“Food isn’t just food,” says Becky Excell, 31-year-old blogger, author and winner of the readers’ vote for Best Food Personality. “It’s socialising, identity, special occasions, comfort – it’s everything.”
Excell’s blog, Gluten Free Cuppa Tea – and four subsequent books – have been built from recipes she most missed after being told by a doctor to remove gluten from her diet in 2013, to cope with the symptoms of what appeared to be irritable bowel syndrome. She was later told that to test for coeliac disease, she would have to reintroduce gluten to her diet for six weeks, by which point her symptoms were too severe to do so. “So I live as an undiagnosed coeliac,” she tells me, “and will do so for life unless an easier way of testing is discovered – in which case I would love to get tested again.”
Since then, London-based Excell has become official ambassador for the charity Coeliac UK, working to raise awareness of the disease and gut health more broadly. Most notably, though, she has been responding to her initial frustration that “books and websites aimed for gluten-free diets … were so clinical, colourless and boring” by writing recipes which are anything but, prompting Nigella Lawson to crown her the “Queen of Gluten Free”.
Not for Excell a world of dry crumb and stiff bread. Her blog and books boast chocolate pancakes with Ferrero Rocher-style sauce, pulled pork wraps, ricotta and spinach pasta bake, even crumpets. “I’ve tried to push the idea that gluten-free food is equally delicious, and there’s a whole community of us.”
This community is one which Excell’s blog and books have played a part in creating.
“You can feel very alone on a gluten-free diet – you might be the only person in your family or friendship group,” she says. “Then you go online and you realise there are so many of us in the same position.” Her writing and recipes reflect how common this is by speaking to people of all ages, cultures and, crucially, budgets.
Excell offers guides to getting good value out of the gluten-free aisle and recently put together a series of Instagram posts suggesting five meals to be made from a £20-£30 supermarket shop. She also highlights cooking equipment such as air fryers, which are less expensive to buy and use – pertinent in a cost of living crisis.
Her work is also a help for anyone not gluten-free but cooking for someone who is – and for those who aren’t especially handy in the kitchen. “You might never have even thought about cooking before finding out you can’t eat gluten,” says Excell. Some people may love the idea of making gluten-free pasta from scratch – and if you do, she has the recipe. Others may prefer just to know which shop-bought gluten-free pasta offers the best value and whose gluten-free sausages are best.
Among the guides are tips for eating out, takeaways and ready meals, addressing the challenges involved with characteristic positivity. “It is a massive change,” she says. “It affects someone’s kitchen, where they go for dinner – even a birthday cake at work,” she says. “I want to take the stress out of the whole experience, whether that’s with recipes or supermarket shopping. People don’t have to hunt high and low. They can come to me.”
She cites a recent example: an elderly couple scrutinising the back of the packets in a supermarket’s free-from aisle. When she offers to help it turns out their gluten-free granddaughter is coming to stay and they want to know what might be best for her. “You often make friends in the free-from aisle,” she says. “There are many ways to help people, and this is mine.”
Recipes from OFM’s Best Food Personality
One-sheet blueberry pancakes
Feel free to swap the blueberries for chocolate chips or slices of ripe banana, if you fancy.
Makes 15 square pancakesvegetable oil for greasinggluten-free self-raising flour 200g gluten-free baking powder 1 tsp caster sugar 4 tbsp milk 200ml vanilla extract 2 tsp medium eggs 3 fresh or frozen blueberries 5 handfuls (about 125g), plus extra to servemaple syrup to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Grease a 28cm x 38cm baking tray with a little vegetable oil and line with non-stick baking parchment so that there is an overhang around the edges (for lifting it out later).
Add the flour, baking powder and sugar to a large mixing bowl and mix until combined. Add the milk and vanilla extract to a jug, then crack in the eggs and beat to combine, using a fork.
Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients a third at a time, until you have a smooth batter the consistency of thick cream. Pour the batter into the prepared tray and spread out into a flat, even layer. Scatter the blueberries evenly over the top and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.
Using the baking parchment, lift the pancake out onto your work surface and use a pizza cutter to cut into 15 squares.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving with lots of maple syrup and extra blueberries.
Tip: feel free to swap the blueberries for slices of ripe banana, fresh raspberries, strawberries or a combination of whatever you fancy. You can also replace the berries with chocolate chips, too, if you’d prefer.
Dietary variationsDairy-free use dairy-free milkLow-lactose use lactose-free milkLow fodmap use lactose-free milk and one medium egg instead of the banana. Serve with no more than a third of ripe banana per personVegetarian use dairy-free milk
Smoked salmon and cream cheese breakfast muffins
Makes 6gluten-free plain flour 130ggluten-free baking powder 2 tsp xanthan gum ¼ tsp salt and black pepper pinch of eachegg 1 medium milk 130ml butter 2 tbsp, meltedsmoked salmon 2 slices, finely dicedcream cheese 3 tbsp, plus 6 tsp to top the muffinschives 1 tbsp, finely chopped
Preheat your oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7 and line a cupcake tray with 6 tulip muffin cases.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, xanthan gum, salt and pepper. Briefly mix until combined.
Crack the egg into a jug, then add the milk and melted butter before beating with a fork until smooth.
Pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and whisk to a smooth batter. Add the smoked salmon, cream cheese and chives. Mix in until evenly dispersed.
Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the mixture into each muffin case, ensuring the mixture is evenly split between all six cases. Add a modest teaspoon of cream cheese to the top of each muffin and bake for 15-18 minutes until golden.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature or just warm. (If you try to remove them from their cases while still hot, you’ll lose a lot of your muffin as it’ll get stuck to the case.)
Dietary variationsDairy-free use dairy-free milk and cream cheeseLow-lactose use lactose-free milk and cream cheeseLow fodmap use lactose-free milk and cream cheeseVegetarian use 100g chopped button mushrooms, thinly sliced and lightly pan-fried, instead of smoked salmonVegan combine the dairy-free and vegetarian advice, and use a flax egg instead of the egg. A flax egg is a great substitute for eggs when making biscuits, cookies, muffins and pancakes. Simply combine 1 tbsp ground flaxseed with 3 tbsp of water in a small bowl. Allow to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes before using in place of one egg. Double or triple the quantities depending on how many eggs you’re replacing.
Quick and Easy Gluten Free by Becky Excell (Quadrille, £20). To order a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply