by Annaliese Lemmon
“Time to get up, Alexa,” Kelly opened the door to her ten-year-old daughter’s room. Alexa lay on her stomach, with her knees tucked up under her. Her face was pulled back in a grimace. The blankets spilled onto the floor. “Are you ok?”
“No,” Alexa groaned. “I must have eaten some gluten at Olivia’s last night.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. What did you have?” Kelly sat on the bed and pulled strands of Alexa’s brown hair from her face.
“Swedish meatballs and rice, so I don’t know where it came from. Her mom said she didn’t use flour in the sauce to thicken it.”
“Did she tell you what was in the meatballs? What did she use to replace the breadcrumbs?”
“There’s breadcrumbs in meatballs?” She sighed. “I should have known to ask about those too. I hate being a celiac. I wish I didn’t have to worry about every little thing that I eat.”
“I know, sweetie, I know.” Kelly kissed Alexa’s cheek. She worried as much as Alexa, and probably more, that the food she cooked didn’t get contaminated with any grains containing gluten. Her heart ached that this time she hadn’t been able to protect her daughter. “I’d make it go away if I could. Unfortunately, we just have to deal with it.”
Alexa sighed again and closed her eyes.
“What if I made you something special while you stay home from school? What would you like?”
After a few moments, Alexa asked, “Can you make sugar cookies?”
“Sugar cookies? Are you sure you don’t want something chocolate?”
“Rachel is having friends over tonight to decorate sugar cookies for Christmas. I’m definitely not going now, but I thought it would be nice to host my own party where I can actually eat the cookies.”
“That sounds like fun. Though I’ve not made gluten free sugar cookies before. I’ll have to see if I can find a recipe. Do you want anything to eat now?”
Alexa shook her head.
“All right. Just let me know when you’re hungry.”
After Kelly made her husband’s lunch and pushed her son Tristen out the door so he wouldn’t miss the bus, she sat down with her gluten free cookbooks. While they had recipes for other cookies, there weren’t any for plain sugar cookies. Undaunted, Kelly turned to her favorite cooking blogs and searched until she found a recipe. She printed it out and headed to the kitchen.
As Christmas carols played from her smart phone, she tied her gingerbread man apron on and opened the pantry. The recipe called for a generic gluten free flour mix, so she pulled down her rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch and measured out her usual ratios. When it was time to roll the dough, it was sticky even after chilling for two hours. Still, Kelly grinned as she pressed the snowman, Christmas tree, and candy cane cookie cutters into the dough. Until now, they had only been used for Jell-O Jigglers. Alexa was finally going to be able to participate in this Christmas tradition. Maybe they would actually leave cookies for Santa this year instead of fudge.
When she opened the oven, she closed her eyes and inhaled the sweet buttery aroma. Alexa wandered into the kitchen as Kelly started removing the cookies from the tray. Kelly handed one to Alexa on a spatula. “How is it?”
Alexa frowned slightly. “It needs milk and frosting.”
Kelly tried a snowman cookie. It had a light buttery taste, but it crumbled to powder in her mouth, sucking up all the moisture. “You’re right.” She poured herself a glass of milk and dunked her hatless snowman in. When she pulled him back out, he was missing his head and an arm as well. After she made some frosting, they spread it on the cooled cookies, but the cookies broke apart beneath the pressure of the frosting knives.
“Stupid cookies,” Alexa muttered as her third cookie dissolved into crumbs on her plate.
Kelly patted Alexa’s hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll make another batch.”
After cleaning the kitchen, Kelly went back to the blog to see what she may have done wrong. The gluten free mix that they used involved bean flour. She generally avoided bean flour when making sweets, afraid that the beany flavor would come through. But the flavor wasn’t really noticeable when she used the bean flour to make breads. Maybe she was worrying for no reason, and the beans would hold the cookies together. The next day, she made the recipe again, following the flour ratio provided on the site. When Alexa and Tristen got home from school, she had a plate of cookies and bowl of frosting waiting for them.
These cookies held together as they were frosted. But the butter flavor was completely overpowered by the sour and bitter tang from the bean flour. Tristen took one bite and said “My cookies are better” before running to escape Alexa’s arm jab and Kelly’s scolding.
