It's taken me a few weeks to finish this. I ended up taking over 500 photos that I had to go through! I chose just a few to include at the end of this post.
This year the Chicago Gluten and Allergen Free Expo was held at the Westin in Lombard (last year was the Wyndham in Lisle) on April 14th and 15th. This was my second, and likely my last time attending (more on that later).
As with last year, I signed up for the cooking classes that took place both Saturday and Sunday as well as the dinner Saturday night.
Saturday morning found me leaving the house later than I intended and having to rush to get to the hotel on time (the event was 12 miles from my house so, cheapskate that I am, I opted to not get a room). Turned out the pair of pants I was originally intending to wear were too big and I had to rifle through the closet to find something smaller to wear (nice problem to have to deal with). I managed to get there about 10 minutes before the start of the first session.
By the time I got to the class, it was already packed and I ended up in the very back of the room. It made taking photos difficult but not impossible.
The class was called Italian and Asian Adventures. I was really looking forward to this as the first presenter was Laura Russell, author of The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen (which I reviewed in October). The session did not disappoint. She made three dishes, Barbecued Pork Fried Rice, Stir-Fried Glass Noodles with Spinach and Beef, and the Gingery Pork Pot Stickers an Soy Vinegar Dipping Sauce I made in my review. After each dish, a sample was passed to everyone in the room. It was very informative. For instance, I learned that Mirin cannot be substituted for Sake in the Stir-Fried Glass Noodle dish because it's too sweet and the dish is best with a dry Sake. She also talked about the options in gluten free Asian noodles.
Next up were the folks from DaLuciano Restaurant in River Grove. Originally it was the store's owner, Rosalia Libreri who was suppose to present but she had to make an emergency trip overseas so her son, Ignazio, and son-in-law, did the presentation. Ignazio is a co-owner and chef and he and his brother-in-law made a great team. They made a Bruschetta and a meat sauce for spaghetti. Their restaurant features a full gluten free menu which they developed when several family members were diagnosed with Celiac disease. The pasta they served with the meat sauce was a corn based product.
The final presenter for the morning session was Jen Cafferty, the founder of the Expo who made Tiramisu. Some of the lady fingers she use in her recipe came from DaLuciano Restaurant. The process for making it was pretty simple. I have never made it myself as I was never all that big on it even when I ate gluten (it uses espresso and Kahlua to soak the lady fingers in and I'm not a fan of the flavor of coffee and drinking alcohol gives me migraines).
Brandy Wendler, Mrs. Alaska 2012 International, helped out in the morning sessions, fielding questions from the audience and repeating them so it would be heard by all the members of the audience and on the video tape of the session. She has a masters in nursing and has started a non-profit, A Spoonful of Wellness. She was diagnosed with celiac disease 4 years ago and has been trying to educate others about the disease and healthy cooking but no one wanted to listen to her as a health professional so she entered the Mrs. Alaska contest in order to use that as a platform to spread the word about gluten intolerance.
Also there helping out was Sueson Vess. She is a contributing writer for Living Without magazine and was a presenter at last year's Expo. She also does presentations at my local Whole Foods and has a blog called Special Eats as well as a cookbook called “Special Eats: Simple Delicious Solutions for Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free Cooking”.
During the break between the morning and afternoon sessions, I started making the rounds of the vendor fair. I took samples of everything and grabbed every flyer and business card I could find. After all, I had promised to report back to my Celiac Disease/Gluten Intolerance support group. I managed to get about halfway through the vendor fair before having to head back for the afternoon classes. While at the vendor fair, I stopped by Laura Russell's table where she was selling her book. Since she wasn't going to be there the second day (and I didn't think to bring her book with me), she kindly offered to sign a label that I could put in my book.
The afternoon class was on Healthy Living. I was able to get a seat in the front row this time (there weren't as many people in the afternoon class as the morning). The first part featured Robert Landolphi who's a Certified Culinary Arts Instructor and Culinary Development Manager with the University of Connecticut. He is also author of the books Gluten Free Everyday Cookbook and Quick Fix Gluten Free Cookbook. He made a "Very Berry Flax" Smoothie, "Top of the Morning" Muffins and Chewy Oat and Fruit Bars.
One of his tips was that if substituting Earth Balance for butter in baking that you should cut back on the Earth Balance or you'll end up with a "waxy" flavor. He suggested 6 Tbsp Earth Balance per 8 Tbsp of butter (personally, I prefer to use butter or coconut oil rather than butter substitutes).
He discussed the variety of options available to students at the University of Connecticut. Certainly, if I had been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance when I was in college, I would have been sorely tempted to go there for my higher education.
