Theresa Santandrea-Cull shifted her family to a gluten-free diet 15 years ago. Her 

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Theresa Santandrea-Cull. ((Photo courtesy Robert Rose Inc.))

two young sons, she says, were out of control. Doctors couldn't find any medical reasons for the boys' behaviour. A naturopath, however, suggested that gluten intolerance could be the problem.

Santandrea-Cull eliminated gluten from their diets and within six months, she says, their behaviour had markedly improved.

Since then, she's adapted all her recipes — and those passed down from her mother — to gluten-free alternatives. She teamed up with Alexandra Anca, a registered dietitian and nutrition adviser to the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, to write the Complete Gluten-Free Diet & Nutrition Guide.

She spoke to CBCNews.ca about going gluten-free.

How did you go about going gluten-free?

The first thing I did was emptied out all my cupboards, so anything that contained wheat and rye I got rid of. I went to the health food store, because back then, the grocery stores didn't have all the gluten-free stuff they have now.

Twenty years ago, store-bought gluten-free food didn't really taste as good as it does now. It was more like sawdust. I found one book that had gluten-free recipes. I didn't like it and neither did the kids. So I just decided to make my own.

For me it was easy to cook gluten-free, but baking was another story. I couldn't afford xanthan gum, which is often used in gluten-free baking recipes to help the dough bind.

I took my mum's recipes and some of my favourite recipes and just tried to convert them. There was a lot of trial and error. I found that substituting one cup of gluten-free flour for one cup of wheat flour didn't work. It was too much flour. So I based my conversions on my theory that when you're cooking brown rice, you use one cup of rice to two cups of water. So if a recipe calls for two cups of regular flour, I usually use one cup of gluten-free flour.

There are so many healthier flours out there now — you can do a quarter cup of white rice flour, a quarter cup of quinoa flour, a quarter cup of brown rice flour and a quarter cup of sorghum flour and when you blend all those together, it just makes a fabulous, nutrient-filled baked good.

Can use any mixture of gluten-free flours as a substitute for regular flours?

That's what I did, it works well, just as long as you come up with a cup. Let's say the recipe calls for three cups of regular flour. You might want to use one-and-a-half cups of gluten-free flours. But always make sure you have enough liquid in there — you need more liquid in a gluten-free recipe than in a regular recipe. You can also use liquids like applesauce or juice to enhance the flavour.

Rice flours and gluten-free flours don't act anything like wheat flour — and they don't look like it. So when you're making, let's say, a loaf with these types of gluten-free flours, the batter's a lot thinner. It needs that water to rise.

How do you deal with claims that gluten-free doesn't taste as good?

The most important thing I had to get around when I was making this for my family is that it had to taste like wheat, and look like wheat. And if it didn't, forget it — they wouldn't even go near it. And you know, I had two boys and at age four, they were already used to eating all the processed stuff that was out there.

I make a gluten-free bread and it is fabulous. Now, I wish I had made it back when I started out — it's called brown sandwich bread. It has so many great nutrients in it and it has 120 calories per slice, which is phenomenal. This bread will stay on your counter up to four days and it stays fresh. It doesn't go stale — it doesn't crumble like most gluten-free breads do when you slice it. It stays moist.

My other favourite recipe is gnocchi. I grew up eating my mother's. Mine tastes exactly like my mom's — it's taken me this long to figure out.

What are the staples of a gluten-free kitchen?

Fruits and vegetables, for sure. Tons of them. I like to keep a lot of frozen fruits and veggies, too. I keep my cupboards stacked with all the flours that I need and all the flavourings like vanilla, cinnamon, and applesauce.

The flours I use are mainly sorghum flour, brown rice flour, tapioca starch flour, potato starch flour, potato flour, teff flour and quinoa flour. I keep a healthy supply of quinoa, psyllium husks, nuts, seeds, pasta, tomato sauce, beans, olive oil and grape seed oil. I also keep gluten-free baking powder, gluten-free baking soda, and raw sugar. I never use white. And I use agave syrup as well. [Note: baking powder and baking soda do not contain gluten, but they should not be considered gluten-free unless they are produced in a facility that is free of gluten.] 

Can I adapt any recipe to a gluten-free alternative?

I don't see why not. There are some things you need to watch for. For instance, if you're going to be using soya sauce, make sure it's gluten-free. If you have favourites, like mac and cheese, make it gluten-free.

The recipes in our book, they're all things I've been eating for 15 years. And they're also based on my mother's recipes. I've been raised this way: you eat what you cook and what you grow. I'm not big on instant food. Never have been.

