Kicking off the Holiday Season with Pies for Simply Gluten-Free

"And they're off!" My grandpa would begin one of his classic jokes. In the fast-paced clip of a horse race announcer, he continued, "It's cabbage by a head, carrot in a bunch. Toothpaste being squeezed out on the rail. 

"And Diaper, bringing up the rear!" That last sentence always came with a special gravitas. 

It was a perennial favorite. We would ask him to tell it to us again and again. Recalling it now, I can still clearly hear his voice.

Those familiar words came back to me yesterday. 

The day after Halloween, and the holiday season is upon us. So often it feels like the gates opening with the crack of a starting pistol as we bear, full speed ahead, towards the Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We got to sample some holiday joy a little early this year, when Stephen and I worked on gluten free holiday pies for Simply Gluten-Free Magazine. From the flour blend and pie crust recipe, to fillings for a cranberry-apple galette and spiced rum and sweet potato hand pies, I got to build these recipes one piece at a time. Finding cranberries in August was no simple matter. (Thank you, Whole Foods, for pulling through on that one.) I didn't arrive at these recipes without some help, either. The filling for the Butter Pecan White Chocolate Mousse came from my Aunt BJ. The result is a family favorite I still remember tasting for the first time. (You might remember her from the Hungarian Goulash post this summer. She is an excellent baker and cook.) 

Part of the joy of the holidays is the sense of anticipation they create. Sharing them today fulfills some of my own anticipation. After testing pie crusts and sampling fillings, those recipes are now displayed on magazine racks around the country, and I finally get to share the tear sheets. I think the images are among the best that Stephen and I have worked on together. 

I hope you enjoy this visual taste of the holiday sweets to come. For the recipes, get your copy of Simply Gluten-Free.

Writing about Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free Magazine

Opening spread of the story on Birmingham for  Simply Gluten Free . Photos by  Stephen DeVries . 

Opening spread of the story on Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free. Photos by Stephen DeVries

Whether I care to admit or not, celiac disease has come to define much of my travel experience. For the most part, this has translated into an unexpected blessing. I seek out local spots that can accommodate my diet, often finding unexpected treasures on the road. There's also a certain joy to finding an unexpected gluten-free treat in a new place. On our trip to Boston this spring, for instance, as we trekked along the Freedom Trail, we happened to come across a bakery with gluten-free cupcakes and cookies. After watching the rest of my family partake in some delicious-looking Dunkin’ Donuts earlier that day, it was a special kind of joy to find my own baked treat without having to plan for it. 

Even with these happy discoveries and little surprises, arriving in a new place as a gluten-free traveler also poses a certain number of challenges that can create some serious anxiety. While I have increasingly grown accustomed to asking for special service, even after living gluten free for 12 years I'm still not altogether comfortable with it. I have watched my own moments of uncertainty and shyness cause anxiety not only for me, but also for my fellow travelers. Add a few growling stomachs to the mix and you have a recipe for a travel disaster. Those less optimistic experiences made writing a travel story about Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free magazine a special privilege. By discussing my favorite places to go in the place I call home, hopefully I gave readers the inside track on where to satiate their hunger and enjoy the city at the same time. 

In my view, the best parts of Birmingham aren't located near the chain restaurants and their alluring familiarity. It's a city that is best experienced and understood through a stroll downtown, where one can take in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the parks, and grab a bite to eat while appreciating the depth of history that took place on the sidewalks you're treading. While the city's growing food scene provides a wide range of culinary options for anyone to enjoy, since most of the fare is local, it can be intimidating if you haven't done your homework. Writing the story meant something special to me for that reason. It allowed me to talk about the city that I love and the wonderful places to eat, proving that gluten-free diners can enjoy the comforts of the South even if they can't eat traditional biscuits and gravy. 

I've posted my complete story for Simply Gluten Free with the rest of my writing. For those of you interested in a my favorite places to grab some gluten-free grub in Birmingham, below I’ve listed the restaurants and cafes I like best according to their neighborhood. 

(* indicates places with a specific gluten-free menu)

El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar - My favorite Mexican restaurant in town. They can prepare most menu items gluten free. I’m an especially big fan of their tacos, which you can order with homemade corn tortillas. Their queso, with its blend of goat cheese and tequila, is also not be missed.

Paramount - A great spot for a fresh take on American bar food classics. They have a delicious chili, and a Frito pie, both of which pair perfectly with an Original Sin Cider and some good company. Make sure to check out the back of the restaurant, where they have old-school arcade games and ski-ball. 

Urban Standard - Among the best coffee shops in town, they also serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their staff are friendly and know how to accommodate gluten-free diners. I would especially recommend their chicken salad on greens.

Five Points and the Highlands:
Highlands Bar & Grill - With a James Beard Foundation Award winning chef, this fine dining experience combines French culinary tradition with locally farmed ingredients. While they don’t have a specifically gluten-free menu, their knowledgable staff will carefully walk you through the menu and ensure you have a gluten-free experience.