Next up was Ryan Hutmacher, co-founder of Centered Chef which serves to educate, entertain and inspire a well balanced lifestyle. He made an entire meal consisting of Grilled Asparagus with Citrus, Chicken Rosamarino and Quinoa Pilaf with Roasted Butternut Squash and Toasted Pine Nuts. One of his tips was that, when frying up chicken breasts, you know when to turn them when there is a "crown" of cooked chicken on the uncooked side.
After the second class, I had some time to kill waiting for the gluten free dinner that was an additional event you could purchase a ticket for. The vendor fair was closed for the evening so I went out to my car with my "stash" and read through my two autographed books by Robert Landolphi (hey, they had been on my Amazon.com "wish list" so why not get them at the Expo and get them signed while I was at it?).
The dinner was at Mon Ami Gabi. I ended up at a table occupied by a woman from Conte's Pasta (her brother started the company). I had met her the year before, again at the Saturday night dinner. Eventually we were joined by another couple who were friends of the Expo's founder Jen Cafferty and her husband (who also joined us, though I never saw where Jen, herself ended up sitting). The restaurant had lousy acoustics and my hearing aid's "Speech in Noise" setting wasn't sufficient to counter the background din. Hearing and being heard were difficult. You didn't so much talk at people as yell at them. As a result, when we were giving our orders, the waiter misunderstood me and didn't supply me with the advertised dessert. Oh well.
The food was, mostly good, though the gluten free French Onion Soup left a bit to be desired. There was very little soup and mostly lots and lots of cheese and a rather hard, tasteless bread. The other unfortunate thing about the dinner turned out to be my dinner companions. While the woman from Conte's Pasta was nice, the husband of the couple opposite me (the friends of the Expo founder) not so much. I learned early on that the couple's political leanings were diametrically opposed to my own so I avoided any discussions of a political nature. After all, this weekend was suppose to be about gluten free living. I was more interested in sharing stories of how others were managing their gluten free lifestyle.
I don't know about the wife, but the husband was not someone who followed a gluten free diet. As a result, his topics of conversation were not what I would have chosen to discuss, particularly anything of a political nature. However, the more the husband drank, the more obnoxious he became and the more he seemed determined to convince me of the error of my political ways. It didn't help that this odious man couldn't carry on an actual discussion but continually cut me off, talked over me, and was dismissive my arguments. The man was a salesman of medical equipment and had that typical pushy, arrogant salesman personality. At one point I just stopped talking as I contemplated the chance of having a constructive conversation with him and realized that I was essentially talking to a brick wall. This man did not wish to consider the viability of my arguments but only wanted to beat me into philosophical submission.
To make matters worse, I had made the mistake of taking the bench seat so was blocked in on both sides with no easy way of exiting. Note to self. When sitting with people you don't know and may not like, make sure you have a ready escape route. Eventually, the couple on the other side of me left and I took advantage of the opening to vacate the premises. It was late and I still needed to drive home. By the time I left, I was angry and upset and the meal sat like a lead weight in my stomach. I tried using the drive home to calm down but I was still pretty wound up so I didn't get off to sleep until well after midnight, an all together unpleasant end to an otherwise pleasant day. Frankly, if I'd had an inkling of how the dinner would end up, I would have saved myself the cost of the meal and simply gone home to eat.
Thanks to the previous night's unpleasantness, I woke up the next day with a headache. Trying to get my act together was difficult and once again I found myself running late. To make matters worse, there was a marathon of some sort that morning and the route I would normally take was partially closed, forcing me to take several detours which made me even later. As a result, I opted to take the tollway to make up for lost time. Again, I got there with a few minutes to spare and once again ended up at the back of a packed room.
First up was Blissful Baking, beginning with Karen Morgan of Blackbird Bakery and author of Blackbird Bakery Gluten Free cookbook. She made an Orange-Infused Angel Food cake, Pistachio Mango Gelato and Gluten Free Pizzelles. Some tips she offered for the Angel Food Cake were that the egg whites are sufficiently whipped when they stick inside the whisk. She also uses a whisk to fold in the dry ingredients and keep the eggs from deflating. Lastly, she recommends running a spatula around the edge of the tube pan to create a lip before baking. It was all absolutely delish (and yes, I bought her book, too, and had her sign it). One of the cool things is that they had a device that fit on a smart phone which swipes a credit card for those wanting to pay by plastic.
Next up was Kyra Bussanich from Crave Bake Shop, best known as the gluten-free baker who won Cupcake Wars. She made mini Coconut Cream Pies and Truffle Fudge Brownies. Brandy Wendler was once again helping out during the morning session and before the start of Kyra's presentation she changed into a T-Shirt from Crave Bake Shop. She and Kyra had partied the night before and were quite the characters together during the presentation.
