Allergy Friendly · Celebrations · desserts · Winter

The Colors of Winter, and Fresh Fruit Torte

Dear Joey,

The view from my writing window is gray this morning. Even what little snow is left outside looks greasy and gray these days: the sad remains of snow flurries that were cause for celebration a couple weeks ago.


I don’t hate the view. Or at least, up until today I haven’t, and I think perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I used to dream about snowy winter weather during the temperate, lavish green ones I took for granted back home in California. The hills are emerald green by now, I imagine, and beanies are more of a fashionable reminder of wintertime, rather than a necessary defense against bitter winds. Bags brimming with oranges and lemons and grapefruits used to show up on our doorstep back home, all gleaned from my Grandparents’ stalwart old trees. Can you imagine the miracle of finding a bag of citrus on our doorstep today? I clearly see Grandma taking a break from all the fruit picking and cradling an afternoon cup of tea in her hands. Its steam swirls in the cool of a January afternoon, and she laughs as we share a short visit. I want to be there with her right now: capturing her laugh in a locket and catching the sweet smell of the backyard blossoms in a bottle, and I want to tuck them into my chest so I can always remember her that way. And I really want that bag of oranges she inevitably sent home with me.


Even so, the mild winters of my youth pale in comparison to the beauty of a quiet winter snow. Flakes bigger than a postage stamp (and sometimes as big as my fist) quietly floated down from a white sky, as if all our Midwestern great grandmothers huddled together over our house and scattered fistfuls of doilies over us as a sort of blessing, welcoming us to the landscape upon which they lived their lives. The flakes accumulated for hours, and when they finally finished, the world outside glistened, just like all those Christmas carols say they do. The trees out front looked like scraggly fingers slipped beneath pure white gloves embroidered with pearls and diamonds, hands held out low as if ready to receive a kiss. The landscape was the purest white; the clouds seemed to wrap us in a hug, and the fire blazed in the hearth every night. It wasn’t Christmas, but it sure was cozy.


That snow eventually melted though, and as it did so I found myself surrounded by a landscape painted in an array of neutrals that I love–gray skies that reminded me of a well-loved sweater; white snow as feather light as freshly whipped butter; grass turned taupe like toasted oatmeal–warm and welcoming; and gray-black tree branches the very same color as faded ink that fill the pages of the oldest books I own–and they tricked me into thinking winter was an old friend. Today, those same colors that seemed comforting and familiar at first are  now so faded they don’t seem like colors at all any more. Cadaverous trees reach out of the pallid landscape, like a corpse stretching its bony gray fingers up out of the grave. Beyond them, the ashen horizon fades into a tired blue sky that reminds me faded blue jeans, rumpled and cast away. Even cheerless colors die a slow death in winter here.


To compensate, my imagination is conjuring up all sorts of colorful glory that keeps me company in these dark days. I catch myself daydreaming about the brightest colors I can imagine, colors like marigold and daffodil, pineapple and emerald; sea foam and cerulean. I want fill the shelves above the hearth with pots of sunflowers and chrysanthemums and daffodils, and I want a happy vase of pink gerbera daisies to smile at me from the kitchen table again. I want to make lemon herb chicken and grilled vegetables; steak kebabs and garden salads and strawberry shortcake. I want bring sunshine into a spaces that haven’t seen it in weeks.


The bright spot of January? Your birthday. Did you notice I didn’t bother asking what kind of birthday cake you wanted this year? I knew what your answer would be (“White cake with white frosting, please!”), but I just couldn’t bear to celebrate with something so devoid of color. Instead, I made a tender yellow sponge cake with luscious custard filling and topped it all with the most resplendent fruits I could find. True: it was inspired by that fruit torte we nearly forgot to serve ten years ago on your birthday (after the shock of having you propose to me in the middle of your birthday party, can you blame me for forgetting to serve cake?), but admittedly I just couldn’t pass up my chance to bring a little color into the house. It was a lovely, delicious break from the hum-drum colors of winter (even though I pictured the truck that carried the fruit coughing gray exhaust as it made its way across the winter wasteland. Sigh. The gray is everywhere.)


I know it won’t last; as these bitter days stretch on in what feels like an eternal curse of cold, I am learning to hope again, to anticipate watching the miracle of life after death unfold before my eyes in a much more obvious way. The impossible truth that life will come again is astounding to my heart, because everything appears too far gone to ever return. I know this isn’t true. I know generation upon generation before me has watched this miracle unfold, but it feels like I am living what I had only learned before. I watch for signs of life every day, learning again what expectant hope feels like. We saw a rabbit skittering through the fence a few days ago. Yesterday I saw a small bird flitting through the trees. The sun pokes holes in the clouds every so often, and it feels glorious and warm as it filters through the living room windows late in the afternoon, and if we’re lucky, we see rainbows dance against the wall, celebrating.  When the clouds part, and the blue sky seems dull at the horizon, but when I lift my eyes above the desolate land and focus my eyes toward the heavens, the sky screams blue like a dazzling aquamarine. And I dreamed about the most beautiful garden last night, lush and green as velvet with a sea of cheerful yellow chrysanthemums dotted with deep blue ones, and it felt like a promise of so much more to come.



