A Gift for This Moment and Wacky Cake (Gluten Free, Grain Free, and Top 14 Allergy Free)

Necessity is the mother of invention.

I remember hearing my folks say this sort of thing to each other as they sautéed their way toward dinner. I never quite understood what they meant because it never felt like we needed anything. Dinner was always awesome. My mom would dig out a few leftover baked potatoes and dice them, saggy skin and all, while my dad dug out leftover roast beef and heated up oil for hash. They chopped up onions for good measure, then tossed it all together in a hot skillet until the potatoes were crispy and golden. Dinners like that were some of my favorite, regardless of what food my folks wished they had on hand.

Now I know that our pantry sometimes got bare. Now I know my mom bought Hyrdox Cookies instead of Oreos and big tubs of generic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers Vanilla Bean for one reason: they fit her budget better. But even those bargains were only sometimes treats. Even so, I don’t really remember going without. In fact, a bare pantry meant my dad jumped at the chance to bake a Wacky Cake–the dessert for which we always had ingredients. The fridge doesn’t have to be fully stocked with cream or eggs or milk or butter for a slice of his famous impromptu cake.

Last week I read The Kitchen Front, a novel about ordinary women struggling to cook palatable meals during WWII England. Wartime rationing redefined pantry staples, so pantry stockpiles looked awfully paltry compared to the way they looked before the war. Fresh eggs were limited; dairy products too. Food women used to take for granted were whisked away from them without their consent or approval, and before they knew it they were whirling together bits of stale bread and overcooked vegetables to make mock roast chicken. Some of their concoctions sounded just plain awful (mock anything makes me cringe), but I admired their resourcefulness and creativity nonetheless.

I imagine it was heartbreaking to have to forego serving a cake on a birthday because there weren’t enough ration coupons for eggs. Someone somewhere figured out how to make cake without it–necessity is the mother of invention, right?–and vegan cakes were born out of a different sort of necessity back then.

When I put the book down, I couldn’t help but see the parallel to my own cooking life, of course. Wartime rationing isn’t to blame for the changes in my kitchen, but outside forces beyond my control stormed in and bossed me around too, and I find myself staring at a smattering of ingredients that don’t feel like enough, wondering how to make familiar food out of mock versions of the real thing. Like them, I was frustrated and angry but powerless to do much else than slip into survival mode at first and just keep cooking something. Little by little, they learned to let go of what they didn’t have and how to make do with what they did have, and so did I, and in the process new things are born–like grain free, vegan cake that is familiar and delicious.

Wacky Cake proves that God really does bring about good things out of desperately difficult situations. All the harrowing hardship of the war didn’t change the fact that women wanted to serve something celebratory and sweet. I know what that’s like on a much smaller scale, of course, but imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t serve cake for your boy’s birthday and you might understand a little. This crazy cake made out of cassava flour, cocoa powder, sugar, oil & water makes a decadent, distinctly not weird confection that could be served to just about anyone. It’s flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of allergies–a feat women working in WWII kitchens couldn’t imagine, and yet somehow they secured it long before we ever really needed it. I feel a kinship with them when I make it, because even though allergies and intolerances and dietary restrictions weren’t really a thing back then (like they are today), they knew the frustration and heartache of going without.

I like to think Wacky Cake is a wartime gift God gave to women two generations before me during that dark, difficult season. Food doesn’t solve everything, but sweet balances out the bitter, so cake helps. God must know that; why else would he have made cocoa beans bitter and sugar cane sweet? This dessert uses both, without any of the dangerous ingredients that we can’t serve to our people this season. When I whisk this cake together, I whisper a prayer of thanks because I am certain God knew we would need this recipe for this moment, right now, when so many of us are wondering how to serve special foods to the people we love, too.

The best gifts just keep on giving, and this gift is for you too.


Back When, Until Then, and Vegan Scalloped Summer Squash

September can’t decide which season it is: one minute it’s crisp and cool and apple cider donuts call my name. The next minute it’s hot again and I silently judge all those other people stashing pumpkin everything into their shopping carts.

