Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Easy Bake Ovens and Nut Allergies--A Safe Recipe!

I hope everyone had a safe, nut-free holiday season so far. New Year's is next so please keep on being cautious if you're attending parties and gatherings with nut-allergic family members.

I recently received a great question from a blog reader and since many of you may be in the same boat, I wanted to share it. This reader wanted to know what to do about an Easy Bake Oven that her daughter had received for a gift. Many of you may already know that these ready-made mixes have several food allergy warnings including peanuts and tree nuts.

I was in the same situation a few years ago. In fact, my daughter's first Easy Bake Oven and nut allergy diagnosis occurred within months of each other. Back in 2004 when we were new to nut allergies, the Easy Bake mixes did NOT contain any food allergy warnings so we used them. It wasn't too long before the allergy advisory warnings showed up and that definitely put a damper on our mini oven baking!

Luckily, I discovered several cookbooks on Amazon.com (all self-published, I think) that dealt with Easy Bake Ovens and I ordered one--the Baking with Mommy Cookbook by Kristen Joyal. The book is geared towards any kid-sized oven. Even though some of the recipes contained nuts or peanut butter, there were many that didn't or could be altered by leaving out nuts as an ingredient.

Take a spin on Amazon.com--there could be even more of these books by now. In the meantime, here is one of our favorite recipes for homemade Easy Bake chocolate cake mix. The best part is that you make it in large quantities and then store it in a sealable plastic bag. You'll have baking mix whenever you want it and you'll save $$.

I tweaked this from the original recipe and it works great.

Nut-Free Chocolate Cake Mix for Easy Bake Ovens
1 1/4 cup flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Hershey's or Vermont Nut-Free www.vermontnutfree.com)
1 tsp. salt
2 1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight bag or container

To make a cake: Mix 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake mix with 1 tablespoon melted butter or margarine and 1/2 a beaten egg (you can also use egg subsitute like Egg Beaters)

Pour into Easy Bake baking pan that's been greased and floured

Bake in mini oven for about 15 minutes.

Use this same basic recipe to make yellow cake mix as well--just leave out the cocoa. I'd add a little vanilla with the wet ingredients for better flavor.

Now, enjoy those Easy Bake Ovens!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from The Nut-Free Mom!

I thought now would be a good time to provide a link to a holiday party tips post that I offered on the blog last year at this time. Please take a look before you go to another Christmas party! When you know what to look out for, it's a lot more fun to attend.

Also, I wanted to wish all of you a Merry Christmas! When you're dealing with nut allergies, it can sometimes seem like the holidays are all about avoiding foods and not what you can have. While baking gingerbread people with the kids yesterday, I realized that food allergies provide unexpected ways of offering bonding experiences and a healthier, simpler approach to eating.

For example, we can't just run out and buy cookie dough at the store. So cookies are a treat around here and that makes the whole thing more special to my kids (though I confess that I do try to bake safe treats for them on a pretty regular basis. They're definitely not deprived.) :)My kids and I ended up really enjoying the whole process of baking and decorating gingerbread cookies from scratch. We are also lucky to have been able to buy some "safe" candy for decorating but we are still limited a bit in what we can use. The girls ended up using lots of creativity and their cookies looked great.

So when you're going about your holiday celebrating with nut allergies, realize that even though finding safe foods can be tough at this time of year, the process of making food together really is a blessing in disguise. Making cookies is time-consuming so it helped us to slow down as a group until the job was done. There is so much go-go-go all year long--I for one enjoyed being "stuck in the house" with our cookie project. I'll always remember this stuff and I hope my girls do as well!

Happy, healthy, nut-free holidays everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nut-Free Christmas Dessert Tips and a Nut-Free Christmas Recipe!

I realize that I just posted a Christmas cookie recipe, but I've got sweets and desserts on the brain since this is my big "baking from scratch week" of the year. Also, after attending some holiday events this past weekend, I have a few pointers on keeping nut-free desserts "safe" once they leave your kitchen.

It doesn't make sense to spend time baking and cooking a special nut-free dessert, only to bring it to a holiday party and have it placed on a tray with walnut-laden cookies or peanut butter cupcakes. Once your "safe" option is served on a platter or dessert stand next to those other guys, it's no longer safe.