Fruit Torte


Ten years ago Joey planned the ultimate surprise proposal when he popped the question on his own birthday. We were so swept up in the romance of it all that we almost forgot to sing happy birthday or serve cake. Marking the anniversary of our engagement with a version our whole family could enjoy felt right, especially since it brought so much color into the middle of a frigid, lackluster landscape. Clearly, this dessert would be amazing served in summertime, when the strawberries are sweeter than candy. But in the dead of winter, the honey glaze helps sweeten them up. I used Nicole from Gluten Free on a Shoestring’s delicious recipe for spongecake as a base (and didn’t alter it, because why fuss when something is so perfect?), so follow the link below to find her recipe. This torte is gluten free, dairy free, and nut free–and delicious enough for my seven year old niece to ask for two slices.

For the Sponge Cake:

Get Nicole’s recipe here.

For the Custard Cream:
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1-15 oz can full fat coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup So Delicious Coco Whip
For the Fresh Fruit Topping
  • 2 kiwis, peeled & sliced
  • 1 pint strawberries (or more, if you prefer), washed and sliced to about 1/4″ thick
  • canned mandarin oranges (6-8 segments or so)
  • 3 Tablespoons honey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Next, start by preparing the sponge cake. Follow Nicole’s recipe (which you can find here), but bake the batter in a 10″ greased spring form pan for about 20 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and is golden on top.

Next, make the custard cream. Start by  mixing the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Next, whisk the egg yolks into the sugar/starch mixture until it loosens up and turns a beautiful buttery yellow.

Then, heat the coconut milk in a small saucepan over high heat, until it bubbles around the rim. Remove the pan from the heat and temper the egg mixture: scoop about a 1/4 cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk; scoop another 1/4 cup of hot milk into the mixture and whisk again; scoop one more 1/4 cup of hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk again. Then, pour the tempered egg mixture into the pan with the hot coconut milk and whisk to combine. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, whisking as you go. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for one minute, then remove from the heat again. Add the vanilla, whisk well, and pour the custard into a glass bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap (carefully place it directly onto the custard so a film does not form) and refrigerate until cool (this takes a few hours).

When the custard has cooled, fold 1 cup So Delicious Coco Whip (which is basically a vegan version of Cool Whip).

Once the cake has cooled and the custard cream is ready, spread the custard cream on top of the sponge cake (you can choose whether to remove the sides of the spring form pan yet or not). Top with sliced fruit, then brush a little honey on top to make the cake thing shine.


Allergy Friendly · desserts · Friendship

These Are Gold, and S’Mores Pie


24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

-Deuteronomy 6:24-26


Make new friends but keep the old; those are silver, these are gold.

-Joseph Parry

Dear Joey,

I made two S’Mores Pies in the span of two days last week. My important, necessary work was met with your murmur of, “Another s’mores pie? I’m impressed!” This pie is dangerously easy, meaning there is a very good chance one will be waiting to meet you at the end of a long day’s work more often than perhaps it should. (Aren’t you the one who joked about buying a house where I could bake pies to my heart’s content and cool them by the windowsill? This problem is your fault.)


Of all the pies, why S’Mores Pie? And why make two of them in two days? Fair question, and the answer can be found in a snippet of a conversation that happened several weeks ago now in my grandparents’ backyard between my BFF (as the Goobie girls would call her) Molly, and me.


The conversation happened during those in-between days after you packed up the trucks and set off for Kansas, but before the Goobies and I hopped on an airplane to follow you. We were camped out at my grandparents’ house, laying low and trying to catch our breath after the frenzied weeks that led up to that point. The reprieve of the quiet was soothing at first, but turned stifling pretty quick without our usual arsenal of scooters, barbie dolls, monster trucks and art supplies. So we bought a kiddie pool and amused ourselves by splashing each other all day long. The kids got bored and I got anxious: we said goodbye but hadn’t left yet, and that span of four days felt tiresome without you. (Luckily hanging out with grandparents still entertains the Goobies for hours on end; I think it was me that was more anxious to go.)


After a particularly insufferable day in which the heat and the attitudes converged and threatened to steal the last morsel of sanity left in reserve, my phone lit up and revealed a refreshing surprise from Molly: she was up from San Diego that weekend and wanted to know: “Any chance I could run up and give you a hug tomorrow?” My answer? Of course. I’m pretty sure I cried as I typed my reply, because my heart was feeling anxious and timid, like it needed a reminder that it could do brave, fun things. Molly always did that for me, and now on the verge of plunging into a great unknown, one more hug from a friend who has always given me the courage to be myself was a sweet gift indeed.


Molly loaded her boys up into her minivan and made the trip over to see us and wrapped us up in big monster hugs and hung out with us in my grandparents’ backyard one more time. We spent the morning watching her boys attack the bowl of salsa I set out on a whim, scooping it up with chips so fast I could have sworn the kids hadn’t eaten in weeks. (I guess that’s life with boys?). In between bites her boys regaled me on everything from Broadway musicals to All Star games, and grilled me about my favorite kinds of sauce (chocolate, of course). Molly updated me on her teacher-life and how her son will turn student in her English class this year, and taught me how to use Facebook Marketplace to snag an amazing deal. We talked camping and s’mores and allergies too, and then, (and this is the clincher)–she told me about s’mores pie. (Real friends share all their best secrets, don’t they?)


