Thursday, September 12, 2013

Naturally Sweet & Gluten Free Desserts: Interview with Ricki Heller

Ricki Heller's new cookbook, Naturally Gluten Free Desserts is being released this month, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions from me. Her answers are thoughtful and interesting and give some great insight into what to expect from the new book!

1- Your new cookbook features delicious desserts that are vegan, and for the most part, free from many of the top allergens. Why was it important to you to create recipes that are free from so many commonly used ingredients?

Most importantly, Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free is my response to so many of my former customers when I ran an organic bakery, as well as to current readers of my blog. The number of people with food allergies or dietary restrictions continues to grow every day. I know there are a lot of people out there who have a hard time finding all kinds of foods they can eat, including tasty desserts. For me, there’s nothing quite as gratifying as hearing from someone who tells me they used my recipe for their child’s birthday cake, or served my brownies at a pot luck, and everyone loved them and was able to enjoy them without worrying about allergies.

In addition, the recipes simply reflect the way I now eat, so you could say they come naturally to me. My diet is a variation of the anti-candida diet (for people with yeast overgrowth in the body), and it requires foods low on the glycemic index so blood sugars remain stable. It’s also a low allergen diet, since part of the purpose is to reduce the toxic load in the body so it can focus on healing itself. I’ve been eating a vegan diet for many years, adding gluten-free and sugar-free within the last ten years or so.

2- What types of desserts are featured in your new cookbook? What can a reader who is not familiar with your past work expect from this new cookbook?

The book contains every kind of baked good and sweet treat you can imagine, with variations on most of the classics. So there are chocolate chip cookies, brownies (five different kinds, actually!), cinnamon buns, pecan pie, cheesecake, muffins, pancakes, scones, ice creams, puddings. . . basically, any kind of dessert or breakfast baked good, revamped so that they are free of eggs, dairy, gluten, corn, yeast or high glycemic sweeteners. And everything is made from whole foods, unprocessed ingredients and natural sweeteners—nothing artificial in anything!

In addition, some of the recipes include atypical ingredients (such as veggies hidden in sweet treats), or grain-free sweets, such as the coconut flour biscuits or raw brownies, which will appeal to people on lower carb diets.  While some of the ingredients, such as coconut sugar or millet flour, may not be familiar to some readers, they can all be found at health food stores and online, or easily substituted with more conventional ingredients (such as all-purpose gluten-free flour or more common sweeteners instead of coconut sugar and coconut nectar).  There’s an entire chapter on ingredients and substitutions; and the recipes themselves contain clear step-by-step instructions with lots of helpful hints and tips to guide you as you go along, even if you’re a novice baker.

3- Which recipe from the new cookbook is your personal favourite? Why?

Oh, that’s such a tough question, because my most recent recipe creation is always my favorite! I’m going to fudge the question a bit and give you my three top picks if that’s okay.
I’m a chocoholic, so I will start with a brownie! I love all five brownie recipes in the book, but my go-to would have to be the Sweet Potato Brownies. They’re fudgy, dark, dense and just all-around great—a perfect treat to serve any friends who might be skeptical about “special” diets!  And if you like, top them with the Allergy-Friendly Chocolate Buttercream Frosting, made without grains, dairy, eggs, sugar, nuts, corn or soy, another favorite. I’m also a huge fan of breakfast and brunch, so I’ve made the Carob-Buckwheat Pancakes with Chopped Almonds and Carob (or Chocolate) Chips countless times. Finally, I just love the Butter Tarts (a Canadian classic, normally made with butter, sugar, eggs, brown sugar and corn syrup, sort of like pecan pie without the pecans). Have you ever heard or a rich, gooey, decadent butter tart without gluten, eggs, butter or sugar? Well, that is one to try! My hubby tells me they taste just like “the real thing,” too.
Hmmm. . . I guess that’s actually four recipes! Sorry about that. ;-)

4- You are a long-time advocate of the vegan diet. What advice would you give someone thinking of going vegan?
Just remember that there’s such a thing as vegan junk food, too—and be careful what type of food you eat! When I first started eating a vegan diet in my 20s, I had no idea about nutrition or the need for sufficient protein in my diet, and I believe that’s part of the reason I got sick.  Focus on whole, real foods, and you should do just fine.  And it’s a good idea to read a couple of books on the subject, such as Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, or Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina and JL Fields, to help you navigate all the different nutrients and ensure that you’re eating a healthy diet. It’s not difficult, but it does require some knowledge.

5- You eliminated gluten from your diet several years ago. Can you explain why you made that decision and how it has improved your overall health?

I was required to give up gluten during the first stage of the anti-candida diet, as a way to minimize potential allergens in the body.  Although I never thought I had a problem with gluten, as soon as I removed it from my foods, I began to feel better. Symptoms such as bloating, stomach pain and irritable bowel syndrome seemed to resolve themselves naturally. On the few occasions, in the beginning, when I did eat gluten again, the symptoms immediately returned, sometimes within minutes. I decided I’d continue eating gluten-free because it seemed to be the best option for me.
I also much prefer baking with gluten-free flours compared to wheat flour. Look at all the varied options you have with gluten-free flours! The possibility for different tastes and textures are endless. With wheat flour, it’s basically the same outcome, all the time. How boring is that?
6- Often, substituting ingredients can be expensive. What advice can you give to those cooking or baking with food restrictions, but who need to stick to a budget?

There really are ways to keep the costs low. I always buy in bulk if I can, and freeze my nuts or seeds so they will last (I also freeze any flours that I won’t use within a few weeks, since gluten-free flours are mostly whole-grain, which means they contain volatile oils that can become rancid if left too long at room temperature). I make my own all-purpose gluten-free flour mix (the recipe is also in the book) instead of buying the packaged all-purpose gluten-free flour, which can be very expensive. And it’s surprisingly easy to make your own flours from whole grains, too, as long as you have a coffee grinder or spice grinder!

I find that if you stick to real, whole foods, your costs are inevitably lower. In other words, an apple is cheaper than applesauce; whole millet is cheaper than millet flour. And since so many products contain additives or potentially suspect ingredients anyway, it really does make more sense to create as much as you can from scratch.
Using only whole foods ingredients, a generous pinch of humor and input from her two chatty canines, Ricki shares gluten-free, allergy-friendly and sugar-free recipes on her blog, Ricki’s second cookbook, Naturally Sweet & Gluten Free, will be released in September, 2013. Her first book, Sweet Freedom, is one of only three cookbooks recommended by Ellen DeGeneres on her website. Ricki is also an Associate Editor for Simply Gluten-Free Magazine and has written for Clean Eating magazine, Allergic Living, Living Without, VegNews, and many other publications. Ricki lives near Toronto, Canada with her husband and two dogs.


  1. Thanks so much for this interview, Kathleen! It was great to "chat" with you and share a bit about the book and what's behind (and inside!) it. I hope your readers enjoy it! :)

  2. Great interview :) Everything I read makes me want this book!