It’s a weird holiday, and an ugly cake, but I baked for the first time this year — sans gluten.
If you’ve never attended a Peep-O-Ween — and I’d wager almost no one reading this has — you’re likely looking at that picture and thinking (or, perhaps, actually saying), “what the actual fuck am I looking at?”
What you’re looking at is my first foray into baking without gluten.
When I threw out all my “good” flour on New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t imagine baking again. I’d yet to try a gluten-free baked good I found tasty, and I had no interest in making any of my friends my guinea pigs. I remember thinking, too, that as much as I loved baking, I wasn’t good enough at it to succeed where others had failed in making a GF cake or bread that didn’t actively make people chew for far too long before swallowing hard and assuring me, “no, no — I’m just not that hungry right now.”
But then Peep-O-Ween came around this year. My friends and I have this bizarre tradition that started with a poorly decorated cake that tasted awful, and an even worse movie. That first year, my mom and I decorated it with marshmallows, but that next year, we graduated to Peeps — yes, those Easter-centric mallow chicks that people either love or hate. Part of the “tradition” is that she and I make the cake, she bitches about what a stupid tradition it is, we laugh a lot, and she refuses to come to the party with me. The scene atop the cake must be from a horror movie, and if anyone can tell what it is, I have failed. Past cakes have included Psycho, Poltergeist (complete with a pool made of blue gelatin), Jaws, Alien (that was the year Amanda was about to give birth; it was made in her honor), Plan Nine From Outer Space, Ouija and, this year, The Exorcist. The horror movie we watch, selected by Stacey, must be so bad that if, at any point we start to care about the characters in the film, she has failed (the best so far was Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive — yes, that Peter Jackson). Leah orders pizza from Cappy’s; Dan picks it up. Calypso wears a costume she hates (she hated I Dream of Weenie the most). Dan outdoes himself with the decor (one year there was a moving alien tentacle emerging from a spaceship crash-landed in their front yard, complete with smoke and flashing lights, making them the envy of Broadwater).
This year, I figured I’d make the cake and simply not eat any, but then my friend Sandi brought over two bags of Trader Joe’s all-purpose gluten-free flour. What the hell, I shrugged, the cake’s supposed to taste like crap. And one of you sweet people — who happened to be a former book editor — sent me a copy of The Gluten Free Bible a few months back, so I used the yellow cake recipe from that. The batter didn’t taste horrible, but the real test would come after the cake baked.
I dumped the cakes on a cooling sheet late the night before Peep-O-Ween. They looked like real cake. As they cooled, I swiped a fingerful of what remained in the pan. To my shock, it tasted good. But it was late; everything tastes good at 11 p.m. The next morning, my mom came over for our annual decorate-the-cake-and-bitch-at-each-other tradition. I did not grow up with “everyone is special” parents; this is a woman who once turned to me and said, “honey, I love you, and you usually are a good cook, but please don’t ever make that again.”
We both ran a finger through the cake left in the pan.
“That’s really good!” she said.
And for the first time in history, the cake didn’t suck at Peep-O-Ween.
Of course, taste itself isn’t the problem with GF baked goods; it’s the texture and cohesiveness. The texture was a bit grainier than real cake, but not so far off that it reminded me of every other GF yellow cake I’d ever tasted. Xanthan gum; who knew?
I called Leah and asked if it would be OK for me to bring over a pizza crust (again, Trader Joe’s makes the best GF pizza crust outside of Ozona Pizza) and she informed me we weren’t eating pizza this year, but brisket, potatoes au gratin and a salad.
“What kind of asshole would I be to invite you over and serve food you can’t eat?” she asked me
“But it’s tradition!” I said. “I don’t expect the world to bend to this celiac thing.”
“It’s six people, Cathy, not 30. We’re having brisket, potatoes au gratin and a salad,” she said. “And explorateur cheese. I couldn’t find any gluten-free crackers, though.”
I grabbed a box on the way out the door that night. No way was I missing that cheese.
This article initially appeared in Creative Loafing.