Our visit wasn’t emotionally charged with the pressure of saying goodbye; instead, it was just a normal visit. We’ve known each other since before we could speak or walk, and change is a constant in our friendship. College, marriage, children, moving away–every time something changes in our lives, John Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” rings in my ears and stings my eyes with the overflow of a swollen heart as we wrap our arms around each other for one more hug before parting. It reminds me of high school, and how things just kept changing after that last concert at Mission San Jose our senior year. All these years later, we knew this change wouldn’t alter our friendship. We parted ways with a hug and an unspoken (yet understood) blessing.


And so, S’mores Pie stuck with me since our last visit on that old patio that saw us through our growing up years. When new opportunities began presenting themselves to engage with the people who populate this new life of ours, Molly and S’mores Pie were the things I couldn’t shake, and I found myself feeling like a shy kid all over again, leaning on my more outgoing best friend to help steady me as I jumped into new social situations. When we were kids, Molly was the one who first gave me courage to interact with others, forced me to join in instead of sitting at home bored and alone, and showed me how to be part of the life going on in front of me. She taught me how to make new friends.


I am well past that now, really; social situations don’t tend to terrify me the way they did when I was a little girl, but in this unfamiliar place where history hasn’t knit me together with the people around me, I feel a little unsteady and uncertain, and I found myself wishing Molly were here so she could help break the ice for me. But in her stead, S’mores Pie helped me do that last week, and it turns out it was a suitable stand in: it’s interesting and special; never boring, always playful and fun–a conversation starter, for sure; comfortable and familiar even while it’s deep, rich, and complex. It’s so much like Molly, and taking it with me this week into two unfamiliar situations made me feel a little more empowered to be myself. Both Molly and that pie helped me take the first few steps toward forging new relationships, new friends, which I’m sure will be beautiful and sweet in their own right, too.

But this pie, this friend–these are gold.



S’mores Pie

IMG_7409 2

Inspired to make S’mores Pie, but curious about other folks’ methods, I found this recipe that could easily be modified to fit our family’s food allergy requirements. I made that recipe as written the first time around (swapping out regular milk for flax milk; coconut milk for heavy cream; Enjoy Life Chocolate Morsels for the chocolate chips, etc.) but wasn’t satisfied with the end result. The next time around, I tinkered and came up with the version that is written below. Nana tasted it and loved the crust (Gluten free graham crackers for the win!), and declared the filling very rich indeed. I suppose the highest compliment came from my niece (who isn’t easy to impress when it comes to food), who came to find me after finishing her slice and asked, “Did you make the pie? It was really good.” (Also, an empty pie plate on the buffet table speaks volumes.) If your family doesn’t have food allergies, swap dairy ingredients for the non-dairy ones (milk = flax milk; heavy cream = coconut milk; butter = Earth Balance) and use regular graham crackers and chocolate chips. You can’t mess this pie up: it’s gold.

Note: I recommend using Kinnikinnick S’moreable Graham Style Crackers because they’re gluten free, dairy free, peanut/tree nut free, sunflower seed free, etc., and they make a crust that’s indistinguishable from its traditionally made cousin. I stock up when they go on sale at Sprouts.


For the crust–

  • 2 cups gluten free graham cracker crumbs (Kinnikinnick brand, if possible)
  • 1/2 cup Earth Balance vegan buttery spread, melted

For the filling–

  • 3/4 cup plain unsweetened flaxmilk (without protein)
  • 3/4 cup full fat coconut milk
  • 9 oz. Enjoy Life brand dark chocolate chips
  • 2 large eggs, whisked
  • 1 T honey
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of sea salt

For the topping–

  • 25 large marshmallows (or so), cut in half

First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Next, crush the graham crackers into fine crumbs (the whole package of graham crackers, please), then mix the crumbs with the melted Earth Balance. Press the mixture into a 9″ pie plate and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the crust is fragrant and golden (but not burned).

Meanwhile, while the crust is baking, whisk the eggs together until they’re a soft yellow color. Then, in a medium saucepan, warm the flax milk and coconut milk over medium heat and add the chocolate chips. Whisk until the chocolate is smooth. Turn the heat down to low. Ladle a little bit of the warm chocolate mixture (about 1/4 cup or so) into the whisked eggs and stir quickly, then pour the mixture into the pan of chocolate and whisk vigorously. Then, add the honey, vanilla and salt and whisk until combined. Remove the filling from the heat and set it aside until the pie crust is done.

One the crust is golden, remove it from the oven and pour the chocolate pudding-like mixture into the still-hot shell and spread the top smooth with a rubber scraper. (Then proceed to lick that scraper clean.) Put the pie back into the oven and bake for about 30 more minutes, or until the filling doesn’t jiggle or wiggle much at all when you move the pie plate.