Recently my daughter spied some Fig Newtons and a few other "safe" packaged cookies at a holiday event. However, they were arranged on a plate with lots of other cookies of unknown origin. So the "safe" cookies were now rendered unsafe. Cross-contact with allergens is a big risk factor with all foods, but dessert trays are especially challenging since they are usually arranged for visual appeal and not "separation of allergens."

I suggest always bringing your own plate and serving utensils along with your homemade, nut-free dessert. Keep these items covered until it's time to serve (this is a great tip I got from Linda Coss!) and make sure that you offer the nut-allergic people the dessert first. That way, cross-contact risks are virtually eliminated.

Now, onto the holiday recipe. Since many people have e-mailed me asking for nut-free holiday dessert ideas, I've got another one for you-- I'm also going to try it this year. I like to collect vintage cookbooks and this is a recipe that I found in a 1964cookbook from "The Pirate House" restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. This dessert is relatively easy, charmingly old-fashioned, festive and nut-free though it does contain milk and egg.

Just to clear up any confusion on one of the dessert ingredients: Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers do contain coconut as an ingredient but this is a fruit, not a tree nut. I use coconut in recipes for my daughter with her allergy doctor's approval. Of course, if you have any questions about ingredients to avoid, please ask your doctor.

Here's the recipe! I hope you enjoy it.

Chocolate Peppermint Cream Mold

1 tablespoon gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 lb. peppermint candy (I use Bob's Candy Canes--from any supermarket)
1 teaspoon peppermint extract (I use McCormick brand)
1 pint milk
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 egg
1/2 pint heavy cream
10 chocolate wafer cookies (I use Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers)

Have ready an 8 x 8 inch square pan.

Soak gelatin in cold water. Add candy to milk. (If using flavoring, add after the custard is cool.) Make a custard by adding 3 tablespoons of sugar, cornstarch and beaten egg to milk mixture. Cook this over low heat, stirring constantly. Add gelatin; set aside to cool. Whip cream and add 3 tablespoons of sugar. Save one-half cup whipped cream for top of dessert. Fold rest of cream into cooled custard. Pour into square pan. Lay chocolate wafers on custard. Spread whipped cream on top of wafer cookies and sprinkle crushed peppermint candies on top of the whipped cream. Cool in refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Cut into squares to serve. Serves 8.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Favorite Nut-Free Christmas Cookie Recipe

Here's my all-time favorite Christmas cookie recipe, "Snowballs." I came up with this recipe to replace the powdered-sugar coated pecan cookies that my grandmother used to make at Christmas time. My recipe is based on a Greek butter cookie called "Kourambiethes", a cookie that has the same shape and powdered sugar finish as my grandma's pecan cookies--except without the nuts. It's very unusual for a Greek cookie to be nut-free so these are a find! I skip the spirits usually called for in the recipe to make these more palatable to children, but if you like, add a tablespoon and a half of brandy or ouzo to the dough.


1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar + 2 tbsp, plus lots more for sprinkling on cookies
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure orange extract (optional)
1 scant tsp salt

5-6 cups of all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a standing mixer, beat softened butter until very light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar, egg yolk, vanilla and orange extract if using, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add flour a little at a time until soft dough is formed that can be handled easily. Taking about a teaspoonful at a time, (I use a tiny ice-cream scoop) roll into a small ball. Place on a non-stick cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar while still hot.

If you're looking for a version of this cookie that is also dairy- and egg-free, try The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book. Kelly has a great recipe for these. And while I'm on the subject, this book makes a great Christmas gift. I just saw the book in my local Borders bookstore in the food allergy/cooking section. You can also get a copy at Kelly's website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It May Be Getting Easier to Dine Out with Nut Allergies

Recently I asked my readers about the biggest concerns they have with regard to caring for a child with nut allergies. Not surprisingly, many people expressed anxiety about dining out at restaurants and for good reason. Eating at a restaurant is a leap of faith for the food allergic because you have to trust someone else to A) understand your allergy in the first place and how to avoid a reaction and then B)prepare the food under the right conditions so that cross-contact with an allergen doesn't take place. Still, for most of us dealing with nut allergies, dining out is a part of life, especially when you want to travel with your family.

I've both written about and heard some scary dining out stories, so I wanted to share some positive tales of dining out that I've read about recently. First, my local food allergy support group sent out a very encouraging e-mail about a member's recent experience at Wildfire, an upscale restaurant chain in the Chicago area and other cities. This support group member's son has peanut and egg allergies, as well as others. She did all the right things--mentioned the allergies when she made the reservation, made the reservation for an early dinner (5 p.m.) and then told her server when she arrived.

