Once in a while a cookbook comes along that is a game-changer. Opening its pages may introduce a new dietary approach or cuisine that forever shifts our food choices. Or, perhaps opening that book enables us to reintroduce foods we used to love, but we thought we could never delight in again because of dietary needs.
Ricki Heller‘s newly released Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free is exactly this kind of game-changing book. If you love to make sweets but want to bake cleaner, with whole-grains, no sugar, and also avoiding allergens like gluten and corn – this book will open a whole new world of baking for you. If you are already eating a plant-based/vegan/gluten-free/low-glycemic diet, you will think you are dreaming when you open this book! Ricki is making your dessert dreams come true! Go ahead and do your happy dance, because you can have your gluten-free, vegan, and sugar-free cake… and eat it too!
While I’ve known Ricki for quite a few years ‘from afar’, we’ve developed a friendship over the past year or so. She is every bit as real, approachable, and genuine as she appears to be from her blog, and I have huge respect for her culinary expertise and recipe development creativity. We finally met at Vida Vegan Con for the first time. Here we are along with Angela, Canadian representation!
When Ricki asked whether I could provide a cover quote for her new cookbook, it was a quick – YES! It was an honor and privilege to do so. Not only is this book aesthetically beautiful, with full-color photos throughout and a warm, inviting design, but Ricki is the expert for developing recipes that are vegan, gluten-free, and also low-glycemic. When I thought of how to encapsulate Ricki’s masterful work in a two or three sentence quote, I came to this:
Naturally Sweet & Gluten Free won’t just wow you because it is allergen-free… it will wow you because the recipes are positively dynamite! Ricki Heller is one of the most inventive, talented, and knowledgeable chefs – period. With stunning food photos coupled with imaginative, wholesome recipes that are irresistibly delicious, this book should be at the fingertips of EVERY home baker!
I wanted to communicate just how incredibly skilled Ricki is as a chef and recipe developer. While these recipes are undeniably perfect for those with specific food allergies or dietary restrictions, this book should be in every baker’s kitchen! Ricki will bring new baking skills and food knowledge to your sweet tooth, and the recipes are so expertly crafted that you would not know they are gluten-free, or “anything-free”!
You may not know that Ricki studied natural nutrition at The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and owned an organic bakery. During those years with her bakery, she discovered that the bulk of her customers were either vegans or people with food sensitivities. This led her to develop baked goods that could suit many dietary needs – without sacrificing flavor and texture! This last point is important. Ricki is very passionate that her allergen-friendly, low-glycemic goodies impress every bit as much as a traditional sweet. You can be certain these desserts will not taste as if they are without. They are full in flavor and also texture, thanks to Ricki’s “wizardry”.
I like to joke with Ricki that she has some wizardry up her sleeve! But, that magic? It’s a product of the remarkable dedication Ricki has to her craft. Ricki is the cookbook author that tests, retests, and retests her recipes. As a result, her recipes are precise and reliable. The pride she has producing quality recipes is reflected in every blog post she writes, and also in this scrumptious cookbook. I should mention that Ricki also develops plenty of savory recipes, but this book is devoted to sweet treats – that we can ALL enjoy!
D: Ricki, what are your go-to flours for gluten-free baking, and why?
R: There are so many different gluten-free flours from which to choose, and each offers its own unique taste and texture, that it’s almost impossible to pick a single “go-to,” since my choice changes depending on the recipe, the time of year, my mood at that moment, etc.
I tend to use my own all-purpose gluten-free flour mix for most baking, since it’s an easy recipe and is a great cup-for-cup substitute to all-purpose wheat flour. That said, I love millet flour (the main flour in the all-purpose mix). I find that millet is very mild and neutral-tasting, and the fact that it’s lightly colored (as opposed to, say, buckwheat, which is quite dark) means it works beautifully for desserts. I also like sorghum for grain-based baking. For grain-free, my favorite is almond flour (it’s really easy to make your own, too). I also tend to use chickpea flour a lot for savory applications since it can serve as a bit of a binder, and is also protein-packed!
D: Millet flour is one of my faves for gf baking too! And, how about sweeteners… what are the lowest glycemic sweeteners, and which do you like the most?
R: It’s amazing how much of a selection there is among low glycemic sweeteners these days! When I first went on an anti-candida diet in 1999, the only choice was stevia. Nowadays, you have stevia, yacon syrup, agave, coconut sugar and nectar, lo han guo (also called Monkfruit), plus all the sugar alcohols like erythritol or xylitol.
