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A woman with short, straight brown hair and glasses holds up a pie in a glass dish, standing in a kitchen.

My mom, Eileen Brook, in her kitchen before Thanksgiving with a freshly baked gluten-free apple crumble pie.

Photo by Connor Benton

  • Wrapped in Apple Pie: A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Adaptation

    “Sweet pea, do you want to help me make the apple pie for tomorrow?” my mom asks.

    She’s called me sweet pea since I was two years old. I nod—I could never miss an opportunity to bake with her. Entering her kitchen never fails to blanket me with nostalgic warmth, especially around the holidays, and tomorrow, this room will be a focus point for joyful reconnection as we host our extended family’s Thanksgiving. 

    With firm, attentive movements, she wipes the dark gray laminate counter in front of her. No trace of wheat from the chicken sandwich my younger brother ate earlier can linger. My mother, Eileen, has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that prevents her from eating gluten, the binding protein found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye. Celiac is different for everyone, but for my mom, even small amounts of gluten causes intense headaches and nausea. For anyone with the disease, ingesting gluten damages the internal lining of intestines, making it difficult to absorb necessary nutrients from food.

    “Do you ever miss certain foods?” I ask, washing my hands, thinking about tomorrow’s Thanksgiving meal and all the delicious things our family would bring. I watch her wring out the navy washcloth in the double basin sink as she thinks.

    “Not really,” she says. “I do miss the breads and desserts my mom made, and it was hard to eat gluten-free at first. There weren’t many alternatives. But I think about all the years that my body felt so miserable, and how it feels now to be off gluten. I don’t feel like I’m missing much.”

    The years before my mom’s diagnosis were arduous. Misdiagnoses led to endless tests, more questions, and yoga exercises that never relieved the tirade of migraines, stomach discomfort, and body aches. The dietary adjustments that followed her diagnosis also challenged us, particularly when it concerned family gatherings and holidays.

    Thanksgiving traditions of my early childhood emulated a Norman Rockwell painting: family gathered around the large table in my grandparents’ house, fruits, vegetables, and breads adorning the white lace cloth reserved for special occasions, and a turkey displayed front and center. Their home, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, was alive with laughter and family banter, as throughout the morning, aunts, uncles, and cousins danced through the front door, food in hand, bringing with them a perfume from the blue spruce pine that covered the property. Greetings and hugs were exchanged as a growing mound of snow-covered shoes accumulated by the front door.

    Three young people wearing aprons stand at a kitchen counter, with a mixing bowl of somethinng orange and lumpy and several bags, bottles, and boxes of ingredients in front of them. One person holds a glass mearuing container full of milk, looking nervous.
    Brook cousins bake a pumpkin log in the kitchen of Aunt Deb’s house in Fort Collins, Colorado. From left to right: Eve, Brook, and Kae.
    Photo courtesy of Deb Couture

    With forty people to feed, the kitchen was animated by hands assembling the evening’s meal. A symphony of spices, clanging pots, chiming glasses, and sizzling vegetables mark my childhood Novembers. When it was time to eat, my grandfather would carve the sizable turkey and say thanks for the family we were surrounded by. Dish after dish of food circulated the table: mashed potatoes, yams, green bean casseroles, stuffing, bread, cranberry sauce, and pies. With cheerful commotion, we shared in the meal everyone helped provide.

    We now rotate our Thanksgiving dinners among families after my grandparents moved to a much smaller place in Fort Collins.

    Cold water escapes the silver faucet and a soft trickling stream runs over each Granny Smith apple my mom tenderly washes. Once the apples are dried, she removes the peel in circles with a knife, placing each coil of candy green in a bowl for us to snack on.

    Although celiac has forced changes to my mother’s pie recipe, much remains constant. We could use a modern peeler, but my mother chooses to work by hand, just as her mother did. Peeling and coring the fruit any other way would distance her from the generations of hands that have crafted this pie.

