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Interview with Cybele Pascal, Cookbook Author

Baking at Its Best

From the Spring 2010 edition of Allergic Living

Allergic Living gives two thumbs way up for Cybele Pascal’s The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook. Pascal had all the right ingredients take on her second cookbook: an accomplished home chef, she earned her stripes in restaurant kitchens, and she lives with multiple allergies in her family. Add two more to the mix: she’s a writer by profession and has boundless passion for baking.

With a team of 20 testers to assist, Pascal mixed, baked, tweaked and rebaked. Everything had to live up to her standards. The result is a truly superb recipe collection and must-have for those with – or without – diet restrictions. Celestial Arts, $29.95.

I recently spoke to Cybele Pascal about baking allergy-free.

GS: Why baking as the focus of the new cookbook?
CP: “With children, you want to be able to provide delicious treats for them that are safe. I really wanted to make sweets for the kids that were safe and that they could bring to school, that were safe for all the kids with food allergies. On a personal level, I wanted to get better at it, and I felt allergen-free vegan baking was a genre that could use some improvement.”

GS: What didn’t you like that was out there?
CP: First, “I thought too many people were relying on bean flours. I know they create a good structure, but I’m not a fan of the beany aftertaste. I wanted something that mimicked all-purpose flour but didn’t have that aftertaste.
I also felt the texture of the baking hadn’t been perfected. It’s easy to bake without gluten if you can use eggs and it’s easy to bake without eggs if you can use gluten, but it’s not easy to bake without both of them. So I was trying to figure out the alchemy of that: how do you do it without all of them? And create something that’s just as delicious if not more so than it’s traditional counterpart.”

GS: Why do without all of the allergens and gluten? Some books are just free of “some” top allergens?
CP: “I wanted to help as many people as possible. So for both of my books, I’ve eliminated the top allergens that are responsible for 90 per cent of food allergies. I didn’t want some people to have to try to make more substitutions.”

GS: Do you ever feel like a ‘mad scientist’ in the kitchen?
CP: Laughs. I feel like a mad scientist in the kitchen all the time! I became obsessed with figuring out to create a rise without eggs, and how to create the structure without the gluten and the eggs. I got so into – ‘if I add a teaspoon of baking soda and a tablespoon of cider vinegar, it’s all of a sudden going to cause this to blow up and create such wonderful rise.’ Baking, whether allergen-free, vegan or not, is all about chemistry.
CP recalls the bad old days of cardboard-like gluten-free products that crumbled, or had no shelf life. But she says, “I think we’re getting to a good place with this now, though.

GS: What was the hardest dessert to get right?
CP: My fudge brownies – gluten-free, allergen-free and vegan – were the most difficult recipe to perfect. That’s also the recipe I’m proudest of.

GS: What made that one difficult?
CP: “In terms of alchemy, I did this one over and over again. I didn’t feel that there was a really true fudgy, allergen-free, gluten-free, vegan brownie in any of the books yet. I wanted that crunchy, glossy brownie crust with the chewy, fudgy interior. I made this over and over and over again, adjusting this or that. Finally I figured out that if I used plum purée, that would replace the egg.”

GS: We’re reprinting your Red Velvet Cake in the Spring 2010 issue of Allergic Living. For those not on a gluten-free diet, can all-purpose flour be substituted?
CP: “You can use an all-purpose flour and then omit the xathan gum. I also find it will bake a little more quickly and might be a slightly denser cake. So yes, you may use regular all-purpose flour. But do not use whole wheat flour.”

Next page: Making baking easier

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GS: Do you ever spring some of your baking on the unallergic, and then after they’ve tasted, tell them what’s ‘not’ in it?
CP: “Actually, I do it all the time. Last year, at my son’s year-end school picnic, I brought my fudge brownies to the picnic and just put them out on the table with all the other foods. That was the one baked good that completely disappeared. Everyone was saying, ‘yum, your brownies are so good!’ and they didn’t know they were gluten-free, allergen-free and vegan. I love doing that.”

GS: I’ve made a few of the recipes – the cookie sandwiches, the biscotti, the Red Velvet Cake, they were big hits. What struck me was that while there may be a number of ingredients in some, the recipe steps in this book were really very easy. Was that intentional?
CP: “Absolutely! One of the things I discovered with my first cookbook, is that people who are cooking and baking with allergies might not start out enthusiastic about being in the kitchen. When a child is suddenly diagnosed with several food allergies, these people have to learn from scratch. And they might rather not be cooking.
So I figured out that this needs to be simple for people who are learning. That’s why I call it a ‘handbook’ because it’s both a book full of recipes but also an instructional guidebook for people learning to cook this way. And I hope it walks them through the steps.”

GS: Other favorites out of the Handbook?
CP: She mentions the scones and biscuits, then stops. “Oh yeah, the orange cranberry muffins are to die for. They’re amazing. And try the mock buttermilk raisin bread, it’s fantastic. A really, old-fashioned loaf of bread.”

GS: A few words in closing?
CP: “I think these recipes are good enough for everybody. I think they’re delicious enough to feed to people with or without food allergies, with or without celiac disease. That’s my mission, is to create food that everybody can eat. So I call them ‘free to eat sweets’. Also, the recipes are cholesterol-free, 30 per cent of the recipes are made with no refined sugar. They’re as healthful as you can get. But you’re still having a sweet, so don’t eat the whole dozen!”