In terms of its effect on blood sugar, my favorite natural sweetener by far is stevia. I have come to love it, and I don’t have the problems with bitter aftertaste that some people report. On the other hand, stevia’s use in baked goods is limited, since it’s very difficult to employ it as the only sweetener in a recipe (the amount you use is so small that it’s hard to replace all the sugar with just a few drops of stevia).
My second go-to sweetener is coconut sugar, primarily because it’s a dry sweetener like cane sugar (and can be measured in equal amounts), but also because it has a much lower glycemic index (GI) than cane sugar, so it won’t cause spikes in blood glucose levels and is even safe for Type 2 diabetics. With the glycemic index, foods are measured against glucose, which has a GI of 100; anything around 70 or up is considered high. Regular sugar (sucrose) clocks in at 68, while coconut sugar is quite low at 35, less than an apple! And the flavor is divine, like a mix between caramel and butterscotch.
Yacon is great to add a bit of “molasses” flavor to baked goods, and it also has a very low glycemic index, but I find its taste a bit strong. And because it’s not very sweet, you’d need to use an awful lot. Although I still love the taste of agave and use it for confections that require a delicate flavor or color (such as vanilla cake or “sugar” cookies), I tend to avoid using it too much because of the high fructose levels it contains. Finally, I never use sugar alcohols, as I’m not fond of sweeteners that must be made in a lab (and many people report digestive issues with erythritol, mannitol, xylitol and so on).
D: Wow! I also love coconut sugar, it’s one of my favorite sweeteners. I haven’t ever tried yacon, now you have me curious! As you mentioned, baking with stevia can be tricky, sometimes the taste is very overpowering. Your sweets don’t have this stevia over-taste, however! Why is that?
R: I’m glad you feel that way—I worked hard to find the right balance so that the stevia is undetectable in the final product! I’ve served many of my desserts to friends who are not on a “special” diet, and they never know there is stevia in the baked goods.
Although, as I mentioned above, I love stevia, my mantra with this sweetener is, “Less is more.” In other words, there’s a fine line between “just enough” stevia and “too much.” Once you hit “too much,” that’s when the bitter aftertaste kicks in. So, when I bake with stevia or use it to sweeten other treats like homemade chocolate or puddings, I always aim for the minimum amount of sweetness required, sort of like the level of a 70% chocolate bar instead of a regular milk chocolate bar.
Another way to ensure that the stevia isn’t overpowering is to combine it with another low-glycemic sweetener. I often combine stevia with coconut sugar to acquire the benefits of both: the stevia lowers the overall glycemic index, while the coconut sugar offers flavor and binding power to baked goods.
D: Ah, smart! I don’t call you the wizard for nothing! Ok, last question: If you had to pick 5 – yes, just five! – top recipes for readers to try first from Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free, what would they be? (I know, that’s unfair!)
R: Thank you for offering me FIVE choices! If you had asked for just one, well, I probably would have chosen more anyway, because I love them all.
One of my absolute favorite recipes in the book (which also made its first appearance on my blog) is the Allergy-Friendly Chocolate Buttercream Frosting. It’s a smooth, rich, decadent and pipe-able chocolate frosting without sugar, butter, eggs, dairy, gluten, nuts, soy or corn. Basically, anyone can eat it—and it looks and tastes like regular chocolate frosting! That’s the frosting you see on the cupcakes that grace the book’s cover, too.
And because I’m such a chocoholic, of course I must choose one of the book’s brownies (there are five different ones in the book!). When I want a brownie that will really “wow” people, especially skeptics or people who’ve never tasted vegan desserts before, I choose the Sweet Potato Brownies. They’re dense, fudgy, really chocolatey and are always a hit.
I also adore the Butter Tarts, which my hubby tells me taste like “the real thing.” I love that I was able to recreate this Canadian classic (for your US readers, butter tarts are like a gooey pecan pie without the pecans).
My love of all things breakfast-related leads me to include a pancake recipe, too, since that’s my favorite breakfast food. I love the Carob-Buckwheat Pancakes with Chopped Almonds and Chips because they’ll change your mind about carob AND buckwheat.
And finally, for sentimental reasons, I’ll mention My Mother’s Cheesecake. This is my vegan, gluten-free, lower glycemic revision of my mom’s recipe that she used to make for my dad all the time. I think I captured the rustic, homey quality of the original in an equally delicious, healthier version.
D: Right, well I want to make all of those top 5! For readers new to gluten-free baking, or allergen-free baking in general, can you recommend a couple of simpler, “starter” recipes for them to try?
