Many years ago I started following Ricki Heller’s blog, then called Diet Dessert and Dogs. Witty, warm, entertaining and generous, it was a joy to read her blog and we struck up a long distance friendship. I am delighted today to feature an interview with Ricki to celebrate the publication of her cookbook: Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free: Allergy friendly vegan desserts. At the bottom of this post is a giveaway of the book.
Back in 2007 when Ricki and I first met, we were both in our first year of blogging and on a steep learning curve. Since then I have seen her develop into a blogging superstar. She has written for many sites, guest posts, a magazine gig, self publishing her own book (Sweet Freedom), e-books and now she has a publisher.
Ricki's blog is full of recipes I want to make, and often do. She is vegan, and in more recent years has followed a gluten free, sugar free, anti candida diet. This is quite different from my vegetarian diet. Yet it is her innovative approach to flavours and baking that makes me want to try her recipes. She also tells great stories about the HH (her husband), The Girls (her dogs) and a host of fascinating characters.
Her new book, Naturally Sweet and Gluten Free has the creative recipes together with her whole foods approach. She uses minimally processed foods. You wont find gluten free flour mixes or vegan cream cheese in her recipes. What you will find is temptation after temptation accompanied by beautiful food photography. (The photo of the book cover is from Sellers Publishing but the rest are my own and not quite so beautiful.) It was a pleasure and privilege to talk to Ricki about the book and her life.
|Grain-Free Raw Cookie Dough Bites. Great little healthy snacks.|
Ricki: The book was an outgrowth of my first book, Sweet Freedom, which was an outgrowth of my catering business. When I closed the business I was asked to provide recipes. This became Sweet Freedom. I was able to sell it on Amazon and in local bookstores. Then I sought a publication deal to help distribute it more widely.
At first Sellers Publishing planned to publish a cookbook using the recipes in Sweet Freedom. As it was to be marketed as allergy friendly, I suggested developing the recipes to be gluten free and free of refined sugar. More recipes from my blog were added. In this way, Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free became truly allergy friendly and reflected the way that I eat today.
|My adaption of Ricki's original Chocolate peanut butter fudgies that featured eggplant puree. Delicious! The new version in Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free are Chocolate Almond Butter Fudgies, which now use applesauce and reflect the changes in Ricki's diet.|
Ricki: When creating recipes for the blog, I am the only person making and tasting the recipes. Sometimes HH and colleagues also taste it. I will test it between 5 to 10 times. I am like a dog with a bone once I have an idea for a recipe. If it doesn’t work the first time, I will keep trying.
For Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free, I had 29 testers across different kitchens and different skill levels. I had a lot more feedback, not just on taste, but also on how clear the instructions were. It was an eye opener. Some of the things I took for granted were not always obvious to the testers. For example, the feedback on the cinnamon rolls recipe gave me helpful suggestions for writing up the process of rolling up the dough.
And the eggplant? [JM: My question referred to a recipe for Chocolate-Almond Butter Fudgies that included pureed eggplant on the blog but not in the cookbook version.] I could have left it in. However I didn’t test the gluten free version of the recipe with eggplant because I usually use applesauce when I make it. It probably makes the recipe more widely acceptable too.
|Marbled Halvah and Sweet Potato-Chocolate Chip Mini Muffins. E said the muffins were the best he had ever had when he tasted one warm from the oven. They were that good!|
Ricki: In the past I have spent quite a bit of time developing some recipes. When I wrote Sweet Freedom, it took a long time to get the texture of whipped coconut cream right. I also took about 50 attempts before I was happy with a brownie that was appropriate for my Anti Candida Diet.
The recipes in Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free usually came together with only a few tries. One of the recipes in it that was a challenge was the Cashew Choc Chip Cookies. Getting the chewy texture right was tricky because coconut nectar has a different consistency to agave. However, my style of allergy friendly cooking seems quite natural to me now and I love cooking this way.
Johanna: What recipe out of Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free would you most like to make for your mum if she was alive?
Ricki: For sentimental reasons, My Mother’s Cheesecake. It is my recipe that is most like the ones she baked. She made it for my dad so this is also the recipe I would make for him. It was not too sweet and used cottage cheese – not the watery one you buy in the shops but solid cheese that she bought in 1lb blocks. The criss-cross pattern of the dough looks like dad’s mother’s cheesecake that she made on the farm.
|"My Mother's Cheesecake" - light and creamy cheesecake with attractive pastry lattice. I didn't quite have the right ingredients and made a few substitutions - perhaps that is why I found myself short of enough pastry to cover the whole cheesecake!|
Ricki: Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Chocolate cake with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting. And it would be decorated with chocolate. There would be more frosting than cake and it would be really healthy so I could have a big piece. [JM I'll have a big piece of that too, thanks!]