    After the reality of dietary restrictions settled in, my mom set to adapting recipes to gluten-free alternatives, which proved challenging. The apple pie was one of the first desserts she attempted to recreate with the limited gluten-free flours she discovered. Reimagining her family’s recipe allowed her to stay connected even after the onset of her disease.

    We talk as I help remove the skins of the many apples in front of us. Smiling, my mom offers me a piece of tart spiral to eat.

    “As a child, my siblings, Grandpa, and I would go out and pick apples from the apple trees in our backyard in New York. Grandpa would pull the station wagon around, and we were allowed to stand on it so we could reach the apple trees,” she shares melodically, giving me a glimpse into the sentimental history of the very pie we were making. “Grandma used the apples we picked to make the apple pie we had at Thanksgiving every year, and we helped make it.”

    It’s difficult for me to imagine my mom standing on the roof of her father’s station wagon. But in hearing this detail, I somehow feel more connected to her. She explains how Grandma walked her through recipes and where their food traditions originated, just as my mother does with me now. I begin to see that an apple pie isn’t simply an apple pie; it’s a symbol of intergenerational bonding and community. Dietary restrictions and changing traditions haven’t taken this away.

    Just as my mom and I are working together now, she and her sisters cooked alongside my grandmother in their kitchen, conversation harmonizing with the rattling of dishes. I am merely part of the most recent Brook generation preparing for a holiday meal.

    Around the world, farmers have held end of harvest celebrations for centuries, but here in the United States, “Thanksgiving,” has been a national holiday only since 1870. For nearly forty years writer and activist Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned for the holiday. She wrote many times on the ideal Thanksgiving menu and presentation. The first president who listened was Abraham Lincoln, who laid the groundwork for the holiday in 1863 during the Civil War. Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as a way to thank God for Union victories and to heal the nation. My family no longer prescribes to Hale’s traditional menu, but we remain true to her petition: amid the chaos of life, there is still opportunity to commune and express gratitude.

    The faint tinkling of my mom’s silver ring against a glass measuring cup brings my focus to the pie crust. She shakes rice flour from the cup over a silver mixing bowl, trying to free the last of the flakes stuck to the walls of glass. As she kneads ingredients together, I work on the filling.

    “Make sure you add a little water to the apples,” she instructs. “It helps with the dry crust.”

    I heed her encouragement and mix together apples, sugar, spices, and water, wooden spoon percussing against the sides of the bowl. My mom finishes making the fragile dough, and we immediately press it into the pie pan to prevent crumbling. I place the apples in the refrigerator and we allow the crust to bake before adding them. We talk about family and close friends, reminiscing about past gatherings. Many things have changed in the last twenty years.

    About 40 people, representing many generations of a family, pose in a living room, with two gransparents seated on a couch in front.
    Brook Thanksgiving gathering of 2019 at Uncle Tom’s house in Denver, Colorado. Believe it or not, the entire family is not pictured.
    Photo courtesy of Deb Couture

    My mother was one of the first in our family to be diagnosed with celiac disease, shortly after her brother. In the years that followed, my grandma, a couple of cousins, and my older brother, Connor, were also diagnosed. We’ve adapted Thanksgiving meals to accommodate the growing need for gluten-free food. Like the apple pie, many other recipes have been altered.

    The first few years my mother was restricted to a gluten-free diet, Thanksgiving meals were not grand, due to the lack of alternatives. She ate what she could. Oftentimes her meal consisted of basic foods: turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, and roasted vegetables. The only dessert my mom ate was the apple pie she learned to recreate. Absent from her plate were bread rolls, casseroles, gravy, pumpkin pie, and other dishes. But what she missed most was an herb-imbued stuffing. Over the years, we’ve discovered quality gluten-free breads that allow us to imitate the stuffing of her childhood. The accommodations for dietary restrictions have evolved beyond the actual recipes as well.

    “A couple weeks prior to Thanksgiving, my siblings and I all sign up for what dishes we will make in an email chain,” my mom tells me, involving me in the process. “Typically, those of us with gluten-free needs make gluten-free food since we know it won’t be cross contaminated.”

