is for you, and intrigued by changes in nutrition research (can you tell I am getting really excited to start school this fall?). I also love how applesauce and flax seed meal, both highly nutritious foods, combine to seamlessly replicate eggs.

So after all this hype, I am sure you are all dying for the recipe! Please note that I have acquired the ingredients for these cookies over several weeks; if one does not already have gluten-free, vegan products on hand already, these could very well end up being a $50+ batch of cookies. Enjoy and if you do bake them, please let me know what you think!

I also started a Tumblr page to keep my Facebook and Twitter pages less cluttered, so definitely check it out to see news stories, videos, quotes and other randomness I find worthy of sharing.

BabyCakes Gluten-Free, Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
(modified from BabyCakes cookbook)

1 cup coconut oil (you can also use canola oil)
6 tablespoons unsweetened/natural applesauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups cane sugar (not white granulated sugar)
2 cups Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Flour
1/4 cup flax meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons xanthan gum
1 cup vegan chocolate chips (note: I used regular chocolate chips so my cookies were not truly vegan - and I also used about 1 1/4 cups!)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, mix together coconut oil, applesauce salt, vanilla and cane sugar. In another medium bowl, whisk together flour, flax meal, baking soda, and xanthan gum. Using a rubber spatula, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture until evenly combined. Gently fold in the chocolate chips.

Scoop the resulting dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing portions at least one inch apart. Gently press with the heel of each hand to help them spread. Bake cookies on center rack for 15 minutes, rotating pan 180 degrees about halfway through baking. Cookies are ready to be removed from the oven when the edges are crispy and center is still soft.

Let the cookies stand on the sheets for 10 minutes before removing to cool on wire racks. Allow cookies to cool completely before covering. They will store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to three days (if they last that long!). I also froze some right away (3 cookies per sandwich bag) to save for friends and rainy days.