Johanna: Do you have advice for anyone who wants a career in food catering and food writing?
Ricki: You have to love it. There is a big difference between baking once in a while because you feel like it and baking every day because it is your job. When I did the catering job I took leave of absence and was baking massive quantities from 7am to 7pm. I was exhausted – physically tired – but I wasn’t sick once that year. And at the end of the year, I still loved it.
Don’t give up if this is what you really want to do. I tried a lot of things before I found my place. At the time I didn’t even realise this is the way things were going. When I was 30 and first married, I catered for friends of my husband and one thing led to another.
|Sweet Potato Muffins and Marbled Halvah. My halvah didn't look so pretty but goodness it was lovely. It lasted well in the fridge for a week or so.|
Ricki: In my kitchen I have a table near the largest window down stairs. It has the space and the light. It's my "favourite" space to take photos because it's the only one I have!
I learned a lot about set-up with Celine Saki, the photographer for Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free. All the photo shoots were done at my house. I created the layout for photos using my own linens and dishes. I did 80% of the food styling. I thought it looked fine, and then Celine would make a small change that would make it just perfect.
I only use natural light and the auto settings on my DSLR camera. My goal is to develop more technical skills in photography.
[JM And where are your dogs - aka The Girls - while you photograph food?] The Girls are very well trained and know not to go on the tiles when we are eating. Likewise they would wait while the photographer was here and just lie quietly.
Johanna: Has SEO killed off the poetry in naming recipes?
Ricki: I never think of SEO until I have finished a post. It doesn’t affect how I name recipes. My way of naming is haphazard. It depends on whatever comes into my head. Preferably something snappy.
|Sweet potato brownies. Satisfactorily crinkly on top. I was pleased how well they turned out because I made them for a baby shower.|
i) Which fictional characters would you invite?
- Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation (I’m a huge Star Trek fan);
- Laura from “Flowering Judas” by Katherine Anne Porter (since I wrote my PhD on Porter and I loved that story);
- Catherine from A Farewell to Arms (I loved that character and thought she was a great feminist role model);
- House from TV show House (I'd be curious to see what kind of conversation we could get into--I might have to make him guess what was in my food!);
- Annie Hall from the film of the same name (mostly because I wouldn't have to talk at all if I didn't feel like it!); and
- Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird (again, I'd be fascinated by the workings of such a brilliant mind).
Ricki: I would serve something light and fluffy or Buttertarts, because they are quintessentially Canadian, and a little side of caramel ice cream.
c) where would The Girls [Ricki's dogs] be?
Ricki: Lying just outside the kitchen, waiting for the meal to finish so they could get a few crumbs. Sometimes when we have friends over for dinner they want to pat The Girls and call them over. Elsie is older and more hesitant. Chaser will be straight in. I would be glaring at them and calling them out.
Johanna: Why did you change your blog name from Diet Dessert and Dogs to Ricki Heller?
Ricki: With Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free coming out, two e-books to my name and regular magazine contributions, I wanted the name of my blog to be consistent with my other work. I thought Diet Dessert and Dogs might be confusing. When I started the blog in 2007 I was really focused on dieting and wrote a bit about it. That is no longer a focus. I have changed. My blog has changed. It has evolved with me.
|The Sweet Potato Brownies were really fudgy inside. I loved them. I was surprised that some people who tasted them could identify something like fruit or veg in them.|
When I was asked to be part of Ricki's virtual blog tour to celebrate the publication of Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free, I had already pre-ordered a copy of the cookbook. Rather than cancel my order, I decided to use Ricki's copy for a giveaway.
I love hearing about what everyone else is baking. To have a chance to win your own copy of the wonderful Naturally Sweet and Gluten Free, just leave a comment sharing a favourite allergy friendly sweet recipe. It could be:
- your favourite recipe from Naturally Sweet and Gluten Free or www.rickiheller.com
- the url of a favourite allergy friendly sweet recipe from your blog
- the url of a favourite allergy friendly sweet recipe from any other blog
This giveaway is open to anyone with an Australian postal address whether you have a blog or not. (If you don't have a blog that lists your location, please make your location clear in your comment.) Entries must be made before the closing date: Saturday 26 October 2013.
I will use a random number generator to choose a winner and will announce the winner on my blog on 27 October. (Please either make sure I have an email address or visit on that date.)
If you don't have an Australian postal address, you can still share a favourite allergy friendly sweet recipe with me.
Disclosure: I was sent a free copy of Naturally Sweet and Gluten Free, which I have chosen to use for this giveaway. All my opinions about the cookbook are my own.