    On the day of Thanksgiving, the house won’t be busy with cooking as it was during past Thanksgivings. Arriving family members will place already prepared foods in the kitchen. Pots, pans, and tins will be spread across the counters, a designated gluten-free counter labeled to prevent cross-contamination. Rather than circulate dishes around a large table, we’ll prepare our plates at the counters and sit down together to say thanks. Celiac disease poses so many barriers. It would be easier for our families to eat separately, at our respective houses, but the goodness that comes with gathering would be lost.

    The ringing of the oven timer signals that the crust is baked, ready to be filled with sweet, cinnamon apples. My mother scuffles over to the oven and opens the door.

    “Oh goodness, I’m all frogged up!” she exclaims as her rounded glasses fill with steam from the oven. I laugh, knowing she says this instead of “fogged” every time. It started as a joke when my brothers and I were little and has remained a constant phrase as we’ve grown up.

    We pour chunked apples over the crust, the scraping of a crimson rubber spatula reaching for the last of the sweet, spice-filled syrup in the bowl. My mom sprinkles on a cinnamon topping as I search for aluminum foil. Traditional pies have a crust covering the filling, but we’ve adapted the recipe to conform to the crumbly nature of our rice flour pastry. I stretch out a sheet of foil, perforate it, and my mother meticulously lines the exposed crust.

    “When you were little, you used to ask me, ‘Why do you do that, Mom?’” she remembers. “With gluten-free crust, it gets dried out while the apples are softening, so I put foil over the crust to keep it from burning.” She draws on burgundy oven mitts and places the pie on the center oven rack. Together, we wait for the fragrance of baked apples and buttery crust that indicates the completion of our cooking expedition.

    My family’s gatherings have changed through the years, but for us, Thanksgiving remains a significant holiday. To me, all the warmest memories spent with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are freckled with cinnamon and wrapped in this apple crumble pie.

    Close-up on a pie with a crumbly, golden-brown topping in a clear glass dish.
    Photo by Eileen Brook

    Gluten-Free Apple Crumble Pie

    Ingredients

    For the crust:

    • 3/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill White Rice Flour
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 tablespoon sugar
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 1 large egg
    • 1/4 cup butter, melted

    For the filling:

    • 8 cups Granny Smith apples, cored and peeled (about 6–8 apples)
    • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
    • 1/2 tablespoons nutmeg
    • 1/2 tablespoons cloves
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 1/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill White Rice Flour
    • 1 tablespoons lemon juice

    For the topping:

    • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
    • 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill White Rice Flour
    • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
    • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
    • 1 tablespoon cinnamon

    Preparation

    Preheat oven to 425℉. Grease 9-inch pie pan (we use butter).

    For the crust, beat the egg and melted butter together. In separate bowl, mix rice flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add flour mixture to egg and butter and combine. The crust may be crumbly.

    Dust a flat surface with rice flour. Place dough on surface and roll out until crust is about 11 inches in diameter, then press into greased pie pan. Sometimes, the dough is too fragile to do this, so we add it to the pie pan immediately and flatten with our fingers. Using a fork, perforate the bottom to prevent air bubbles.

    Bake crust until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

    For the filling, peel, core, and slice apples.

    In a large bowl, mix apples with flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and lemon juice. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water. Refrigerate until ready to add to pre-baked crust.

    In a small bowl, melt butter for the topping and mix with flour, brown sugar, sugar, and cinnamon.

    Once crust is ready, remove and lower the oven temperature to 400℉. Pour apple mix into crust and distribute evenly throughout the pan. Sprinkle crumble topping evenly over pie. Fold aluminum foil strips over exposed crust.

    Bake pie for 50 minutes, or until topping is golden brown and the filling begins to bubble. Cool pie on rack.

    Kae Benton is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a biochemistry student at Whitworth University. She would like to extend a statement of warm gratitude toward her family for helping her with this recipe and creating fond memories in the kitchen.


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