While the pie is baking, snip the marshmallows in half. When the pie is done baking, change the oven from bake mode to broil mode, and set it to the low setting. Arrange the cut marshmallows on top of the just-baked pie and set on the middle rack under the broiler AND WATCH CLOSELY because it won’t take long for the marshmallows to puff up and turn golden brown. Remove the pie as soon as they look golden enough for your taste. (My pies are perfect after two minutes under the broiler.)

Refrigerate for 4 hours (or more, if you can)–but don’t cover it with plastic wrap unless you want an effective way to remove all the gooey golden goodness from the top of your pie. I know from experience.

Allergy Friendly · Baking · Cake · desserts

The Great Cake Debate, and Vanilla Confetti Cake (GF/DF/NF)

Dear Joey,

When it comes to cake, you and I are contentious about which flavor wins: chocolate or vanilla. It’s an ongoing battle that will never end because we are so dead set in our ways that we cannot–and will not–change our minds. You could easily live without chocolate, but my life lived without it would be no life at all.


It’s not that I dislike vanilla; it’s just that I like to think of it as a canvas upon which to play with color, composition, texture and form, but for you vanilla is a finished work of art, complete just as it is. For better or worse, we choose to live peaceably despite this disagreement. Plus, there are other flavors of cake that help smooth things over (like white cake with chocolate frosting, or chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. It’s all about compromise.)


Through the years we have come to respect each other’s preference, of course, partially out of marital duty and partially because we understand each other a little bit more than we used to. We started listening to each other without trying to win the other onto our own team. Now we appreciate–and even enjoy–the differing perspectives we bring to the dessert table. You will happily eat a slice of chocolate cake (or gulp down a chocolate cupcake in swoop so the Goobies don’t see you going back for seconds), and I accepted the idea that you really do enjoy the one cake in the whole world that sounds completely boring to me: white cake with white buttercream frosting.


We try to lure the kids onto our own teams, but they generally have one foot in each camp because the truth is, they just plain like cake. Flavor matters little to them, as long as it tastes good. Given time, they’ll form their own opinions I think, but for now, cake wins.


When I started tinkering around with baking gluten and dairy free treats , I tried to tackle chocolate cake first (clearly) because this girl can only live so long without the stuff. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would need to be fair to vanilla, though, if only for the sake of our marriage. Admittedly, I actually liked the result of my efforts (and am restraining myself from nibbling on a slice as I write this).


I imagine some might say I liked this cake because my taste buds have forgotten what really good cake actually tastes like (given the fact that they are accustomed gluten free and dairy free treats taste like), but kids don’t lie about stuff as important as this–not ours, not any. Kids always tell the truth about cake.


I served slices of Vanilla Confetti Cake to a gaggle of kids at a baby shower yesterday: kids with food allergies that span the gamut of the top 8, along with a few kids (like Addie) without any food allergies to speak of. The consensus? “More cake! More cake! More cake!” — and that right there, my friend, is sort of the whole point of tinkering around with these recipes in the first place: to make a cake that tastes good, one that kids think is yummy, a cake that everyone can all agree on–whether we fall in the chocolate camp or the vanilla camp, gluten intolerant or allergic to dairy, nut allergies or no allergies at all. With this cake, everyone wins.



Vanilla Confetti Cake


If dessert is art, this cake is a blank canvas in the best possible way. The confetti is only an option; leave the sprinkles out if you want a plain vanilla cake, or swap them out for mini chocolate chips (yum!) for a cake compromise. Disclaimer: I only ever make this cake with my own flour blends (click here for the recipes), both of which yield fantastic results. Smear Mema’s Buttercream on top for a classic decorated cake (as above) or serve with sliced strawberries and a dollop some coconut whipped cream for a springtime treat. Either way, you’ll end up with a masterpiece. This recipe makes two 8″ rounds or 24 cupcakes.

  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread, softened OR 3/4 cup softened refined coconut oil (not melted)
  • 2 large eggs (or for an egg free version, substitute 1 very ripe medium banana, well mashed, to equal 1/2 cup*)
  • 2 1/4 cups pure cane sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened flax milk (or regular rice milk)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups  gluten free cake flour OR gluten free all-purpose flour blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt**
  • 1/4 cup gluten free sprinkles, optional

*If using banana instead of egg, reduce sugar to 1 1/2 cups

**If using coconut oil, increase salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.


Start by preheating your oven to 325°F. Then, spray two 8″ round cake pans with nonstick spray (or smear with coconut oil), then sprinkle a little gluten free flour in the pan and shake until the flour completely covers the oil. Set aside.

Next, sift together the gluten free flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together, and set that aside too.

Then in a large bowl of a Kitchen Aid (or similar electric mixer), cream the softened Earth Balance until it’s nice and smooth. Turn the mixer off, dump in the sugar and beat the two together until they get nice and fluffy. Turn the mixer off again, add the eggs and vanilla and turn the mixer back on, making sure to whip well. Turn the mixer off.

After that, measure 1 1/2 cups flax milk (or rice milk) into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, and add the 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar to the measuring cup. Pour the vinegar/rice milk mixture to the batter, turn on the mixer again and mix well. The batter will look a little clumpy–do not fret. Turn off the mixer and scoop in the dry ingredients about a cup at a time–dump, then mix; dump, then mix; dump, then mix; then turn the mixer on high and beat until the batter is smooth and luscious, about 1-2 minutes.