Jim ’n’ Nicks Bar-B-Q - One of our favorite southern BBQ joints, their meats, sauces, and a good handful of their sides are all gluten-free. Ask a waiter, and they’ll make sure you don’t veer into glutenous territory. 

Rojo* - This is one of our favorite spots when going out for lunch or dinner. Rojo combines American and Mexican food for a menu that can please just about anyone. They have a gluten free menu (look on the shelf below the regular menus), and if you have celiac, let them know and they’ll change gloves and do everything they can to avoid cross-contamination. 

Forest Park and Avondale:
Silvertron Cafe - This Birmingham staple has been delighting locals for more than 25 years. On a recent visit, I asked the waiter about gluten-free options and he had the owner Marco Morosini come to our table and walk me through the menu. Marco continued to check in on us throughout the evening, to ensure that the meal went well. It did, and it’s on its way to a dining-out go-to for us. 

Urban Cookhouse - This is a lunch favorite of mine. Most of their menu items can be prepared gluten-free. Their grilled chicken is among my favorites. They also make a delicious lemonade. They have two additional locations—one in Crestline Village and another in the Summit—making their locally sourced food easily accessible wherever you happen to be.

O’Carr’s - Best known for its chicken salad, O’Carr’s prides themselves in creating delicious and beautiful food that is as colorful as it is tasty. If you’re looking for a gluten-free caterer, O’Carr’s would be my first stop. Owner Cameron Carr pulled out all the stops to make sure that we had a completely gluten-free menu at our wedding in 2012. 

Crestline Village:
Church Street Coffee & Books* - Their cozy atmosphere, well-curated book collection, and delicious coffee are enough to make Church Street my favorite coffee shop in Birmingham. Add in the range of gluten-free treats in their pastry case, and the place can't be beat. (If you're with gluten-eating friends, make sure they indulge in a "Break-up Cookie." I have it on my husband's expert authority that they're the best choclate-chip cookies in town). 

Mountain Brook: 
Over Easy - A great breakfast and brunch spot. Their omelets are my favorite. You don’t even have to skip the toast here! They have gluten-free bread and make sure it’s toasted without fear of contamination. 

Ollie Irene* - My favorite spot for fine dinning in Birmingham. Ollie Irene clearly marks their gluten-free options on their menu, and offer several options from appetizers, through the mains and on to desserts. Their seafood is among the best in town. 

Shelby County: 
Funky Muffin Bakery* - Birmingham’s 100% gluten-free bakery, the Funky Muffin creates just about any baked good you can think off. Their donuts and cinnamon muffins are especially good. They also do custom cakes and other orders, making them ideal for a gluten-free celebration. It is definitely worth the trip south of town to check them out. 

Barcelona days in Simply Gluten-Free Magazine

Last summer Stephen and I made our way through Africa and into southern Europe. I posted before about some of our experiences after landing in Kigali and making our way through the twists and turns of Rwanda's mountains to Goma, DR Congo. That was just the beginning of our three-week venture, as we went from the Congo to Kenya, and then to Italy. We ended the trip on a high note, especially where food and friends were concerned, and spent a few days in Barcelona, Spain. 

We wandered through the city, with all of its layers of medieval and modern influences, escorted by our friends Kat and Alex (who thankfully speaks Spanish and Catalan). The four of us sampled an array of seafood, took in the architectural stylings of Gaudí, and took a train ride into the mountains to tour the monastery at Montserrat. The trip also paved the way for a national travel story. This month, you can read about our Barcelona experience in Simply Gluten-Free Magazine. While the story emphasizes those elements of our trip that catered to gluten-free dining (something quite easily managed in Spain), it also talks about the variety of attractions that draw so many travelers to the city. 

Now we're in the midst of a new three-week journey from New England and through the Mid-Atlantic. It seems like the perfect time to pause and reflect on the places we've journeyed to in the past year. 

Here's a sampling of our tear sheets. Photos by  Stephen DeVries .

Here's a sampling of our tear sheets. Photos by Stephen DeVries.

Family Recipes, Part 1: Easter traditions and reasons to chart your own course

When it comes to holiday traditions, Easter can be confusing. For many Christians the celebration of Christ’s resurrection stands at the heights of the sacred calendar. Yet most of traditional practices — including the name of the holiday — have pagan roots. Where did the word Easter and its bunny come from? Well, that would be a reference to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility whose sign was a rabbit.