There are lots of easy-to-make recipes in the book! And honestly, once you’ve mixed up a batch of the all-purpose flour (or purchased a bag of prepared all-purpose flour from the supermarket), gluten-free baking works pretty much the same way as other baking.
For someone just starting out, though, I’d say to try the Easiest Almond Cookies, which are flour-free, mixed entirely in a food processor, and foolproof. Equally simple to make are the Butterscotch Blondies, which mix up really quickly in a single bowl. Oh, and the Fluffy Fruited Pancakes are great for beginners, too, light and reliably good. And of course all the raw recipes are really easy, since there’s no baking involved. . . (oops, there I go again. I’ll stop myself at three!). I’ll let you discover the rest. My best advice however, is to embrace experimentation!’
Thank you Ricki for enlightening us all. Now, kids, I am adding my pick! When I spotted these Coconut Macaroons in Ricki’s book, I knew this would be the recipe to feature. They looked dynamite. And, they did not disappoint. They are goooood! The girls were swooning when they took their first bites!
A little of my experience making these. Tahini can be a tricky ingredient to use in sweets, as it is more naturally bitter than nut butters like almond or cashew. But, if used the right way – it works! Ricki worked her wizardry with these cookies, and believe me, they are magical!
I wrote a post about tahini and explained that there are taste variations depending on the brand you buy. Some are far more bitter than others. Recently, I bought some authentic tahini. I was inspired to order the Al Wadi brand online. I have never tasted such a beautiful tahini. It’s like buttah! It’s smooth and silky, barely needs stirring, and has a much more mellow flavor than any tahini I have tried before. I can eat it straight up – and I do! It’s delicious slathered on toast over a light spread of miso and topped with a crisp lettuce leaf and some avocado (I’m not crazy, try it). Even better… it’s freaking fabulous in Ricki’s cookies!
These cookies all come together in a food processor – you can whip them together in minutes. Here, I’ve started with the almond base…
Then, pouring in that silky tahini after adding the coconut…
On to the baking sheet they go…
And baked to golden perfection!
These have the perfect balance of sweetness, and a chewy, irresistible texture. I think you’re going to love them. No more waiting, here’s the recipe:
Coconut Macaroons RECIpage to link/print recipe
One of the most requested cookies when I had my bakery, Bake It Healthy, these sweet treats combine both ground almonds and coconut for an ultra-chewy base. Tahini is a terrific source of calcium. (If you’re not a fan, don’t worry; the flavor isn’t prominent here). Makes 14-16 cookies.
3⁄4 cup (135 g) natural raw skin-on almonds, preferably organic
2 Tbsp (15 g) finely ground flax seeds (from about 1 Tbsp or 15 ml whole seeds)
1⁄8 tsp (.5 ml) fine sea salt
2 cups (135 g) unsweetened shredded coconut, medium shred
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) coconut nectar
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) light agave nectar
20 to 25 drops pure plain or vanilla stevia liquid, or to taste
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 tsp (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
1⁄2 tsp (2.5 ml) pure coconut extract (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 ̊F (180 ̊C). Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper, or spray with nonstick spray. In the bowl of a food processor, whir the almonds, flax, and salt together until they resemble a coarse meal, about the texture of cornmeal, without any identifiable pieces of almond visible. Add the coconut and pulse once or twice to combine. Next pour the coconut nectar, agave nectar, stevia, tahini, vanilla, and coconut extract, if using, over the dry ingredients. Process again until everything is incorporated and the mixture forms a sticky ball (you may need to stop and scrape down the sides of the processor bowl once or twice). Stop as soon as the mixture holds together, to avoid grinding the coconut too fine. Using a small ice-cream scoop or tablespoon (15 ml), drop small mounds of the mixture onto the cookie sheets about 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart. Wet your palms (or use a silicone spatula) and flatten the cookies slightly. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets about halfway through baking, until the cookies are deep golden brown on top. Cool completely before removing to a rack (the cookies will firm up as they cool). See page 37, storing your baked goods. May be frozen.
That’s cute, Ricki… they don’t make it to the freezer. Friends, I hope you check out Naturally Sweet & Gluten-Free. With reliable, delicious, healthy recipes in a beautifully crafted book, this book deserves your kitchen splatters and dog-ears!
Have you tried any recipes from Ricki’s book yet? Have any favorites?
(and Ricki, if you are reading, can you share the brand of tahini that you use for this recipe?)