This in-between time puts me on a seasonal teeter-totter. There’s something inside me that’s really ready for what’s next, so in the cool of the morning I pull on a light sweatshirt and pair it with shorts, convincing myself it will be chilly enough to warrant my wardrobe choice. I head into my day wanting to make apple crisp and pumpkin bars and cider braised short ribs with sweet potatoes; I want to debate whether apple orchards trump pumpkin patches; and I want to order my Chai tea lattes extra hot. But none of that sounds appealing when it hits 88 degrees outside.

But oh, this Scalloped Summer Squash. It’s the perfect culinary bridge between the best of the summer season and comforting fall favorites. I don’t pine after pumpkin when I make it. I’m able to be perfectly present to the moment I’m in, right now. It points back to the beauty and bounty of summer and promises the warmth and wealth of fall.

It is a reminder of “back when” and “until then” in more ways than one. I used to cook with mainstream ingredients: back then I would have layered the squash with whipping cream and Gruyere; I might have added some breadcrumbs for crunch, and you know butter would have been involved somehow. Someday I’ll be able to cook with dairy again, but until then I’m finding ways to use what I have available right now to feed us well. I may be using uncommon ingredients this season, but there’s always something familiar from last season to combine them with. This casserole proves it.

Summer squash is a summertime staple, one that is still widely available during September. The stunning colors of the squash snuggle up beneath a warm blanket of velvety vegan cream sauce made with coconut milk and nutritional yeast, then topped with a little fresh thyme. The result is comfort food September is can be proud to call its own–but one taste and I bet you’ll make it all year, because oh, dear friends–it’s that good.

Of course the first time I made it I wondered whether my people would pout about a cheeseless casserole without noodles. I expected them to protest, but to my shock and delight they devoured every last bit of it.

I made it again last night and I paired it with pan-fried pork chops. When Mia came home for dinner, she walked in the door and and inhaled deeply, asking with a smile on her face, “Oh, mom–did you make that squash thing again? Ooh, and pork chops? Yay. This will be the best dinner ever.”

Back when and until then collided in a delicious, dairy free moment that had me celebrating the right here and the right now. I hope it helps your family do the same.


Acceptance and Cheeze Chompers

“Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.”

Romans 14:3 (NLT)

Dear Joey,

“Mommy–when I get big and outgrow my allergies, I want to have Goldfish because they are yummy.”

The Goobies sat eating breakfast while I packed lunchboxes before school. Bags of Goldfish sat on the counter. Emery watched me tuck them into his sisters’ lunches, just like every day. His comment didn’t surprise me: I can’t blame him for wanting to eat them someday too. He thinks all the other kids eat them all the time, and he feels left out.

“You know, I hardly ever ate Goldfish crackers when I was a kid. I didn’t really like them much” I tell him casually, hoping to downplay the appeal of the common childhood snack.

None of the Goobies believed me even though every word was true.

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“Let’s make our own dairy free version today!” I said, trying to redirect Emery’s attention.

“We can do that?” Emery asked, puzzled. Intrigued.

“Of course we can.”

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No Mistakes In It, and Roasted Carrot and Ginger Soup

“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” – Philippians 3:13

Dear Joey,

After weeks on end of so much gray, color finally started to come back. The snow has melted; temperatures are cold but not freezing, and flashes of green wink at me from in between the brown blades of old grass, like Addie flashing me a smile and calling me to come out to play for awhile.

Today I joined her: we rode bikes and drew with sidewalk chalk and drank in the sun even as a cold breeze reminded us it isn’t quite springtime yet.  For a moment I was a little girl again, wind tickling my cheeks while I plucked a handful of sour grass and pretended to be Anne Shirley making a flower crown for Princess Cordelia, her imaginary persona that embodied everything Anne wished she herself was: beautiful, important, and loved.

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Anne Shirley didn’t have the luxury of parents to invest in her tender heart. Addie does, but I catch myself wondering if she doubts she is the remarkable girl we know her to be. She asks us all the time: am I beautiful? Important? Loved? She asks it in her own way, of course, and we do our best to answer her in a way she understands. Still, I wonder how much of it is sinking in.

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