If you’re a Protestant, you have even less traditional ground to stand on, because following the Reformation, Easter celebrations were rejected as too papal. It was Catholics who established the tenets of the Christian Easter feast. Protestants didn’t come back to the fold, so to speak, until the late-nineteenth century. By that time, they also had the benefit of enjoying candy Easter eggs (Cadbury introduced the first chocolate egg in 1875), jelly beans, and Easter baskets stuffed with treats.* 

While the Easter table might lack the kind of nostalgic grounding in tradition that one experiences at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I find this freeing. For us, Easter has become a time to create new holiday memories and traditions with our friends. Since it takes a two-hour drive or a four-hour flight to spend the holiday with family, I try to incorporate family by including some traditional family recipes on the menu. 

For this year, I’ve adopted the traditional Hungarian kiffel (something we usually eat at Christmas) to our celebration of the resurrection. The kiffel combines cream cheese pastry and a touch of jam for a mixture of savory and sweet that’s hard to resist. This also kicks off a series on traditional family recipes that I plan to continue sharing on the blog. I figure, what better way to explore the history of what we eat, than to delve into the foods I associate with my family history?

Whenever I eat a kiffel, I think of my dad sneaking a few each time he passed through the kitchen and my mom telling him to save some for the rest of us. It makes them all the more special to think about my grandma and great grandma making them before me. While our families will be celebrating Easter across the country, our little Alabama duo will think of them fondly and enjoy a cookie in their honor. It’s not a bunny or an egg — but who said those had all that much to do with celebrating the resurrection in the first place? 

Photos by  Stephen DeVries . 

Photos by Stephen DeVries

Great-Grandma Yahraus’s Kiffel Recipe (gluten free)

Note: I adapted the recipe below to my gluten free needs. For those making the cookie with wheat flour, see my notes in parentheses.) 


  • 1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese (cold)
  • 1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter (cold) 
  • 2 1/4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour Blend (2 cups if using wheat flour)
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder (1/2 tsp. if using wheat flour) 
  • 1 rounded Tablespoon sour cream
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • Jam or other filling of your choice (I varied mine between orange marmalade, blackberry jelly, and chocolate chips)


  • Sift together flour and baking powder. 
  • Using a fork or pastry cutter, cut in cold butter and cream cheese. 
  • Working with your hands add in sour cream and egg yolk so that the dough forms a soft ball. Be careful not over mix the dough — if it has a marbled look, that’s okay. 
  • Divide into two balls, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour (can be refrigerated overnight). 
  • Preheat oven to 375ºF
  • Working one ball at a time, unwrap roll out on a sheet of parchment paper dusted with tapioca starch. Roll out dough until it is 1/8 inch thick.
  • Cut dough into 2” squares and place a 1/2 tsp. of filling in the center. Fold into triangles or cylinders. 
  • Bake for 10-13 min. (Mine were perfect at 12 min.) 
  • Sprinkle with powdered sugar. 

*My information on the history of Easter came from Cathy K. Kaufman’s “Easter” entry in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (1ed.), Andrew F. Smith, ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed online at on 18 Apr. 2014.

Flax, the Irish, and a gluten-free Linzer Torte

It sits perched in the health food aisle of the grocery store — bags of flax seed lined up among the organic granola, peanut butter, and other natural, specialty foods. I sprinkle a little of it on my breakfast yogurt nearly every morning. Some even use a combination of flax seed and water to replace eggs when baking. While flax has become a fixture in the modern market for green living, its journey into today’s diets was more laborious and nuanced than one might expect. 

Photo by  Stephen DeVries .

Photo by Stephen DeVries.

The original production of flax focused on textiles rather than dietary consumption. Flax is the plant behind linen, and historically its value comes from its fibers, not its seeds. Cultivation of flax for linen was especially prominent in northern Europe, where people in France, Flanders, Germany, and Ireland began cultivating the crop as early as the Bronze Age (2300-500 BC in Europe) and the practice rose to prominence during the medieval period.

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, and Stephen and I planning a trip to Ireland for later this month, it seemed appropriate to give a few details on the Irish experience of flax production. For the Irish, linen became especially profitable by the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by which time the British government began investing in expanding linen production. While traveling in Ireland, Arthur Young, an Englishman, remarked, somewhat condescendingly, on the importance of linen to the Irish economy, commenting, “The only considerable manufacture in Ireland which carries in all its parts the appearance of industry is the linen, and it ought never to be forgotten that this is solely confined to the protestant parts of the kingdom...” Young continued that considering the French example, this was not to say that the Catholics were incapable of such production, but that the Irish Catholics of the south had yet to capitalize on linen in the same way as the northern Irish protestants. Apparently, even the history of flax and linen are riddled with the confessional divisions of Anglo-Irish, Protestant-Catholic rivalry that run throughout Irish history. 

Young was right in seeing the promise of commercialization in the linen market. By 1810 farmers had sewn 70,000 acres with flax, and that number more than doubled by the 1850s when flax grew on some 175,000 acres. But the mid-nineteenth century also saw blight to potato crops and the devastating Irish Potato Famine, which left a million people dead and saw another 1.5 million emigrate, mostly to the United States. While that traumatic and devastating loss is responsible for the growth of a robust Irish heritage in the U.S., it also marked the decline of the Irish linen industry. 

