For Aran Goyoaga, food has always been at the center of life, from spending time in her family’s pastry shop in Spain to working in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton. After years of sharing recipes on her award-winning blog Cannelle et Vanille, last fall she authored her first cookbook Small Plates & Sweet Treats, full of simple, savory dishes and gluten-free baked goods inspired by the seasons.
We asked Aran all about her cooking journey, her experiments with gluten-free baking, and what she eats on a regular day (and even scored some food styling and photography tips!) Read on for her story and a gorgeous spring recipe from her acclaimed new book.
Have you always cooked and baked? How did you come into a food career?
I grew up in the Basque country in northern Spain, and my grandparents owned and operated a pastry shop across the street from where I grew up. That was where I spent all 0f my time. My mom worked in the store and my uncles and cousins now are pastry chefs, so the shop is still in the family. I grew up surrounded by pastry all my life and lots of people cooking.
I must have been 11 years old the first time I cooked a meal for my family. I always loved it. I went to business school because my parents thought I needed to get an education out of the kitchen. I moved to the US and got married and worked in marketing for a few years (not very happily), and my husband got job in Florida. When we transitioned I decided to go to culinary school and get started as a professional, not just a home cook. I was working in restaurants in Palm Beach Island in Florida — that’s how I ended up at the Ritz-Carlton. I was a pastry chef there for three years until I had my son and stopped working those crazy hours for a bit. When he was about a year-and-a-half, I started my blog as way of documenting the things I love to do and keeping me motivated to develop new recipes and cook and share them with friends and family.
I started the blog in January 2008. I had no idea until then what blogs were! Someone sent me a link to a blog out of San Francisco and I started reading; I was intrigued by the idea of being able to share something like that with such instantaneous feedback. I was home with my son and starting to feel the creative itch, so I started the blog to keep me disciplined about creating recipes — I had no intentions of making money or connections.
At that point I was cooking and baking with wheat flour and had no issues with gluten. For the first couple of years my blog had more of a professional pastry chef approach; I was still thinking in those terms as a restaurant and hotel chef. I would write things like “80 grams egg whites” and people asked how to measure them. I was not connecting fully with the home cook.
In 2009 I started having health issues: vertigo and hearing loss and all kinds of crazy symptoms. For six or seven months I saw doctors, but no one was able to help until a test for gluten sensitivity came back positive. I started cooking and baking gluten-free. I was also cooking for a growing family — I had my daughter at this point — so I was cooking meals that were simpler and health-driven, too.
I still approach my blog as a personal project. I don’t make much money from it, so I have the freedom of doing what I want. A post starts with an idea inspired by the season, the farmers’ market, or something I ate at a restaurant that sparked an idea — sometimes even dishes and new ceramics. I come up with a recipe to fit what’s in my head, test it a couple of times, then share it with friends and family to see the response. If it’s good, I post it. I photograph more than what I share on the blog. It’s a very organic process. I style as I go along and decide at the last minute how it’s going to fall into place. I play around and photograph. Then I have to write about it. Writing is definitely my weakness, so it’s where I spend most of my time questioning myself.
How did you become interested in food styling and photography?
Food styling was always part of my job as a pastry chef. When I worked at the Ritz-Carlton, we always had buffets and plated dinners and wedding cakes. There was always a sense of composition and colors and the dishes you use. Photography came after the blog. I never really understood photography or natural light, but when I started photographing food for the blog, the images were so important to make something attractive so people would want to make it. I played around with my camera and read the manual and just started experimenting in my home with light. It took me the first couple of years to really feel like I understood what I was doing. People started getting interested in my work, and I got clients and features and editorial work. I started teaching workshops a couple of years ago for other bloggers or people who are interested in learning, honing their skills, or feeling inspired.
What are some of your best tips for styling and photography? Any easy tricks people can use at home?
The most important thing is to pay attention to the light and what time of day you’re shooting. When using natural light, you have to make sure it’s diffused and not too harsh. Mid-day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., is usually the best. Also, pay attention to composition — your background noise and what elements you have in your frame that complement your dish. Are there things you put there because you didn’t know what to do with them? Start simple and photograph as is if you have hard time composing with other props or elements. It’s best to have a simple dish with beautiful natural light. Then start adding elements to tell the story of who’s eating it, how you cooked it, the texture, color, contrast. The most important thing is to know how to use the light you have available.
Your book Small Plates & Sweet Treats focuses on gluten-free baking. What was your reaction to learning you were gluten-intolerant?
When I was pregnant for the first time in 2005, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease. My best friend had already been living gluten free for 3 or 4 years, so I was familiar with it. After I was diagnosed I started reading about the impact of gluten and inflammation on the body. I tried it for six months and thought, this is doable. I wasn’t paying attention to anything but gluten, so I still ate things made with white rice flour, etc. I went back to Europe and started eating bread, and I didn’t feel bad, so I thought gluten wasn’t my issue. I gave up the whole thing and started eating gluten again.
In 2009, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I started having bad health issues and was diagnosed with classic meniere’s disease, which involves hearing loss, vertigo, nausea and inner ear inflammation. I was so debilitated and so sick, really to the point that I had my parents fly out from Spain twice to help with the kids. It was a hard time. I found a doctor who suggested it may have to do with food issues. I was tested for celiac, which came back negative, but I had a gluten sensitivity test done, and it was positive. The doctor put me on a total elimination diet for about a month: no gluten, no dairy, no grains, no sugar, just vegetables and protein and fruit. I did that for a couple of months and instantly felt 100% better. I regained my health. I slowly started introducing grains again, but never gluten – I got sick when I tried it.