What are some common mistakes people make when they try to adapt a recipe?

People use too much flour — way too much flour.

What about holiday meals? How do you accommodate everyone?

I cook gluten-free and nobody can tell the difference! Like for instance, at our Thanksgiving, I made cranberry loaf bread and, of course, it was eaten before anything else. My pumpkin pie was eaten before the store-bought pumpkin pie. Nobody can tell the difference.

This Christmas, we'll be doing stuffed artichokes, peas and mushrooms and potato and sweet potato bake. I'm not big on stuffing for turkey but, for those who are, try using my brown sandwich bread for your stuffing.

My dad, back when he was alive, he used to say "don't give my any of that stuff." But I served it all the time and he couldn't tell. He loved my pasta and he loved my lasagna. Nobody knows the difference — not in my house, anyway.

Recipes

 Nutrients per serving  
 Calories 120
 Carbohydrate 17 g
 Fiber 1 g
 Protein 1 g
 Fat 6 g 
 Iron 1 mg 
 Calcium 9 mg 

Chocolate Chip Brownies

Makes 16 squares (1 per serving)

If you love chocolate, you're going to love these brownies. Enjoy them with your friends and family — no one will know they're gluten-free!

Preheat oven to 180C (350F).

Use a 20-cm (8-inch) square metal baking pan, lined with parchment paper. Leave a 5-cm (2-inch) overhang.

Ingredients

60 ml (1/4 cup) sorghum flour 
60 ml (1/4 cup) tapioca starch
60 ml (1/4 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
5 ml (1 tsp) GF baking powder 
1 ml (1/4 tsp)  salt 
175 ml (3/4 cup) granulated raw cane sugar  
60 ml (1/4 cup) sunflower oil  
60 ml (1/4 cup)  unsweetened applesauce  
eggs
5 ml (1 tsp)  vanilla extract  
125 ml (1/2 cup)  GF semisweet chocolate chips  
250 ml (1 cup)  chopped walnuts (optional)
125 ml (1/2 cup)  GF semisweet chocolate chips 
 

 icing (optional)

 

1. In a small bowl, whisk together sorghum flour, tapioca starch, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, oil and applesauce. Beat in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in flour mixture until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips and walnuts (if using). Spread evenly in prepared baking pan.

3. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until a tester inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

4. Icing: Meanwhile, if desired, place chocolate chips in a small saucepan. Place on the stovetop and let the heat from the oven melt the chocolate. Stir until smooth and spread over cooled brownies.

5. Let cool completely in pan on a rack. Using parchment paper as handles, transfer to a cutting board, then cut into squares.

 Nutrients per serving  
 Calories 120
 Carbohydrate 20 g
 Fiber 2 g
 Protein 3 g
 Fat 3.5 g 
 Iron 1 mg 
 Calcium 26 mg 

Chunky Blueberry Muffins

These muffins freeze well, so you can always have them on hand for a quick breakfast or snack. Just microwave one for 20 seconds and you're good to go.

Tips

  • To easily zest a lemon, use a rasp grater, such as a Microplane.
  • Choose your favorite GF non-dairy milk, such as soy, rice, almond or potato-based milk or, if you are tolerate lactose, use regular 1% milk.

Preheat oven to 180C (350F).

Ingredients

12-cup muffin pan, lined with paper liners
60 ml (1/4 cup) sorghum flour 
125 ml (1/2 cup) brown rice flour
60 ml (1/4 cup) potato starch
60 ml (1/4 cup) ground flax seeds (flaxseed meal)
10 ml (2 tsp)  GF baking powder
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
2 eggs  
125 ml (1/2 cup)  unsweetened applesauce  
60 ml (1/4 cup) granulated raw cane sugar
60 ml (1/4 cup)  fortified GF non-dairy milk or lactose-free 1% milk
250 ml (1 cup) chopped peeled apples  
250 ml (1 cup)  fresh or frozen blueberries
60 ml (1/4 cup)  chopped walnuts
10 ml (2 tsp) 

 grated lemon zest

1. In a large bowl, whisk together brown rice flour, sorghum flour, potato starch, flax seeds, baking powder and salt.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, applesauce and milk until well combined. Pour over dry ingredients and stir until combined. Gently fold in apples, blueberries, walnuts and lemon zest.

3. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, dividing equally. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a tester inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for five minutes. Transfer muffins to rack to cool.

Makes 12 muffins (1 per serving)


Excerpted from Complete Gluten-Free Diet & Nutrition Guide by Alexandra Anca and Theresa Santandrea-Cull © 2010 Robert Rose Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.