“Don’t worry, I’ll try again,” Kelly said.
Kelly went back to the internet. The only recipes she could find either called for a generic mix, which, as she had found, might not give her the results she wanted, or called for flours like amaranth and mochi that she didn’t have in her pantry. She hated the idea of buying a bag just to use a cup. So she did what she’d done before finding these blogs – she set out to create the recipe herself.
Kelly went to the kitchen with her pink polka dot recipe journal in her hand. She had slightly over two weeks before the kids would be out of school, and then six days until Christmas. Her previous failures told her that this was a recipe that was going to take a lot of experimentation to get right. If she wanted a chance for a usable sugar cookie before Christmas, she was going to have to bake at least a batch a day.
She tried adding more starch. The cookies just fell apart easier. She tried using the ratios found in chocolate chip cookies. They didn’t hold their shapes. She tried nut flours, more eggs, less starch. Some were too grainy. Most crumbled when cool. She tried increasing the xanthan gum, which helps bind ingredients in gluten free cooking. They held together, but had a slight sour taste to them.
After trying the twelfth batch, Alexa asked, “Mom, are you going to be able to get a good recipe before school ends? Olivia’s going out of town as soon as vacation starts.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes it takes a long time to perfect a recipe. Remember those doughnuts?”
“Yeah. That took forever”
“Well, if I can’t get them done for Christmas, I’m sure I can get some for Valentine’s Day. How does that sound?”
“I really wanted to have the party for Christmas. What if I ate a couple of these while everyone else had regular cookies?”
“That could work, but it doesn’t sound fun if you have to force yourself to eat them.”
“I’ll be fine.”
That’s what Alexa had said a couple years ago when she didn’t want to take her gluten free cupcake to Rachel’s birthday party. So Kelly had let her go without it, and as predicted, Alexa came home depressed and hungry. This time wouldn’t be any different if she didn’t get these cookies right. “Let me try a few more experiments. I have three more days.”
“OK.” Alexa dragged out the letters with a sigh.
When Alexa left to do homework, Kelly dumped the cookies into the trash. Not only was she running out of time, but the grocery bills were mounting. How many dollars worth of ingredients had she dumped into the trash? It surely hadn’t surpassed the cost of Alexa’s new video game, right? She didn’t really want to find out, just like she didn’t want the scale to tell her what all these samples had done to her waistline.
Finally, two days before school ended for the year, she pulled a batch out of the oven that had held their shapes. She took a bite. It actually tasted good. It had a hint of almond, and the texture was nice and chewy. A couple hours later, she tried another. It still tasted good, and it didn’t crumble when frosted!
When the kids got back from school, Kelly started washing dishes so she wouldn’t be hovering while Alexa tasted the cookies. Alexa sat at the counter, then took her time in selecting a snowman cookie and slathering it with frosting. She took a bite. As she chewed, her eyes slowly grew round. “This one’s a keeper,” she said as she took another bite. “Can I invite my friends over right now?”
“Go for it.”
As Alexa ran for the phone, she called to Tristen. “These cookies are actually good!”
Tristen came to the counter to try one. “Not bad.” He grabbed a second cookie and headed back to the sofa to watch TV.
In a couple of hours, three of Alexa’s friends had arrived to frost and decorate the cookies. Kelly listened to them chat from the adjacent room. “Are all of these really gluten free?” Olivia asked.
“Yep,” Alexa said.
“I never would have guessed.”
Kelly grinned, the stress from the last couple weeks vanished. She’d hit the gold standard in gluten free baking – where even gluten eaters enjoyed it. But that didn’t measure up to the joy from making something that her daughter enjoyed eating.
Critique: This is a great way to raise awareness of celiac’s, but you need a little more tension and conflict to make it a really good story. It starts good, but slows down when Mom is trying all the recipes. Add some tension there. The ending is also a bit of a so-what. Add something from Alexa about how wonderful the party was and/or something about making more for Santa. And it definitely should include the recipe!
What I liked best: The uniqueness of the celiac twist.
Publication ready: Close. Jazz it up just a little.