Holiday cookies are being made at the LaBan house. But now they are gluten-free.
Even in her off hours, Alice is baking, experimenting to adapt family recipes and her favorite baked good to gluten-free.
It’s barely dawn, still dark out, and I’m walking Alice to work.
My daughter is wearing the checked pants and kitchen clogs of the pastry chef she’s always aspired to be. She’s even awake at 6:45 a.m., which, if you’ve ever seen a 22-year-old power sleep into the early afternoon, is very, very impressive. But her ponytail is tucked neatly under her Phillies cap. She’s caffeinated. She’s got the code to enter a popular bakery near Rittenhouse Square, because she is often the first team member to arrive. And as she disappears inside ready to fire up the ovens for the bustling weekend morning shift, I can’t help but think this job has been a blessing, especially after this difficult year in which she discovered the hard way that she no longer could eat gluten.
I love to cook but I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I’m not much of a baker. But I don’t need to be, either.
Alice has always been the flour-dusted supernova of dessert in our house, reviving my family’s old recipe for raspberry strudel, perfecting her fudgy brownies, crimping pumpkin hand pies, glazing her bûche de Noël to look just like a log, or stuffing whoopie pies with a rainbow of fillings in pursuit of a baking passion that has long teetered on the fine line between hobby and a more serious pursuit.
As a teenager, she launched her own little baking business, a subscription list of 20 or so neighbors and friends who received a different baked good each month. And no installment was as highly anticipated as the one that came in December, when Alice’s cookie dreams kicked into gift-wrapped overdrive. There were powder sugar-dusted chocolate crinkles and peppermint pinwheels, shortbreads speckled with chocolate chips, Aunt Fran’s sand tarts and chocolate drops, and sugar dough rounds inlaid with colorful Santa hats. There was the annual attempt to squeeze intricate spritz cookies through a finicky press with the effortless perfection exhibited by our neighbor Melissa. That particular cookie has not always gone so well.
But one tradition that always succeeds are the butter biscuits, a recipe handed down from the Pennsylvania Dutch side of my wife’s family. Its subtle sweetness and unadorned crusts may seem plain, at first, especially compared to the other cheerful treats on the table. But there’s also a simple beauty in these thin dough cookies when they’re baked just right. It’s an annual reminder of Alice’s roots in the Klopp and Leinbach families in Reading. And there’s no better canvas to show off her vast collection of cookie cutter shapes.
“Christmas trees and snowflakes are my favorites,” says Alice. “But I love baking all the holiday cookies because it’s so festive and cozy.”
This year, however, is different. That’s because anything having to with wheat flour and gluten has suddenly become fraught with fear and worry.
This spring, just as she was preparing to graduate from the University of Michigan, Alice was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune and intestinal disorder triggered by eating gluten that can stoke intestinal inflammation, serious discomfort and prevent the absorption of essential nutrients.
She’d been feeling unwell for over a year, and we’d initially ascribed it to stress. Her long-held goal of studying abroad was cut short after only two months due to COVID-19 — in Italy, no less, where the bountiful feasts of pasta, pizza, and crusty breads did not appear to cause her any problems. She endured the frustration of spending her last year-and-a-half of college online, an isolating experience shared by so many in her generation that only accentuated the uncertainty of what was to come next.
Alice had never angled for the corporate or financial sector jobs that many of her classmates at the Ross Business School had already lined up for after graduation. She was a marketing major with an interest in media and hospitality. She hoped to recapture the travel adventures she’d been cheated of by the pandemic. And she also wanted to explore her lingering curiosity for working in a professional kitchen and maybe, one day, even opening her own place.
But I’ll never forget the afternoon Alice took that call from her doctor. He delivered the news that her blood test numbers for celiac disease were nearly off the charts. No wonder her stomach was in such pain. But… no more pasta? No more bread? No more pizza? No more fried food? No more cookies?!
The color drained from Alice’s face and tears began to flow as she immediately calculated the potential ramifications: on the precipice of her life’s next big chapter, something she’d long guarded as a dream appeared to have been snatched away.
Dealing with a sudden and complete shift to a gluten-free diet is no small undertaking. It’s a lifestyle change that impacts the entire household, not only in obvious ways like avoiding bread, but in the far more challenging task of limiting potential cross-contamination on surfaces like cutting boards, pots and pans, knives, and even cell phones and toothpaste. On the other hand, it’s ultimately no more than an inconvenience in the service of good health. And Alice’s condition has slowly but surely improved as her diet changed.
Even better, the state of gluten-free food, ingredients, and dining options has improved so much over the past decade that there are many satisfying options. Shortly after her diagnosis, I took Alice to the Italian Market where the crusty gluten-free breads from Taffets Bakery and the fancy, imported gluten-free pastas at Claudio Specialty Foods instantly cheered her mood.
Still, Alice was determined to bake.
She took a kitchen job at a resort kitchen in Colorado that turned out to be a nightmare. Alice was assigned to mix giant batches of waffle batter that enveloped her in clouds of gluten. She returned after only a week to Philadelphia and answered an Instagram ad for help at Pure Sweets & Co., the innovative plant-based bakery near Rittenhouse Square where everything is also gluten-free. After a two-week trial she was hired as a pastry assistant and hasn’t looked back. Her days are spent making gluten-free bagels, richly iced cupcakes, scones, coconut-based buttercreams, gorgeous cakes, candy bars, and, yes, some of those craveable P.S. & Co. tahini chocolate chip cookies. It’s provided her a crash course in the science, art, and standards of high-level gluten-free baking.
And after 16 years of intense schooling on a wide range of academic subjects, Alice has also discovered deep satisfaction in learning a hands-on trade. Baking all day is a “hard skill,” as she put it, that gives her a sense of comfort, purpose, and pride as her long day’s efforts are sold and devoured by an appreciative audience by the end of every shift.
And it has only fanned her passion. Gluten-free baking books arrive now to our house seemingly every week. And even in her off hours, Alice is baking, experimenting to adapt recipes for fabulous chocolate babkas, custardy Portuguese pastéis de nata moist brown butter almond financiers inspired by a recipe from Le Coucou and, recently, some intricately stamped Chinese mooncakes stuffed with ground pistachio and honey.
Who knows where all this baking will eventually lead my girl? She’s already got other adventures simmering. But I can only watch in deep admiration as we walk together on those early mornings to the the bakery where she works, knowing that she’s confronted such a major and unexpected challenge, and continued to pursue her dreams.
So, I guess that means holiday cookies are still happening at home, after all? The gluten-free edition, of course.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I’m thinking this year of adding Linzer tarts.”
Sign me up for an order.