Jewish classics, minus the gluten

Diane Packman’s mini round challahs. Photo: Michael Sherwin

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

When Diane Packman’s third and youngest child went off to college, she started to think about what she might do with her free time, besides walk the dog and exercise. 

She always loved cooking, a skill her mother handed down to her, so she figured why not pour her energy into that.

She enrolled in the culinary arts program at Forest Park Community College. And more recently, she started L/A Baking and Catering LLC, which specializes in gluten-free Jewish baked goods such as challah, rugelach, kugel and cakes. L/A pays tribute to the name her dad called her as a girl:  Little Angel.

“I don’t want to do major catering in an industrial kitchen,” said Packman, 59, a proud third generation member of Temple Israel. “I like catering on a small-scale basis. I’ve done some gluten-free challahs for bar mitzvahs and weddings and some desserts for a wedding. I’ve slowly turned my kitchen into one that’s gluten free.”

Packman said that while she doesn’t have celiac disease — an immune disease in which people can’t eat gluten because it will damage their small intestine — she just feels healthier not eating gluten products. She decided her husband, who has Crohn’s disease, would feel better, too, if he would lay off the gluten. 

“That lasted for about three days,” she joked.

Packman is happy to accommodate clients who want traditional flour in their breads and desserts. But she knows that many people have food allergies and aversions, be it to gluten or nuts, or are vegan or vegetarian. She can handle any and all of them.

She uses several brands of gluten-free flour, including Better Batter (which she buys from Amazon), Namaste (from Costco) and King Arthur (available at area grocers). For challah, she makes her own gluten-free mix, using brown rice flour, sweet white rice four and tapioca flour. In her kugel, she adds extra eggs and cream cheese because she has found that gluten-free noodles tend to soak up more moisture.

“Cooking just relaxes me,” said Packman, who lives in Creve Coeur and teaches cooking to religious school students at TI. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and encouragement from my husband and kids and friends, so I figured why not go ahead and see if I can make this work.”

Last week, she prepared some gluten-free dishes in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah and a Jewish Light photo shoot, including round mini-challahs and apple cake. While a reporter and photographer watched, she made flourless black bean brownies, mixing all the ingredients in a blender, before baking them for 30 minutes. She said she could probably adapt the recipe for vegans by using ground flax seed and water in place of the eggs and dairy-free chocolate chips. Hopefully, those would be as yummy as the gluten-free brownies tasted by said reporter and photographer.

Included here are a couple of recipes for Packman’s gluten-free desserts that could complement any Rosh Hashanah meal.

Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Glaze

• Black Bean Brownies