Finally, swirl those sprinkles into the batter and divide it between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the comes out clean (mine were perfect at 35 minutes, but oven temperatures vary. Cool the cakes in the pan for about 5 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack and cool completely before frosting. (We love to top our cakes with Joey’s mom’s classic frosting recipe, which you can find here, way down at the bottom of the page after my recipe for chocolate cake.)

Baking · Celebrations · desserts

The Great Birthday Cake Dilemma and the Only Chocolate Cake Recipe I Will Ever Need (Top 8 Allergen Free!)

Dear Joey,

I bet you’ve never panicked about a cake before, but I have. I still do.

The only time that cake might have sort of caused a bit of a concern for you was when we sat down with the Cake Lady to discuss our wedding cake. Perhaps you wondered how a dedicated chocoholic like me and a plain white cake with buttercream boy like you would ever find enough common ground in the flavor department to place the order at all. (I know I was.)


Cake made me nervous then and it makes me nervous now. In hindsight, finding a way to compromise on a flavor was a walk in the park compared to what we deal with now. These days, I have much more pressing concerns than whether you’ll coax the kids to insist upon a flavor other than my beloved chocolate.

When I plunged into the gluten free world, baking a cake from scratch went from a pleasant way to spend an afternoon to a risky ordeal that was often not really worth the trouble. Cakes are temperamental anyway, but throw in the fact that it had to be gluten free, and baking a cake became a precarious endeavor. I figured it out eventually, of course, and have been baking cakes without much fuss since then–until lately. Now we have an almost-two-year-old (!?) with a dairy allergy who can’t be hoodwinked out of his fair share of cake, too. And so, baking a birthday cake became a problem.


Addie’s 6th birthday is tomorrow and we had a bunch of her friends over to help us celebrate a few days ago. We’ve been planning on this party for several weeks now, but I put off figuring out the cake part until last week, when suddenly I realized I didn’t have the time or wherewithal to spend a bunch of time in the kitchen experimenting with gluten free, dairy free cake recipes. I almost just bought a box of that Pillsbury Funfetti cake mix and called it a day. Except that I don’t bake with wheat flour anymore, and I didn’t want to contaminate all my baking gear with gluten. I thought about getting the gluten free version instead, but then I realized Emery wouldn’t be able to have them because that mix contains dairy. And so, I bought a box of King Arthur Gluten Free Chocolate Cake mix because it’s gluten free and dairy free and easy … and, as I soon learned, sort of rubbery and tasteless.


I was frustrated and pressed for time and a little thrown off by the fact that it was Halloween that day and you had Vertigo and all I wanted was just to bake my daughter a birthday cake that our whole family could eat and you know, enjoy, and I didn’t want to have to go through this frustrating process every time a birthday came around. I wanted a yummy cake recipe, a go-to cake recipe. I wanted to find THE cake recipe, the one I would turn to again and again and again through the Goobies’s childhoods, the one that would be so familiar I could bake it in my sleep if I had to (and I imagine there will be years ahead when that exact scenario will be necessary).


Overwhelmed by all this, and very disappointed in the only sort of ok chocolate cupcakes I made that day, and decidedly overwhelmed by a day that kept me running since before 5:00 that morning, I decided to make a gluten free version of Smitten Kitchen’s Red Wine Chocolate Cake. You know, because I deserved it. (gag). That recipe isn’t gluten free or dairy free, but I made a few substitutions and fixed that problem. And you know what? It was fantastic.


As I sat savoring that piece of delicious cake, I realized the Red Wine Chocolate Cake recipe was a riff on Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake, and I figured if I could transform the Red Wine cake into a gluten free, dairy free version, couldn’t I do that with the everyday chocolate cake recipe too? Turns out, I could. And I did. And funny enough? You even liked them despite the fact that they were chocolate. You sneaked a cupcake after the party was long over, and said to me in your very serious voice, “These are really good, Rach.”

You like that these cupcakes are dense like a brownie (and laden with your mom’s famous not-really-butter buttercream frosting). I like that they’re moist and actually have flavor (and that the cupcake wrapper effortlessly peels away from them without tearing the cupcake apart). The Goobies like them because they all get to eat them. I like that part too.


It’s safe to assume you’ll see these chocolate cupcakes again and again over the course of our children’s childhoods. And yes, I promise to figure out a vanilla cake cousin for these little beauties. Your birthday is coming up next, after all.



Chocolate Cake Cupcakesimg_6785

I hesitate to come out and say these are the best chocolate cupcake I have ever made because it is free of so many allergens and I doubt anyone would dare believe me. But I wouldn’t be paying this cake its due if I held out on you, now would I? So ok fine: these are the best chocolate cupcakes I have ever made, good enough to dupe you into thinking there must be one of the top 8 allergens in it. If you opt to use a banana instead of eggs (which is a very wise decision if I do say so myself) they are indeed free of dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish . Thick and moist with a tender crumb–deeply chocolately, yet not too sweet. This is chocolate cake perfection, food allergies or not. This recipe makes enough batter for 24 cupcakes or 2-8 inch rounds. The cake is done when a wooden toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. For two 8″ rounds, check the cake at 30 minutes–which is the perfect amount of time in my oven. I used Joey’s mom’s recipe for basic buttercream frosting (recipe below), but you can frost it as you like.

