In 1990, Don Skop was pretty sure he was going to die.
Months of exhaustion, vomiting and bloating made it hard to do his job as a construction manager. Tests failed to pin down a cause, and he lost 40 pounds. “I figured, ‘Well, this is the big C,’ ” he said.
Instead of a fatal verdict, a biopsy brought good news: Skop had celiac disease.
Since then, he’s eaten a gluten-free diet. “No wheat, rye, oats or barley,” he recited. “I started immediately, and in three days I started to feel better. It’s all diet, diet, diet.”
Which meant his wife, Joan, had to learn how to cook that way. “I hated it,” she said. “His doctor said, ‘He’s gluten-intolerant. We’ll send you to the dietitian at Mercy Hospital.’ Well, the dietitian didn’t know a damn thing about gluten-free. It was so strange back then.”
Since meat, potatoes, vegetables and fruit are all allowed, it was mainly baked goods that required retooling, said Skop, the News’ April Cook of the Month.
“It’s all rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, all these things,” Don Skop said. “It was Hell’s Kitchen.” They have been married 56 years, with no children, and in conversation are surpassingly blunt.
“It’s still Hell’s Kitchen,” said Joan. “I’ll make things, and they look so nice, they’re raised, then all of a sudden, boom, it falls.” Gluten is what makes strong bubbles that lift rising bread and other goodies. Without it, bakers resort to measures like xanthan gum.
“All his flours are like talcum powder,” said Joan Skop, who mixes large batches of gluten-free mixes and stores them in airtight plastic containers. “You pour them and they’re all over the place. Then this stuff, xanthan gum, if you spill it on the cupboard, it’s like slime.”
These days, there’s more help available, certainly, she said. The straightforwardly named Western New York Gluten Free Diet Support Group (buffaloglutenfree.org, 636-6021) was quite helpful, the Skops said. Nowadays, every supermarket and practically every restaurant are trying to serve gluten avoiders.
That said, Joan Skop feels lucky, too, that Don is not as sensitive as some people living with celiac disease.
Yet with practice and some diligence in searching for ingredients, Joan Skop did it. Yes, the pie crust does tend to fall apart easily, but you can pinch it together and it’s fine. She turns out breads, cakes and pies that satisfy her husband and others, all without gluten. She shared some with recent visitors – poundcake, peanut butter cookies, moist chocolate cake.
“It’s just some gluten-free stuff, it’s not that good,” she disclaimed.
A few bites later, two things became clear: Joan Skop doth protest too much, and Don Skop is a lucky man.
Dream Pastry Mix
2 cups tapioca flour
2 cups cornstarch
1 cup potato starch flour
4 cups sweet rice flour
4 rounded teaspoons xantham gum
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Put all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well.
Dream Pastry (Makes one-double crust pie or two single crusts)
2¼ cups Dream Pastry Mix (above)
½ cup (1 stick) margarine
½ cup butter flavor Crisco
1 egg, cold
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or other gluten- free vinegar
¼ cup ice water
Sweet rice flour, for rolling
Place pastry mix in bowl. Cut in margarine and Crisco until size of lima beans.
Beat egg, add vinegar and ice water. Stir into flour mixture. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Divide dough in half. Roll one-half out on sweet rice-floured board, between sheets of wax paper dusted with sweet rice flour.
Place in pie pan. Put in filling and follow that particular pie recipe for baking instructions. For recipes calling for a prebaked pie crust, place half of dough in pie pan and prick all over with fork. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown around edges.
(Skop spreads sweetened cream cheese into the baked bottom crust and tops it with good canned peach filling. She serves it with whipped cream, and without apology.)
Philly Pound Cake
1½ cups sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
12 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
5 large eggs
1¾ cups rice flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup maraschino cherries, drained and chopped (optional)
½ cup chopped pecans (optional)
Mix sugar, cream cheese, butter and vanilla, blend well with electric mixer. Add eggs at low speed until blended.
In a bowl, mix flour, cornstarch and baking powder. Add gradually to cheese mixture. If using, fold in cherries and pecans.
Turn batter into 2 or 3 greased mini loaf pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes, until cake pulls away from sides of pan. Cool cake for 5 minutes before removing from pan.
If desired, dust cake with confectioners sugar.
Gluten-free Flour Mix
2 parts white rice flour
2/3 parts potato starch
1/3 part tapioca flour
In large bowl, combine flours well. Skop blends large batches of the mix, and keeps hers in airtight plastic storage containers for up to six months.
Betty’s Buttermilk Coffee Cake
5½ cups gluten-free flour mix
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 sticks (1 cup) margarine or butter, room temperature
2 cups buttermilk
¼ teaspoon vanilla
½ to 1 cup raisins (optional)
For crumbs: Cut butter into 1½ cups flour mix and 1 cup sugar to make crumbs.
For cake: Beat 1 stick margarine or butter with 2 cups sugar, vanilla and eggs.
In another bowl, mix 4 cups flour mix with baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
Add wet mix to dry, alternating with buttermilk, until combined.
Add raisins, if using. Put batter into 3 sprayed loaf pans. Top with crumbs.
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.
Mrs. Morris’ Chocolate Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or shortening, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup cocoa
2½ cups gluten-free flour mix
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter or shortening with sugar in large bowl.
Beat in eggs, buttermilk and vanilla.
In another bowl, mix cocoa, flour mix, baking soda and salt.
Add dry ingredients to wet, alternating with hot water, until fully combined.
Pour into three greased 8-inch cake pans or an 11-by-14-inch baking pan.
Bake 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Tester inserted into center should come out clean.
Cool and ice as desired.