After being together for 41 years, Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel have a lot in common. One important thing they share is something they didn’t discover until many years into their relationship: They both have problems eating gluten.
Since Lisa and Tim weren’t always gluten-free, however, they remember the taste of the foods they grew up eating, particularly Jewish treats like sweet-potato kugel and chocolate-almond rugelach. So, once they found out about their respective issues with gluten—a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye that gives dough its elasticity—they embarked on a 10-year journey to replicate each and every traditional Jewish family recipe they could find, making them all safe for people on gluten-free diets. They chronicled their trial and errors on their blog, Gluten Free Canteen; Lisa baked, while Tim photographed the food. Soon they realized they had garnered a significant online audience, which led them to create their new cookbook, Nosh on This: Gluten-Free Baking From a Jewish American Kitchen, due out next month. In its introduction, Lisa explains that in her childhood home “a nosh was about as important as breathing,” an adage she still preserves. Nosh on This holds over 100 Jewish recipes, plus a chart dividing them up into the holidays where each one might best be served: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (the break-fast), Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover.
“I remember the times in the early days when we would go to a Rosh Hashanah dinner, sit down, and everyone would be tearing off a piece of challah and dipping it into honey,” said Lisa. “I’d pull out my plain, gluten-free bread from my purse. It was a depressing time. Now we can eat our challah.”
After years of health problems—from migraines to weak bones—and 10 years of tests and medical appointments, Tim was diagnosed in 2000 with Celiac disease, a condition that affects 1 in 133 people in the United States. Exact numbers are unknown, but a disproportionate number of Jews are affected by Celiac disease, an immune reaction caused by eating gluten that damages the lining of the small intestine and deprives the body of basic nourishment.
A gluten-free diet is important for people with Celiac disease. So, when Tim was diagnosed, Lisa, who’s a writer and a recipe developer, decided to overhaul the kitchen in their Silicon Valley home by removing all the gluten to accommodate her husband’s dietary restrictions. (“Think of it as koshering a kitchen,” she told me.) But once she adjusted her cooking, she discovered that her own longstanding health problems—from skin rashes to stomach pains—cleared up. Though she wasn’t diagnosed with Celiac disease, she found she was gluten-intolerant—a condition that some physicians don’t yet believe exists. However, for people who have symptoms such as fatigue or digestive and neurological issues, but who test negative for Celiac disease, eliminating gluten from their diet often solves their health problems.
“I was fortunate to benefit from his diagnosis, and my doctor concurred,” said Lisa.
Though Celiac disease is seen worldwide, it’s still not recognized by doctors and the health-care system the way it should be, said Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. The prevalence of the disease has grown over the past 50 years, perhaps due to the widespread use of antibiotics, or the increase of children being born in hospitals, said Green. But even with the increase, many doctors don’t think about Celiac disease when diagnosing patients, especially in the United States. That’s why it took doctors so long to diagnose Tim.
For people with Celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, keeping a strict diet—one without wheat, barley, rye, cereals, or beer (unless labeled gluten-free)—is obligatory. Even a meal that has gluten-free ingredients could have had cross-contamination with the prohibited ingredients during its preparation—and that small amount of contamination could cause constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain; for others it could mean days of bed rest. As tough as gluten-free diets can be to maintain, they take on another level of difficulty once religious customs are considered: Traditional holiday foods like braided challah and honey cake simply aren’t options.
“It’s really difficult to make a credible rugelach with gluten-free stuff,” said Tim.
Traditional Jewish foods can be altered to accommodate people who can’t eat gluten, even matzoh. But when Lisa and Tim tried the gluten-free products available in grocery stores, they were pretty unimpressed. Though some products are becoming tastier, most are gritty and have a long way to go. “We try to give the benefit of the doubt to any company trying to provide gluten-free alternatives in the store,” said Lisa, “but clearly some of them haven’t gotten the memo that people eating gluten-free still have taste buds.”
They aren’t the only ones who are unsatisfied with the store products. Elissa Strauss, who has written about her own experiences with Celiac disease for the Forward and Jezebel, was diagnosed with Celiac disease 13 and a half years ago. While she’s gotten used to living without a bite of challah at the Shabbat table, there are more recent frustrating side effects to her condition—ironically, in some ways the current gluten-free trend in prepared foods (even Dunkin’ Donuts jumped on the bandwagon this summer) has made her situation worse. In Jezebel, she wrote: “You see, when something that is medically necessary for some of us becomes something cool and trendy for the rest of the world, shit gets messed up. Waiters, thinking I am just another ankle-boot wearing Gwyneth wannabe, no longer take me seriously.” For Lisa and Tim, the reason why someone keeps a gluten-free diet is insignificant: “We personally don’t care why people want to eat gluten-free,” said Lisa. “We are just happy to help them achieve that, whether it’s because they feel like or if it’s for health reasons.”
To ensure that the baked goods that they planned to include in the book were perfect, Tim, who’s an engineer, would bring samples to work, but he wouldn’t tell his co-workers it was gluten-free until they were begging for seconds. The coworkers were definitely pleased with the couple’s new venture, said Tim.
Nosh on This provides exact, even arduous, recipe instructions. There’s a “411 on Frequently Used Ingredients,” which provides facts like just how cold butter should be, and why only full-fat, brick-style cream cheese should be used. It has an entire chapter on gluten-free flour, the most important and misunderstood element of gluten-free baking: Because there is no single gluten-free flour that can serve as a proper substitute for regular flour, Nosh on This describes exactly how to mix up three ingredients—brown rice flour, white rice flour, and tapioca starch—to get a “tasted not seen” super-fine flour that can be used in traditional baking.
Though Lisa and Tim’s recipes take effort, the results aren’t your average, crumbly, gluten-free supermarket pastries—and they aren’t any less decadent than the originals. “You will not lose weight eating these desserts,” said Lisa. In fact, despite the common misperception that giving up gluten will help you get thin, it probably won’t. Some people actually gain weight on gluten-free diets, and some with Celiac disease are overweight.
Ever since Lisa began to perfectly recreate her family recipes, she and Tim have stopped feeling left out. “We don’t miss anything in the baked world,” she said. But nostalgia still gets them. “We would both sell our favorite spatula or camera for a big old New York pizza and a corned beef on rye—genuine Jewish rye bread.”
Lisa and Tim’s dream for Nosh on This is that a family that includes both gluten-free and gluten-eating members could eat the same desserts made with the recipes from their cookbook; there wouldn’t be a need to make the traditional baked goods in addition to theirs, because the gluten-free versions taste just as good. “Happy people noshing,” Lisa said—that’s their dream.