  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread, softened OR 6 oz softened refined coconut oil (not melted)
  • 2 large eggs (or for an egg free version, substitute 1 very ripe medium banana, well mashed, to equal 1/2 cup*)
  • 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar*
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened regular flax or rice milk (or your choice of non-dairy beverage)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups gluten free all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt**

*If using banana instead of egg, reduce brown sugar to 3/4 cup

**If using coconut oil instead of Earth Balance or butter, increase salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.


Start by preheating your oven to 325°F. Then, line your cupcake pan with paper cups. (Bonus if you have a 24-cup pan!)

Next, sift together the gluten free flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together, and set aside to add to the wet ingredients later.

In a large bowl of a Kitchen Aid (or similar electric mixer), cream the softened Earth Balance until it’s nice and smooth. Turn the mixer off, dump in the sugars and beat them together until they get nice and fluffy. Turn the mixer off again, add the eggs and vanilla and turn the mixer back on, making sure to whip the batter together well. Turn the mixer off.

Pour 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and add the flax milk (or rice milk) into the same measuring cup until you reach the 1 1/2 cup mark. Pour the vinegar/flax milk mixture to the batter, turn on the mixer again and mix well. The batter will look a little clumpy, but that’s ok. Turn off the mixer and dump in the dry ingredients. Turn the mixer back on (again!) and mix well, beating together until the batter is smooth and luscious.

Scoop the batter (about 1/4 cup per cupcake) into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean (mine were perfect at 22 minutes). Cool the cupcakes in the pan for about 5 minutes, and then pop them out and let them cool completely on a wire rack. Frost with whatever you desire, but we use my mother in law’s buttercream recipe, which I happily share below.

Mema’s Buttercream Frosting

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon meringue powder–omit to keep the frosting egg-free
  • 1 1/4 cups all vegetable shortening, such as Nutiva Organic Shortening
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 teaspoons clear vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup water
  • food coloring, if desired

Mix first six ingredients together with a spoon, then beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the food coloring and mix again, adding more color as needed.

Allergy Friendly · desserts · Giveaway Winner · Snacks

A Winner, and Gooey Cocoa Crispy Rice Treats

Dear Joey,

Well, we left the house in a sort of rush on Friday to try to evade the get-out-of-town traffic. We didn’t do a very good job and it took far to long to get to the lake than we had hoped. Oh well. The busy morning also delayed me from announcing the winner of the Skip Hop Zoo Little Kid Backpack. Oops.

I did manage to at least choose the winner before we left for the weekend(and the winner is Deborah Gardner. Congratulations Deborah! Check your email for instructions on how to claim your prize.) But as a consolation prize, I have a never-let-you-down recipe for allergy friendly crispy treats. I figure disappointment deserves chocolate, right?

Plus, when things don’t turn out the way I planned or hoped or intended, chocolate helps me deal–especially when its made from a thoroughly dependable, never-fail sort of recipe.



Gooey Cocoa Crispy Treats


These are basically that classic crispy rice treats we all know how to make, but my version is gooey-er than its traditional counterpart because I that’s the way I like it. I used cocoa crispy rice instead of the plain ones because, well–do I really need to give a reason to use chocolate? Since these are gluten free, dairy free, and nut free (and super easy to make), they are a great treat to turn to if allergies are an issue. Beware that not all crispy rice cereals are gluten free, so make sure to buy a box that explicitly states it is gluten free if gluten is an issue for you (I used Mom’s Best Crispy Cocoa Rice Cereal in this recipe). Otherwise, of course–use whatever crispy rice cereal you like.


12 oz. marshmallows

1/4 cup Melt Organic Buttery Spread (or Earth Balance, or a similar vegan buttery spread to make these dairy free. Otherwise, use butter.)

6 cups Gluten Free Crispy Cocoa Rice Cereal

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

pinch of kosher salt (1/16 tsp)


First, prepare your pan. Lightly spray a 9 x 13 glass pan with non-stick coconut oil spray (or something similar). Set aside.

Next, set a big pot over medium heat and melt the buttery spread. Add the marshmallows and heat them gently, stirring almost constantly as they melt and meld with the buttery spread. Once they’re completely melted, stir in the salt and vanilla and quickly add the crispy rice, stirring to coat them completely with the molten marshmallow goodness.

Plunk the sticky mixture into the prepared glass pan and press the rice down, smoothing it as you go. It helps to spray your fingers with non-stick spray so the treats don’t stick to your fingers. Let the treats cool and set for a few minutes, then slice into them as you like.