The chef himself came to their table and informed them he would prepare the allergy-free meal personally, then asked what the child wanted to eat. He also told the family that they are prepared to deal with food allergies and handle them daily.

Obviously, this is excellent customer service and the family reportedly had an enjoyable meal with a level of confidence in the safety of the food that was unusual to them (in a good way, of course!). I live near this restaurant and I can't wait to try it out with my own family. Oh, and this meal happened on a weekend--a busy time for restaurants. That tells me that if chefs/servers are informed on food allergies, a meal like this doesn't have to seem special, but can be the norm.

Another dining out tale: I was reading a restaurant review in The New Yorker magazine about The Vanderbilt restaurant in Brooklyn. Near the end of the article was a mention of a nut-allergic diner. Apparently, one of the people in the food critic's party was informed by the server that they should avoid a certain dessert containing almond flour. (I always advocate avoiding desserts at a restaurant when you have a nut allergy, by the way. Too risky.)

The reason I mention this review is that it was the first time I ever saw nut allergies mentioned in a New Yorker restaurant review and I've been a subscriber to the mag for about 12 years. Despite the fact that the food critic in the article felt the server handled the allergic diner a bit poorly (they did not offer the chance to re-order a dessert), to me this story indicates a new level of awareness about food allergies that is exciting and hopefully helpful.

Finally, some of you may have read my recent post about chef/restauranteur Emeril Lagasse and his work with Enjoy Life Foods on YouTube. Well, just last week Emeril was honored by the Food Allergy Initiative at their New York benefit with a lifetime achievement award. Also present were many prominent chefs that have restaurants not only in New York but all over the world. The fact that they would attend this event and feel compelled to support a food allergy organization speaks volumes about how much progress has been made.

Does all of this mean that you can let your guard down while dining out? No way, but these are encouraging signs. It also shows that if you speak up about what you need to stay safe and use good judgment, it is possible to have a good experience at a restaurant, even with severe food allergies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nut-Free, Gluten-Free, All-Natural Olive Oil Condiment--Kenzoil!

Like most food allergy moms, I cook at home A LOT and so that means I am always on the lookout for ways to jazz up my repertoire. I like to use olive oil for both taste and health reasons. I've found that flavored or enhanced olive oils that are also nut-free are tough to find, which is a shame because these can add a lot to say, a basic pasta dish.

So imagine my delight when I was recently alerted to the existence of Kenzoil, a nut-free, gluten-free olive oil blend that contains fresh garlic and basil. Yum! It is made of all fresh ingredients with no preservatives so you need to keep it refrigerated.

Kenzoil (named after it's creator, Ken Carlsen) has a terrific fragrance and freshness. I used it last weekend in a couple of pasta dishes and my husband used it as a dip for Italian bread. A little bit goes a long way--it adds a lot of flavor without any effort--chopping basil and garlic, for example. If you're pressed for time (and what mom isn't) this is a great thing to have on hand.

Also, with the winter holidays upon us, this would make a nice hostess gift--and you'd be giving your friends and family something safe and nut-free. Even better.

You can find Kenzoil in stores and farmers markets if you live in the Ann Arbor or Detroit, Michigan area. Otherwise, it's available online and will be shipped to you with its own refrigeration pack to keep it fresh.

Since this is an olive oil product I'm talking about, I feel compelled to mention the following. Many times, the way olive oil is processed is a concern for the nut-allergic. Kenzoil's web site states that the product is handled in their own nut-free facility. Their olive oil is originally imported from Greece--a place that's notorious for the pureness of its olive oil (I should know--my husband is a Greek American!). If you want more info about this product, please visit the Kenzoil web site: www.kenzoil.com.

I'm always glad to learn about ways to enhance my home-cooking and I hope you will be too. Let me know what you think of this product!

Note: I received no compensation for this endorsement, other than a sample of the product.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nut-Free Holiday Sweets and Treats!

Whew! It's been a busy week around here with work, holiday prep and all the other stuff that goes along with the holiday season. With all of the holiday magic I'm trying to create, it occured to me that many of you may be wondering where to find safe, nut-free sweets and treats for the holiday season. If you're new to nut allergies, the holidays can be an especially confusing time. What is safe to serve? Where do I find allergy-free treats that I can really trust?