One of Kyra's suggestions was that if you overcook brownies, to grind them up and use them as a crust for cheese cake. Also, if you put a can of fully fat coconut milk in the fridge overnight, when you open the can the next morning, you can skim the fat off the top and turn it into coconut whipped cream. Finally, if you're out of confectioner's sugar, take regular sugar and either corn or tapioca starch and grind them together until it forms a fine powder.
Both Karen and Kyra not only provided a lot of good information but they were highly entertaining as well. There was an awful lot of laughter involved in both their presentations.
During the break between classes, I finished my rounds at the vendor fair and picked up a stack of magazines for my CD/GI support group. Since we were sampling all the foods at the classes and most of the vendors had free samples, it wasn't necessary to sit down for an actual lunch.
The last class was Bread and Beyond. It began with Beth Hilson, author of Gluten-Free Makeovers, Food Editor at Living Without magazine, Founder of Gluten-Free Pantry, and President of American Celiac Disease Alliance, making Sunflower Flax Bread in a bread machine and a master dough that could be made into either Bacon Rosemary Breadsticks or Soft Pretzels. There was a small problem with the samples and it turned out they didn't have enough of the soft pretzels to go around. As there were several full sized pretzels (vs. the bite size pieces being passed around) that she used to show what the final product looked like, those of us who didn't get the samples, helped ourselves to the full sized versions. Frankly, I was unimpressed with her breads. They were okay, but nothing to write home about.
When making bread in a bread machine, she recommends that you don't put the salt on top of the yeast or it will "burn". My bread machine (the same brand as she was using, a Zojirushi) says to mix all the dry ingredients together except for the yeast, put the wet ingredients in, top with the dry ingredients and then make a small well to put the yeast in. When it comes to flour, she recommended Amaranth as one flour to use in a blend because it has high protein, fiber and adds elasticity. In her recipes, she was using Bob's Red Mill All Purpose Flour. She said it was not necessary to proof your yeast for baking bread (unless the yeast is older and you aren't sure it's any good) and did not see a particular advantage to weighing your ingredients vs. using volume measurements.
Those last two pieces of advice were the exact opposite of the recommendations of the next presenters, Peter and Kelli Bronski, authors of Artisanal Gluten Gluten-Free Cupcakes, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking and the No Gluten No Problem blog. They proofed their yeast for every recipe which included Rosemary Focaccia, Baguettes, and Bagels. They also were firm believers that weighing gives better results. While I have had great results in baking my favorite gluten-free bread without proofing the yeast first, I do agree that, for baking bread, weighing is better.
I will also say, their breads were much better tasting. The focaccia was especially good. They also recommend that to go egg free with the bread recipes to use 1 Tbsp flax mixed with 4 Tbsp of water.
So, that was it. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes and everything I learned. The only downsides being the belligerent dinner companion on Saturday night and the fact that sometime on Saturday I lost a bracelet. It wasn't an expensive item, but I had bought it only a month before for my birthday and it featured little cats and dogs on it. I contacted both the hotel and the restaurant about it, but no one had turned it in. I left them my contact information though I don't expect I'll ever see it again. :-(
Once again, I had a great time in the classes and really learned a lot. Which is why this is probably my last year attending the Expo. Apparently, it's become too difficult to manage the classes and since the vendor fair has really taken off, they are going to concentrate on that instead. There will still be cooking demos but there won't be samples to pass around of the food made. Which, for me, is an important aspect of the cooking classes. I can buy all the cookbooks in the world but unless I can imagine what a recipe will taste like, I am not likely to make it (I hate wasting time and money making something I can't stand to eat). The cooking classes give me the opportunity to not only see how something is made but how it tastes. I can explore taste combinations that I never would have thought to try and discover new flavors that I love.
Years ago I use to attend a number of Science Fiction conventions. I went to them to hear the invited guests speak, not to go through the dealer room. For me, the dealer room was a way to pass the time of day while waiting for the next presentation. I might actually buy something, but it was not what drew me to the convention. I feel the same way about the Expo. It was the classes that drew me to it, not the vendor fair. As I've moved farther and farther away from eating processed foods, the offerings of the vendor fair hold less and less appeal for me.
Even though they intend to hold cooking demos, the lack of samples for them makes them less desirable. Plus, I find the craziness of the vendor fair with all the people talking at once nerve wracking. It's hard for me, as a hearing impaired person, to follow what is being said. I was grateful to only spend an hour or two at the vendor fair and happy to leave. Even when the vendors were giving away the leftovers of their samples at the end of day two, I chose to skip the freebies in favor of the quiet of the classroom.
I am glad I attended the last two years and hopefully there will be other opportunities to take part in some kind of gluten free cooking classes at other venues but I can skip the Expo's vendor fair in the future.