Allergy Friendly · Dairy Free · desserts · Wrestling with Reality

My Passion for Cooking Came Back, and Banana-Mango Coconut Ice Cream

Dear Joey,

My, am I in a different place than the last time I checked in around here (7 months ago??), mainly due to the fact that for months I have been living with the frustrating feeling that my body is failing me. Something hasn’t been right, and that something is directly tied to the foods I cook and eat. As such, my enjoyment of and inspiration for cooking–whether creatively or otherwise– vanished. When I think about our cleaned out cupboards, the foods you all want to eat around here, and the foods that my body just won’t tolerate,  I see a challenge so big that even doing one small thing (like frying an egg) feels like too much and not enough. Too much work, monotony, money; not enough flavor, creativity, excitement.

As for you, being the not picky eater that you are, you have forgiven my predictably simple (and even somewhat lackluster) meals of late. And anyway, you would never describe them like that; perhaps you would even go so far as to say that they have been better than normal. I am, after all, cooking with a renewed sense of health, as well as lots of cilantro, red meat, and desserts that are actually healthy.

Because my digestion is so weird/sensitive/frustrating and because a very helpful doctor gently advised me to never eat gluten again (“It’s just not worth the risk…”), things have changed pretty drastically around here. Our stockpiled staples have dwindled, my list of “go-to” dinners are sitting unused in my recipe file, and our freezer is full of meat. For the most part, I’m uninspired in the kitchen and pretty much terrified that the foods causing my body so much pain probably they aren’t so good for our kids or you, either.

I blame you for this paralyzing fear: wasn’t it you who asked me to look into that “Paleo diet thing” to see if it was something that might help, not only with my own health but with yours as well? Me being the good wife that I am did as you asked, and you as the good husband that you are have been eating the results of what I have learned without complaint. Things have improved. I feel better. The girls are willingly eating more vegetables than they used to and they don’t ask for goldfish at snack time anymore. There is no good reason I should be so timid in the kitchen. And yet, it took months to get to the point where I have felt comfortable enough to experiment with and enjoy the process of cooking like I used to. I thought I had lost it. My passion, I mean.

Plus, to be really honest, I have been mourning the loss of a dream. Dreams of our girls growing up in a home where the kitchen is constantly filled with the smells and tastes that filled our childhood homes, and our parents’ childhood homes. Teaching our girls how to knead dough, how to work it until it is supple and elastic; showing them the mysterious magic of yeast; tearing into whatever we’ve just baked moments after it comes out of the oven (and burning ourselves in the process); tasting their first batch of cookies they have made all by themselves; listening from the other room as they bake cookies with friends for school bake sales or just another Friday night (and sneaking into their stash after they have gone to bed).

For me, losing wheat (among other things) has been emotional. It still is. And I know that sounds silly, because really in the scheme of things, in a world plagued by unspeakably awful things, could I get emotional about something so trivial? I don’t know, exactly, except to say that for me it has felt like I am losing a family heirloom, one I had planned to pass on to our children, and instead I am giving them the reality that the American food system is flawed and our bodies are paying a high price for it.


But they are not aware of all that, and they are thriving in the reality that we are creating for them. They have adapted better than I thought they would. They were not used to a lot of junk before anyway, but they certainly have strong opinions about food. I really thought they would miss sandwiches and crackers more than they actually do. Turns out, there are plenty of other choices that are easy and enjoyable. (Mia, eating cucumbers? Addie eating Brussels sprouts? Awesome.)


It took some time, but my passion came back.

And so, please forgive me if the house is a mess, if the grocery bills are high, and if the boxes of even the “healthiest” of cereals begin to disappear. I know you will forgive me as long as I keep the good stuff coming (right?).


Banana-Mango Coconut Milk Ice Cream

It Came Back, and Banana-Mango Coconut Milk Ice Cream

This ice cream is one of the easiest and most delicious desserts I have come up with. Three ingredients, thirty minutes (if that), and a simple refreshing ice cream that reassures me I might actually be happy living without dairy if I ever took that leap. (Not that I anticipate actually doing that anytime too soon–I never said I was completely Paleo, did I?) If you don’t have an ice cream maker, I understand your pain; I didn’t have one until just recently. Feel free to come over for a scoop while you wait for someone to surprise you with one. But let me know about 30 minutes in advance, deal?


2 ripe bananas
2 cups mango (peeled & chunked)
2 15 oz. cans full fat coconut milk
*variation – add a couple tablespoons of honey or another sweetener of your choice if you prefer a sweeter ice cream, but I find that bananas and mango are sweet enough to make this a light, refreshing dessert.


Start with the fruit. If using frozen mango, start by defrosting 2 1/2 cups. If using fresh mango, peel and chunk the fruit to equal 2 1/2 cups. Peel the bananas and puree them with the mango until smooth; add the coconut milk and stir to combine. Pour into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Notes: I use the Cuisinart Pure Indulgence Frozen Yogurt, Sorbet & Ice Cream Maker (which I recommend, if you’re in the market for one). It froze this ice cream in about 25 minutes. When it was done, it was perfect soft serve consistency. Once frozen in the freezer, though, it froze solid. Take it out from the freezer about 45 minutes (or longer, depending on the temperature of your freezer) before you plan to eat it.