You're in luck because I have some great suggestions! First, A & J Bakery in Rhode Island has some super-yummy holiday treats at their in-store bakery right now including -- gasp!-- nut-free Yule logs! I love those. They are also the home of the allergen-free gingerbread house, complete with plastic decorations, allergy-free candies and a full set of directions. You can order these kits online, so get going! Visit their website to learn more.

Next up is my all-time nut-free candy favorite, Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate! They've got their usual delicious array of Christmas-themed treats including peppermint bark--a family favorite--as well as chocolate "Skippers"--a nut-free M&M-style candy that are great for decorating cookies or cakes.

In addition, Vermont Nut-Free has chocolate coins for Hannukah as well as other Hannukah-themed candies. Be aware that Vermont Nut-Free, while completely safe for nut allergies, does contain milk, soy and egg in many of their products.

If you're looking for nut-free, dairy-free or egg-free cookies and candies, Divvies is the answer. They've got many delicious and colorful options, perfect for stocking stuffers or Hannukah treats.

If you're looking for treats that are free of the top 8 allergens, then of course you've got to check out the assortment from Enjoy Life Foods. Their site even has recipes that use their allergy-free ingredients, so be sure to stop by and see what's on offer.

If you're looking for delicious nut-free, egg-free and dairy-free baked goods--and you don't have time to bake-- look no further than Sweet Alexis Bakery. They've got a delicious assortment that my family is crazy about. These tasty baked goods are extremely high quality and they make a great gift! Or bring them to the family holiday party. Either way, you're gonna love them.

I hope this gets you off to a good start! And to my Jewish readers, Happy Hannukah!

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Tis the Season to Be Nutty

Five years ago when I discovered that my oldest daughter had a life-threatening nut allergy, I wasn't fully aware of the impact that this diagnosis would have on the holidays. But I should have been. Let's face it — a big part of any holiday is the food. Add nut allergies to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.

It seems to me that the world becomes increasingly more infatuated with nut-containing recipes starting around Halloween and continuing until after the New Year. Food magazines, TV news segments and newspaper cooking sections are filled with nuts, nuts and more nuts. There appears to be a primal desire to stock up on foods that highlight walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, almost like a squirrel stocks up on acorns for the winter.

For example, as I flipped through current issues of my favorite magazines, I found recipes for caramel nut cheesecake, Roquefort salad with walnuts, kugel with pecans, green beans with almonds, broccoli casserole with pecans, pecan pie, peanut butter blossom cookies, bourbon balls with crushed walnuts, candied nuts, pine nut chutney and pecan-laced turkey stuffing. Also, a homemade front-door holiday wreath devised of walnut shells.

Yes, nuts are everywhere you look this time of year (that's not even including our nearest and dearest) and as the walnut wreath proves, sometimes tree nuts greet you at the door even before the hosts do.

Because of the recipes and nutty crafts floating around, holiday parties and dinners pose major challenges to the nut-allergic. Unfortunately those two warhorses of holiday entertaining — buffets and potlucks — can be a health hazard. Standard buffet fare such as complicated casseroles with 20 ingredients or cookie recipes with crushed pecans are off-limits. Sometimes the food doesn't even have to contain nuts but has come into contact with them. If we don't know for sure about a particular food, our daughter doesn't get to eat it, so often she doesn't get to partake of holiday treats made outside of our home.

Food isn't the only thing that's dicey about holiday dining with nut allergies. Since food is so deeply rooted in tradition and emotion, the potential to either offend or be offended during what I’ve come to view as “the nutty season” is endless. It’s almost inevitable that a nut-allergic family will encounter a friend or relative who just doesn’t believe that food allergies are real or who are certain that "just one bite" of their treasured recipe won't hurt, when in fact, it could. People who wouldn’t dream of questioning a child’s diabetes or asthma diagnosis may peg you as a “nut” for asking about every ingredient in a dish, or label your child as "picky" if you are obliged to bring them a separate meal for safety's sake.

For the most part, my family is able to focus on the fun aspects of holiday celebrations and not the food gaffes. We've been fortunate to have a lot of support from family members and friends. Plus, my husband and I enjoy entertaining at our home, which helps eliminate the need for others to concern themselves with the menu. When we do attend a holiday party, I'm always willing to whip up a nut-free side dish or decorated cupcakes.

