I saw a surprising statistic the other day. In a Vogue magazine article entitled Is True Happiness Possible Without Gluten, Jeffrey Steingarten claimed that one third of his fellow Americans now eliminate or avoid wheat (gluten) in their diets. As he pointed out, if this is true we are in the midst of a health crisis on an unprecedented scale: “If 29 percent of us—about 90 million (Americans)—truly get ill when we consume gluten, that would be among the most widespread epidemics in human history, easily on a par with the ancient Plague of Athens, the medieval Black Death, or the Great Plague of London".

So, are we in the midst of a gluten-poisoning pandemic or simply in the grip of what might be termed “the Gwyneth Paltrow Effect", jumping on the bandwagon of celebrity-led food fads? William Davis, author of The New York Times best-seller Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health certainly believes that wheat is responsible for making us fat and sick. To those who scoff at the idea that a grain that man has eaten for 10,000 years is making us ill, he points out that the wheat we consume today is not the same product as the natural grain our early ancestors enjoyed. The wheat we eat now has been hybridized, cross-bred, fertilized and genetically altered out of all recognition, and that, he says, under alarming chapter headings like “Wheat and its Head-to-Toe Destruction of Health" and “Bread is my Crack", is the problem.

Like Steingarten, I find it hard to conceive of a life without fresh bread straight from the oven, aloo paratha, croissants, cake and pasta, but it’s impossible to ignore the growing numbers of people avoiding wheat—many of whom have probably never even heard of Gwyneth Paltrow. In Britain it is thought that 5-10% of the population suffers from some form of gluten sensitivity. I don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the mountains of research on each side of the gluten-free argument but it seems to me common sense that over-processed ingredients could be harming us and that if wheat is making us feel bloated, tired and unwell, it might be a good idea to cut down.

It makes sense, then, to have a few gluten-free recipes up your sleeve if you, friends or family are avoiding wheat. Desserts can be tricky without flour but this cake is bursting with richness and flavour, a crowd-pleaser whether you’re avoiding wheat or not, and a great place to start with gluten-free if you’re not quite ready for the world of specialist flours and alien-sounding ingredients like xanthan gum. It’s very rich, so a small slice is enough for most people—making it ideal for festive gatherings—and no-one will feel they’re missing out on anything

Chocolate Orange Almond Cake

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

250g best quality, dark chocolate

100g unsalted butter

6 eggs, separated into two bowls

100g caster sugar

100g almonds, finely ground

Grated zest of one large orange

Method

Grease and line a 23-inch cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Put the chocolate and butter in a glass bowl and set the bowl over a gently simmering pan of water (but don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl). When both have melted, stir gently to mix, take the bowl off the pan and set aside to cool a little.

In a food processor or with a hand-held mixer, whisk the egg whites until stiff. In another bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and orange zest until the mixture is pale and puffed up. Gently fold the ground almonds into the egg yolk mixture then the cooled melted chocolate/butter. Lastly, and gently, fold in the egg whites, being careful not to knock out any of the air (the egg whites will help to keep the cake light). When all the ingredients are completely mixed, pour it into the cake tin. Bake for about 30 minutes—check on it after 20 minutes and if the top of the cake is a little dark, place a sheet of foil over it until a skewer inserted into it comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin then decorate with icing sugar (I sprinkled it through a paper doily) and grated orange zest. Delicious served with Dried Apricot Compote and sour cream.

Dried Apricot Compote

Ingredients

250g dried apricots (I like the ones from Afghanistan)

Juice of one orange

3 tablespoons honey

1 vanilla pod split through the middle

Method

Soak the apricots in a cup of water for about an hour. Put another cup of water in a pan along with the orange juice, honey and vanilla pod. Bring to the boil, add the apricots with their soaking water. Bring back to the boil then reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes or until the apricots are soft, but not collapsing.

Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.

Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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