Aunt Helen’s Comical Chocolate Cake

Dear Joey,

I just want you to know that I’ve never actually described chocolate cake as  comical before. Let me be very clear on that point. To me, chocolate cake should never be something to laugh at. It’s far too serious a matter.

But when you came home from work and saw the catastrophe that was our kitchen — the sink piled high with bowls and spoons and sippy cups and reject cake pans–and said, in a very tentative voice, “I guess I did get home early today, didn’t I? So what exactly are you making?” the only thing I could think to say was, “Aunt Helen’s Comical Chocolate Cake.”

Comical because it took far more effort to make it with two babies around than it would if it were just me in the kitchen alone. Comical because I planned to bake it in two cake pans that, as it turns out, I don’t even own. Comical because every time my mom and I talk about the cake, we remember how proud Aunt Helen was that there were only 3 Tablespoons of cocoa in the whole cake. Three tablespoons. That’s it!

Aunt Helen’s cake, though absolutely delicious in its own right, is anything but chocolatey. It tastes like one of those tried and true sheet cakes that has good ol’ fashioned powdered sugar frosting, the kind that would show up at church potlucks all over the Midwest. (This cake probably did make an appearance at many such events since Aunt Helen was a pastor’s wife in the Midwest.)

In my memory, the cake is absolutely delicious in its own right, whether it’s super chocolatey or not. (And for reasons I’ll never be able to explain, I always taste a hint of cinnamon when I think of that cake.) Whenever I think of this cake, I think of Aunt Helen and how “tried and true” she is in my memory. I don’t know her, not really. She came to visit when I was a kid, and my memory of her is wonderful, but it’s really Grandma’s Teague’s stories of her that make me admire her the most: stories of singing together, harmonizing while they washed the dishes; stories of how they both wore the same wedding dress only a few short days apart from each other; stories of how her life was strikingly similar to the story of The Poisonwood Bible.  Resourceful, creative, and compassionate, with a laugh that (in my memory, at least) sounds like the tinkling of a glockenspiel.

But back to the cake. As I stirred together the batter, I couldn’t resist adding more cocoa than the original recipe called for. I mean, if you’re going to do something, do it right. (Right?) So I doubled the cocoa content, wondering if Aunt Helen would be offended if she knew what I was doing. To make matters worse, I added some cinnamon so  that I wouldn’t be disappointed when the cake doesn’t taste like it does in my memory.

As the dishes piled up, I couldn’t help but hope that Addie and Mia will sing together while they do dishes one day, just like my grandma and Aunt Helen did. But my day dreaming was interrupted by Addie, who didn’t exactly appreciate the noise I was making with the hand held mixer. She whined until I picked her up so she could see what I was doing, and even then she was still unsettled. So, I  gave her a taste of the batter, which worked. Suddenly she didn’t care about the noise anymore. It was as if she was saying, “Bring on the noise if it means I get a treat that tastes like this!” I took that as a good sign that the cake was shaping up to be something good. (I mean, come on. Look at her attack that spatula.)

But in my efforts to keep her interested and not scared of the mixer, I misread the recipe and only added in 2 cups of flour, not the 3 cups originally called for. (And I only realized this after the cake was already baked…).

So to be sure I hadn’t ruined Aunt Helen’s legendary chocolate cake, I took it to Grandma’s house the next day so she could taste it. Her assessment? Delicious. And I agreed–how could I not? It was chocolatey and very moist (a result of leaving out 1 cup of flour!).  Addie’s assessment? She happily took one bite, asked for more, and promptly spit it out.

I’m glad you didn’t do the same thing when you tasted it. I took that to mean you liked it, which leads me to believe that it’s ok to reinvent old classics for modern tastes, right? (Even if a 21 month old spits it out? Heck, more for us.)

Love, Scratch

Aunt Helen’s Chocolate Cake, Reinvented

Cake Ingredients:
2 cups sugar
1 scant cup butter flavored organic shortening
2 medium eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
6 Tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sour milk (2 cups low fat milk + 2 Tablespoons plain vinegar)

Frosting Ingredients:
1/4 butter, at room temperature
2-3 Tablespoons (or more) cocoa
2 – 2 1/4 c confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 cake pan.  Make the sour milk by adding 2 Tablespoons plain vinegar to 2 cups lowfat milk. Stir and set aside. Mix dry ingredients together. Set aside. Cream together the sugar and shortening; add the eggs and vanilla and mix until creamy. Add 1/4 cup sour milk and mix; add 1/2 cup dry ingredients and mix. Repeat until milk and dry ingredients are all incorporated. Mix on high until creamy and smooth. Pour into prepared pan and bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. Cool on a wire rack.

While cake is cooling, make the frosting. Use about 1/4 cup butter at room temperature and dump some cocoa in the bowl (maybe about 2-3 Tablespoons or so).  Add 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and blend with a mixer (or a hand held whisk if your babies are in bed, like mine were). Splash in some milk and mix until incorporated; the mixture should be smooth and thick. If it’s too thin, add some more confectioner’s sugar (I added another 1/4 cup).

Spread evenly on top of the cake and let set. After it is fully dry, it’ll be semi-hard, like a super-thin candy shell on top.