Perhaps because an individual with food allergies is denied so many treats at this time of year, food allergies teach you how to appreciate the most important things in life. Family, friends and the good fortune to be eating a delicious dinner at all come to mind. Plus, my entire family has discovered newfound compassion for others due to our own struggles with a medical condition that affects every aspect of our lives.

Despite the fact that we sometimes feels as if "Life is a bowl of cashews," it's wonderful to be present at the table with those we love most. And even though my family has to be more cautious about what foods we place on that on that table, "the nutty season" is worth it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

HomeFree for the Holidays...Allergen-Free Cookie Gift Baskets

If you're looking for something sweet and allergy-friendly for the holidays, you've gotta try HomeFree treats. Many of you are already fans of this great company, but I've just received word that they now offer cookie gift baskets that are perfect for holiday gift-giving.

Click this link to check it out!

The Home Free Cookie Gift Box contains 2 boxes of mini chocolate chip cookies (my absolute favorites!) as well as three individually-wrapped large cookies including oatmeal and chocolate chip.

The Home Free Cookie Gift Basket contains all of the above as well as an additional box of mini oatmeal cookies.

HomeFree is made with all organic ingredients and each product is certified whole grain. They have no trans fats, are kosher pareve and are also vegan. Plus, the treats are baked and packaged in a dedicated nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free facility. Clearly, there is something for almost everyone. Plus, they taste really good.

I know my daughter is really happy to receive a big basket of nut-free treats--it's rewarding when an allergic kids gets to have something you know is absolutely safe and delicious.

Please visit http://www.homefreetreats.com/ for more products and information. Just so you know--they've also got nut-free, dairy-free baking ingredients!

If any other allergy-friendly food companies have special deals going for the holidays, please let me know and I'll be happy to post about your offerings.

One more thing. Tonight Dec. 4th is the Food Allergy Buzz/Best Allergy Sites Twitter Party. The topic is coping with food allergies at the holidays and editors from the wonderful Allergic Living Magazine will be on the panel! Go to http://www.foodallergybuzz.com/ for more details!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Enjoy Life Foods Nut-Free Granola and Nut-Free Breakfast Cereals!!!

Recently I had the pleasure of receiving some samples of Enjoy Life Foods products including two varieties of nut-free granola and two breakfast cereals: Enjoy Life Crunchy Rice and Enjoy Life Crunchy Flax. Both of the cereals are
100% natural and sweetened with fruit juice and honey. The Crunchy Flax also has whole grain, Omega-3s and lots of good fiber.
When my daughters tried the Very Berry Granola and Cranberry Apple Granola, the response was the same: "Mmmmmmm."
My oldest daughter (pictured) is the one with the nut allergy and she's now mixing the cereal with the granola as a "trail mix" to bring for her school snack. Her little sister is really enjoying the granola as well--even though she doesn't need to eat nut-free. I think that's a testament to how tasty Enjoy Life products are!
It's hard to find nut-free granola so needless to say we are thrilled with these and will make a point of stocking up once our supply runs out (and the way things are going that may be today!)
My kids also love the breakfast cereal--and so do I. The flavor is great and the other thing I like is that it's not overly sweet. I'm always looking for ways to add flax to the diet and this is a delicious way of doing so. A few readers have asked recently about how to make a nut-free "streusel" topping for baked goods. I think either these of these cereals or the granola are a great way to add crunchy texture without the nuts! So there's another reason to love these products.
Best of all is the fact that all of these products are made in a dedicated nut-free facility. In fact, Enjoy Life is free of all of the top 8 allergens and are gluten-free as well. These items are "allergy-friendly" as every package states. "Nut-free facility" and "allergy-friendly" are two terms that mean SO MUCH to us when we're looking for safe foods for our kids. As many of us have discovered, natural foods can mean "chock full of nuts" or at least they will have had cross-contact. Not so with Enjoy Life Foods--you can eat nut-free as well as naturally. To me, that's like the Visa commercial: Priceless.
You can find Enjoy Life Foods products at many supermarkets including Whole Foods and your local grocery store. Or order online by visiting their web site: http://www.enjoylifefoods.com/. You can even download grocery store coupons on the site. Enjoy Life Foods are also now available in Canada.
Be on the lookout for more Enjoy Life Foods products--they're always coming up with more allergy-free choices.
Note: I received no compensation for this review other than food samples. The opinions expressed are mine and mine only.