Learn from Elana Amsterdam the benefits of going grain-free.
Written by: Sabrina Grotewold
For long-time Elana’s Pantry blogger Elana Amsterdam, author of “The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook” and, most recently, “Gluten-Free Cupcakes”, creating craveable gluten-free (and sometimes dairy free and vegan) renditions of popular foods like cupcakes can take 50 tries. Like a runner focused on doing whatever it takes to lower a personal record, Amsterdam’s committed to living a wholesome lifestyle free of processed foods and chemicals. Whether you’re looking for a great Paleo recipe or vegan cupcake ideas, or have concerns about how nutritious a gluten-free diet can be for athletes, Amsterdam provides some illuminating advice.
We caught up with her recently to discuss her most recent book and the benefits and challenges of adopting a gluten-free lifestyle.
What inspired you to write a gluten-free cupcake book?
I think people who are gluten-free still want cupcakes. And cupcakes are very popular right now. In May 2010, I did a month of cupcakes on my website and my editor from Random House called me and asked me to do a book. I created 50 new recipes and 14 gluten-free frosting recipes. Thirteen of those are dairy-free and 5 of those are vegan.
Why did you include dairy-free and vegan options?
A lot of people who have Celiac disease can’t digest dairy, so it was really important for me to put dairy-free recipes in the cookbook. Celiac is a disease and the poor digestion created by Celiac can lead to subsequent food allergies.
Tell us how you came up with all those non-traditional cupcake recipes.
Creating a cupcake without sugar, flour and butter is pretty hard. I did come up with one that also doesn’t have egg in it, but it took me 50 tries to come up with that recipe—it’s no sugar, no flour, no butter, no eggs. You basically have nothing to create the protein structure in your cake. I really struggled with that one, but I’m really happy that, after 50 times, I found something that I liked—the vegan chocolate cupcakes.
You and your family must have eaten a lot of gluten-free cupcakes. Do you have Celiac disease?
I have Celiac disease and my older son has Celiac disease. My younger son is gluten-intolerant. My husband doesn’t have the disease or an intolerance, but he eats what we do. He’s an endurance athlete—he’ll do 100-mile rides up to Vail Mountain and things like that. And he loves my food. He says it’s a great post-workout recovery snack that boosts his energy; he doesn’t feel draggy after eating [the cupcakes].
My house is gluten-free. When you have Celiac, cross-contamination is too much of a risk. I’m sick for three days if I eat a crouton in my salad, and it’s just not worth it. The terrible part is getting sick; the great part is all you have to do is avoid gluten to get better and I don’t find the diet to be a challenge.
What are some of the common misconceptions you hear about the gluten-free lifestyle?
People say you can’t get enough fiber [on the gluten-free diet], which I think is so interesting. Fruit is full of fiber; flaxmeal is full of fiber. Nuts are full of fiber. So I never understand it when people say you can’t get enough fiber or calories. Fruit and nuts are what we stick to a lot. We’ve been to places where there aren’t restaurants that understand what gluten-free is, so if there’s a grocery store that has apples and nuts and avocadoes, I’m fine. That’s a lot of fat and a lot of fiber and a lot of calories. I think it’s really healthy.
What do you order when you go out to eat?
I’m strictly Paleo; I haven’t eaten grains for 10 years now. I’ll eat a piece of grilled chicken and a big salad or grilled vegetables. It’s pretty easy.
I have a recipe for Paleo bread on my website, but that’s not what I’m going to eat for breakfast; I’ll have a protein shake. I’d just rather eat less processed food, so I make all of my own food. I make everything I eat.
When you say you make your own food, do you even grind your own flour?
I don’t make my own flours and I don’t recommend it. It doesn’t come out well. It’s the same price and it saves you so much time to buy the ingredients. If you’re going to start grinding your own flours, you’re going to spend your entire life in the kitchen. You can get a better product and save time for the same amount of money if you just buy it. I grind my own flaxmeal, but I won’t grind my own almond flour.
I have a garden and I grow my own vegetables. I make my own hot cereal and I make it from scratch. In my vita-mix, I grind coconut, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax, chia seeds and walnuts and I add cinnamon and boiling water and it’s amazing. It’s called porridge.
How can people at home adapt what you’ve learned—what are your tips?
I think there’s lots of easy recipes on my website that can be made in half an hour. If you look at the Goji powerbars, they’re just great for athletes—they have a lot of protein and fiber and good fats and not a lot of sugar that’s going to leave you hungover. You can throw those together in 15 minutes, bake them in the oven and put them in the refrigerator to eat all week. And the chocolate chip cookies on my website—I think they have six ingredients. After I put the kids to bed, I make those and it takes 10 minutes. Then I just wash the bowls while the cookies are in the oven and I’m done. That’s a half-hour project—tops.
If you’re going to eat good food, you’re going to have to spend some time choosing your food and touching it and making it. It’s a discipline and time commitment just like working out is. And, instead of spending that hour or two on the couch at night watching television, you can make good food. It’s just a matter of making choices of how you use your time. But, I love cooking and I love working out so it’s easy for me.
What do you do to stay fit?
If I could, I’d work out two hours a day. Unfortunately, I only work out for one hour a day. I lift weights three times a week—I do functional fitness, and I walk a lot. I’ll walk five miles in one day if I’m not lifting weights at the gym. I hike a lot, too.
I noticed that some of your recipes use agave. Some are opposed to agave, but some think it’s a great alternative sweetener. Where do you stand?
I think sugar is sugar. It doesn’t matter what form it’s in. I’m not using white sugar. I just do better on a low-sugar diet. I try to fruit sweeten things but I find that my friends and family don’t really want to eat that. Think about sweetening things with apple sauce: It’s not really that sweet to begin with and then you’re going to dilute it with almond flour, coconut oil and all of that. You’re going to have something that’s not much sweeter than a carrot, and you’re going to call that dessert? It’s funny—I get people complaining about agave and sugar but I can’t really get people to eat super duper healthy things that are totally sugar-free. So I just try to strike a balance. And whatever sweetener I use, I’ll use a lot less of it. If there’s a cup of sugar in the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe, I’ll put ¼ cup in mine. So I used less processed sugar and I use a lot less sweetener in general because I don’t need things to be as sweet.
What’s your favorite thing to make at home for your family?
Cookies. The chocolate chip cookies; I love making them and I love eating them.
Do you use any soy products?
I don’t use soy ever. I can’t digest soy; it’s not Paleo.
But chocolate’s not a Paleo-approved ingredient either, right?
Chocolate’s not Paleo, but a lot of people use that as their cheat on Paleo. I can digest chocolate; I can’t digest soy. I’d rather have an almond than a piece of tofu.
What other nuts do you use?
I’ll eat a little bit of peanut. I do a little bit of pistachio.
Do you have any other techniques or DIY domestic projects?
I make my own household cleaners. It’s expensive to buy all that other stuff and it has chemicals, so I don’t want that. I use some peroxide and throw in some essential oils; I just concoct little thing like that.
Any other quirks you’d like to reveal?
I’ve been doing this since 1993, so almost 20 years. It’s funny, friends come over and ask what all the glass jars are for on my counter. I say I don’t want to store things in plastic, so I store them in glass. And I explain to them it’s cheaper, it’s prettier, and it’s healthier—not letting endocrine-disrupting plastic touching your food.
Also, when I use herbs, I use the entire herb. I don’t pick the cilantro and parsley off the stem. Herbs are super foods, and they have so many nutrients so I don’t want to throw any of that away.