The flax seeds — a byproducts of linen production — not only became an eventual ingredient in health food, but the oil derived from pressing the seeds, known as linseed oil, is used in oil paints, varnishes, and linoleum. 

What does all of this have to do with the Linzer Torte, you might ask. Well not a whole lot, except that the Linzer Torte traditionally uses walnut flour — something that I am allergic to, so I thought I’d try an alternative. I combined almond flour and flax seed meal to arrive at a delicious and hearty crust for my torte. When I started thinking about what laid behind that creation, I decided to explore the history of flax in greater detail. 

Here’s the recipe for my Gluten-Free Linzer Torte: 

Pastry crust: 

  • 400 grams (4 cups) almond flour
  • 55 grams (1/2 cup) flax seed meal
  • 375 grams (3 cups)  All-purpose gluten free flour*
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground clove
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/2 sticks butter - cold, unsalted, and cubed. 
  • 330 grams (1 2/3 cup) granulated sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
  • Finely grated zest of one lemon


  • 1/4 cup fine, dry (gluten-free) breadcrumbs
  • 2 cups (16 oz) seedless raspberry jam (I used 14 oz. of raspberry jam and 2 oz of blackberry)

For finish: 

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp water
  • Optional: 1 cup slivered almonds. 


  • Preheat oven to 400ºF
  • Prepare selected pan by lining with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit, and buttering the paper
    • Note: You can make the torte as either a circle or a square. This recipe makes enough for two 9 inch round pans, two 8 inch square pans, or one 9x13 rectangular pan. Because I wanted to cut mine into square bars (as opposed to wedges) I opted for the single 9x13 pan. If you are making a circular torte, it is preferable to use a cake pan with a removable bottom. 
  • Stir together the almond flour, flax seed meal, and sugar. 
  • In a large bowl stir gluten-free flour, cinnamon, clove, and salt together until well blended.
  • With a fork or pastry blender, work cubes of butter into the almond and flax mixture until it as a course, crumbly texture. 
  • Stir in the sugar, almond, and flax seed mixture. 
  • In a small dish, beat together the egg, egg yolk, and lemon zest until combined, then stir into almond and flax crumbs. 
  • Gently kneed the dough to fully incorporate the egg mixture, and the dough forms into a ball. 
  • Divide dough in half if making one torte, or into quarters if making two. 
  • Place one portion into the bottom of the pan and use your fingers to press it evenly across the pan and about 1 1/2 inches up the side of the pan. It should be evenly distributed across the bottom of the pan, but does not need to be smooth. 
  • Bake the shell or shells for 12 min.
  • While the shell(s) bake, roll out the remaining dough between sheets of wax or parchment paper until it is 1/4 inch thickness, and one inch bigger than the pan. Then place it in the freezer to chill for approx. 20 min. 
  • Remove shell(s) from the oven and let cool slightly. 
  • Reduce baking temperature to 350ºF


  • I put dry, gluten-free bread in the food processor to create my bread crumbs until it was as fine as possible. 
  • Sprinkle 1/4 cup of finely ground breadcrumbs over the baked shell, or divide into 2 Tbsp allotments if making two tortes
  • Stir jam until it is soft, and spread it across the shell(s). 


  • Remove dough from freezer and cut into 1/2 inch wide strips, cutting through the dough and waxed paper. Use the lift the waxed paper, and place the strip, dough side down, onto the filling. 
    • My dough was fairly stiff after coming out of the freezer, so I was able to handle it without cutting through the wax paper. 
  • Arrange strips on a diagonal about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch apart, layering them in a criss-cross patterns to make the lattice top. 
    • My dough was not pliable enough to weave into a traditional lattice, but layering them on the diagonal still created a nice, diamond-shaped effect. 
  • Use leftover pieces to fill in any gaps. 
  • Mix egg yolk with water and brush all of the lattice and border. Sprinkle with slivered almonds, if desired. 
  • Bake torte for 45 to 60 minutes. 
  • Remove from oven and place on rack. 

For best flavor leave the torte or tortes stand uncovered overnight before serving.

Note: I adapted my recipe from one posted last December on Smitten Kitchen. If you are looking for a traditional recipe that uses walnuts, I would recommend following her example. 

*Earlier this month I had the opportunity to share my experience of being diagnosed with celiac and going gluten free with fresh style magazine. I shared a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and my go-to gluten-free flour blend on the magazine's blog, You can download a printable version of the recipe for the cookies and the flour blend here

Information on the history of flax and linen came from The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, and The Oxford Companion to Irish History. For those especially curious, you can read all of Arthur Young's eighteenth century observations about Ireland on Google Play