I started experimenting with different flours and got really excited about them. As a chef and someone interested in food, I was eager to learn about the different characteristics and textures of flours, so I started experimenting old recipes with new flours and seeing what was happening. For cookies, quickbreads and tarts, you don’t need gluten anyway; it’s really simple to make conversions and create new things that are interesting – buckwheat with strawberries, amaranth and pears, working with similar flavor profiles. Because I had been so sick I knew it was right thing to do and felt encouraged and excited.
How has it affected your cooking and baking? Any specific challenges or successes?
The first mistake was when I started making anything – a tart, cookies or bread – I started putting xanthan gum in it because I had read that gluten-free baked goods needed that. I never enjoyed the texture of it; it seemed gummy to me. So I decided not to use it. You don’t always need to have additives and gums to make something with a good texture. I researched chia and flax seeds to thicken and gelatinize baked goods. As soon as I discovered additives were not a necessity, that I could use other, more natural ingredients, I started understanding gluten-free baking a bit more.
As for yeast breads and trying to mimic traditional gluten-reliant baked goods, I’m still working on it. That’s my next big challenge.
Any suggestions for other people who are avoiding gluten? Easy substitutions, new ingredients to try, recommendations, etc.?
I always say the most important thing is that if you’re trying a gluten-free diet for the first time for health reasons, stick to it 100%. If you are having a reaction to gluten, even the smallest particle is going to make you react. Instead of giving up, you have to stick with it. Give it two to three weeks to start feeling better.
For cooking and baking, people tend to start with gluten-free all-purpose mixes, which are great for certain things. Go beyond those and experiment with whole grain flours and nut flours, too — they are so flavorful and high in moisture and fat, which gluten-free baking needs. Mix your own flours and tackle each recipe with different flours, instead of using the same mix every time. See the possibilities.
What about cooking for a family? Any go-to gluten-free dishes that your husband and kids adore?
I’ve always cooked very Basque-style at home, which doesn’t include a lot of gluten anyway. My children love lentils, so I make a lot of lentil soup. I make Spanish tortillas and use gluten-free pastas – Jovial and Andean Dream are my two favorites. Besides baked goods, we don’t dredge foods in flour and fry them or thicken soups with flour; in my cooking it wasn’t so apparent. It’s more apparent in my baking, but now my children love my gluten-free cookies and banana bread.
I moved to the U.S. at 24, so I lived my young life and young adult life in Basque country. I grew up in a very large family. My mom is the oldest of 8, and everyone lives within a five-minute walk from one another, so we were always getting together and eating and spending time in the pastry shop. Eating is a part of Basque culture. The cooking is very simple and fresh, with lots of seafood. We are lucky to have amazing vegetables; everyone I knew had a garden, and people were always giving you chicken eggs and sharing tomatoes. My grandparents were farmers, and they gave us tons of vegetables for the week. They raised pigs, so we would eat meat from animals they had slaughtered themselves and shared with the whole family. It was farm-centric. Everywhere in Europe, food is the center of everything.
The main difference I see is that when people in the U.S. think of cooking, they think of throwing a dinner party or something grandiose or having to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In Europe, people cook every single day. They don’t go out to eat as much; they just make something simple and healthy at home. It’s not all or nothing. People here tend to eat out more and reserve cooking for friends or weekend and holiday get-togethers.
What do you eat on a typical day?
For breakfast I usually have a smoothie with kale, apple, lemon juice, coconut milk, kefir and ginger, along with berries and other fruit. And I’ll have some protein, like an egg. Other times I’ll have muesli with yogurt — it’s all very simple. On weekends, I’ll maybe do crepes and waffles.
A mid-day snack will be avocado sliced on toast, or a poached egg with avocado or fruit. I eat very often! Lunch may be a leek, fennel and zucchini soup with a little coconut milk and leftover braised chicken. Other times I’ll have a large Nicoise-style salad with salmon or tuna, or lentil soup. It’s usually just me by myself, but I’m not one to just grab a piece of bread — I like to sit down and eat a nice meal. Then I’ll have an afternoon snack like banana bread or fruit.
Dinner is often lentil soup — my children love it — or lamb meatballs, vegetable tarts, large salads and paella. My kids love tortilla with just a little salad and bread, or simple roasted fish with vegetables. I’m trying to be better about it, but I like having dessert with every meal, whether it’s a small piece of chocolate or berries. I like to end with something sweet. Usually we make cookies together with ice cream or something simple. I love to make crumbles with cherries and stone fruits or a clafoutis.
Spring Quinoa Salad with Peas, Favas, Lemon and Feta
2 cups chicken stock or water
2 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup quinoa, rinsed
¾ cup English peas
¾ cup baby lima beans
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
½ cup watercress
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock and ½ teaspoon of the salt to a boil. Add the quinoa, lower the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook for 15 minutes. The quinoa will absorb all the water. Transfer to a large bowl to cool, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring about 3 cups water and the remaining 2 teaspoons salt to a boil. Blanch the peas and lima beans in the water for about 1 minute. Drain the water and immediately submerge the peas and lima beans in a bowl of ice water. This will stop the cooking process and keep their color.
Add the blanched peas, lima beans, and the rest of the ingredients to the bowl with the quinoa. Toss and serve at room temperature or chilled. Serves 4-6.
Headshot Credit: Lena Hyde. Food images courtesy of Aran Goyoaga.