Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Pancake's Debut: A Mad Scientist's New Gluten-free Pancake is Put to a Taste Test.

The big moment has come. After months of recipe experimentation, Ellen Allard, a self-described Mad Pancake Scientist, is ready to unveil her audaciously creative new gluten-free pancake -- with a no-holds-barred taste test. In this picture,Ellen is in the center, her husband Peter is on the right, and my wife Barbara is on the left.

The taste-testers are myself and Barbara. We don't eat pancakes. We don't really like pancakes. Ellen could not have chosen two more resistant creatures to test her pancakes on.

We associate pancakes with artery-clogging, belly fat, and premature death. We were looking forward to a breakfast visit with Ellen and her husband Peter in their Worcester, MA. home; we weren't exactly looking forward to the pancakes.

When Ellen invited us to do the taste test, I put a stern face in hers and said, "And afterwards when I tell you that the pancakes are awful, how are you going to feel"?

She forced a smile. "That's what I'm looking for," she said weakly, "feedback. We all need feedback."

"Well, you're going to get it," I said.

With known skeptics as taste-testers, Ellen understandably opts for full transparency. She knows that if we walk in the door and she serves us already prepared pancakes, and if they actually taste good, we'll wonder what's in them that we should know about.

So, while we chat, she starts from scratch. One by one, she shows and explains every ingredient, where it comes from, and why it is healthier than what we get from pancake mixes and in restaurants.

When she excitedly spoons silken tofu up and down for us to see, I cannot help but feel a little loss of appetite. Same with the soy yogurt, oganic rice milk, and flax seed. I wonder how I'm going to get through this. My tummy stirs. It wants no part of whatever is now in the air.

Meanwhile, this Mad Scientist of pancake land is scurrying around with a huge smile, measuring, whisking, blending, checking and rechecking the recipe that she has worked so hard perfecting. "I just love it," she says, oblivious to the mounting kitchen mess and the steep upill climb her pancakes face in this taste test.

Ellen's gluten-free life is out of necessity. About four years ago, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine caused by reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat (and related species such as barley and rye.)

The only known cure for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. But after seeing how the diet has markedly improved her energy levels and overall health, living gluten-free has become a passion for Ellen.

Peter also follows a gluten-free diet, though he does not have celiac disease or food allergies. "With the way I was eating," he said, "I used to have an upset stomach all the time. It was so bad that I carried Tums around with me."

Peter admits to having a sweet tooth that extends, God forbid, to a yearning for an occasional donut. "But since I have been living gluten-free," he said, " I haven't had any stomach problems at all. Physically, I feel great. It keeps the weight off, too."

Ellen holds up a big bottle of vodka. "I put the vanilla beans in this bottle and age them. That's how I make the vanilla extract."

"You make the vanilla abstract yourself?" I ask.

"Yes. All natural and pure." She offers me a sniff from a little bottle of her vanilla creation. "Here, take a smell."

I put my nose to it. Hmmmmm. Not bad. I feel an involuntary something in my belly, not unpleasant. I figure that, after I have viewed all those yucky, gooey ingredients, my stomach is finally settling down.

To make a point, Ellen holds up the vodka bottle beside the little bottle of her vanilla extract. If she were to buy the little bottle, she says it would cost four or five times the cost of the big vodka-
bottle-sized vanilla extract that she makes.

Now Ellen moves operations to the stove where she carefully drips batter onto the medium-heated cast-iron stovetop griddle. Soon she has a plated stack of fresh, hot pancakes that she places on the counter for us to admire. She adds powdered sugar. She tops it off with pure maple syrup.

Done. At the very least, it is a work of culinary art.

It is a beautiful, enticing sight, I must admit. Ellen takes out her camera and takes the picture, shown here. "I'm getting so I don't take pictures of people any more," she said. "I just want to take pictures of food."

So we have a stack of beautiful pancakes and a beautiful photograph of them. Now the question is: Given all those unappetizing-looking ingredients and all that recipe-juggling, are Ellen Allard's new pancakes edible?

Barbara ventures the first taste. She takes a forkful, puts it in her mouth, chews, and swallows. The three of us -- Ellen, Peter, and I – stare, looking for a sign. For the first time since we arrived, Ellen does not have a smile on her face. Peter fidgets.

"You know... you know..." Barbara says. We all lean foward. It is the moment of truth. Barbara breaks into a big smile. "You know," she says, her voice rising, "these are good. They are REALLY good!"

Ellen's smile returns, bigger than ever. Peter is calm again. It is my turn. I think: Ellen is looking for feedback and she should get it. How can her pancakes get to taste decently without constructive criticism? Aren't dissenting views healthy?

One bite is all it takes. The pancake is thin, light, airy, crispy at the edges, and sweet but not too sweet. It tastes even better than it looks, if that is possible. Quickly my stack of Ellen Allard's gluten-free pancakes vanish. I ask for seconds, which I also quickly devour.

I think about asking for thirds, but don't. I don't want to make a pig of myself.

Ellen, you aced the taste test. Congratulations.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. For Ellen's gluten-free pancake recipe and more information about what a gluten-free diet is all about, check Ellen's website, Her website also has information about Wild Willys, a Worcester, MA. restaurant that has just introduced a gluten-free menu. Remarkably, Ellen and Peter also have a whole other life as professional musicians specializing in music for children. As entertainers, they are pros who perform throughout the country. It is how they make their living. Learn more at

P.P.S. Full disclosure: I put up all the money for the Mad Pancake Scientist's research and development and I expect to make a fortune on her gluten-free pancake.*

*NOT! Lest somebody, somewhere out there believes this. Nor were Barbara and I paid for taking part in the taste test. We're still not crazy about pancakes, except for one kind. What kind might that be? Give you one guess.