Saturday, December 20, 2014

Vegan pumpkin pie filling minus most of the gloopy starch (egg-free, milk-free, nut-free)

This may not be a cooking blog, but occasionally a little science can help solve a very real problem - a better vegan pumpkin pie filling! The starchy, gloopy, blobby pumpkin pie filling found in most vegan pumpkin pie recipes has much to be desired. In fact, I like to joke that I can chuck a scoop across the room and watch it slowly bleb down the wall. We deal with many allergies that won't allow using certain egg-replacing binders (e.g. flax seed gel, corn starch, tofu, etc.), so after coming up null with internet searches for workable recipes given our allergen set, necessity became the mother of invention! Welcome to my test kitchen!

Could I use chia seed, some combination of chia seed and tapioca starch, or a combination of chia seed and course oat flour to improve the texture of the existing gloopy pumpkin pie filling (tapioca starch-based)?

I predicted that either the combination of chia seed and oat flour or the combination of chia seeds and tapioca starch would significantly improve the texture of the gloopy pumpkin pie filling. I predicted that the chia seed alone would not provide enough binding to make an adequate filling.

Chia is often touted as an egg substitute. Soaking 1 Tbsp of chia seeds in 3 Tbsp water for ~20 minutes makes a mucilaginous gel resembling the texture of raw egg in quantity. While the texture seems on par with raw egg, the real magic of egg binding in recipes doesn't happen until after it is cooked (think of a hard-boiled egg. The uncooked "white" is primarily protein, whose structure changes to the opaque, hard but slightly pliable white after cooking. Now imagine that same structure distributed throughout your pie filling!). Chia has a combination of polysaccharides (complex sugar chains - aka carbohydrates, some protein, and some fat). I reasoned that chia alone wouldn't have the same protein binding "magic" as an egg based on its protein content (1 large egg = 6.3 g of protein; 1 Tbsp chia seed = 3 g protein). Although it is possible that chia may compensate for a lack of protein a bit by providing more carbohydrates that can "gel" (1 large egg = 0.4 carbohydrates; 1 Tbsp chia seed = 5 g carbohydrates). Oats have a good deal of both protein and carbohydrates, though! So I figured grinding rolled oats into a coarse flour with a food processor may expose more of the protein/carbs contained within to serve a really good "binding" function (1/2 cup of rolled oats = 5 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat).

Making chia seed gel. 1 egg substitute = 1 Tbsp chia seeds + 3 Tbsp water. Let sit ~20 minutes before using.
Materials and methods:
In order to waste as little food as possible, I mixed a large pumpkin pie base whose ingredients were common to all conditions and added 3/4 cup of the "base ingredients" to each of four tempered glass cups. 

Base ingredients common to all conditions
2 cups pureed pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1/4 c. packed light brown sugar
1/4 c. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

I then scaled down the unique ingredients I wanted to add to each of the four separate conditions, fully mixed, and baked in the oven at 375 deg. F for 45 minutes. Note, I would have loved to test additional conditions, but I didn't have enough ingredients to test them all! In theory, I should have included a proper "negative control" that would have baked the "base ingredients" with no additions. I would have also included an "egg based" version for good measure, but hey, we deal with an egg allergy in our house - it just didn't seem right. After baking and cooling, my husband and I taste-tested each condition to obtain results based on our personal texture preferences.

Chia seed + oat flour was the clear winner for binding and texture. Both the tapioca starch alone and the chia seed + tapioca starch had the gloopy starch binding texture instead of the soft texture associated with traditional egg-based pumpkin pie filling. Chia seed alone was quite delicious, but did did not have enough binding for pie filling. It makes a fabulous pudding, however! (Yes, two recipes in one!!!).

Pumpkin pie recipe:
Use your favorite crust recipe and line a 9 in. pie pan with crust. Mine happens to be Claire's quick and easy pie crust using spectrum organic shortening. You could easily substitute a different recipe to make this gluten-free.

Pumpkin pie filling ingredients:
2 c. pureed pumpkin (I used a can of Trader Joe's)
1/2 c. of coarsely ground oat flour (I used a food processor to grind rolled oats)
1 c. coconut milk light (I used canned from Trader Joe's)
Chia seed gel (1 Tbsp chia seed + 3 Tbsp water, sit for ~20 minutes before use)
1/4 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 c. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pumpkin pie filling thoroughly mixed.

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 deg. F. 
2. Combine all pumpkin pie filling ingredients and thoroughly mix.
2. Pour filling into pie shell (I covered my crust edges with aluminum foil for the first 30 minutes of baking and removed foil for the remainder of the bake time).
3. Bake for ~60 minutes (ovens may vary, so please check your pie sooner!).
4. Cool on rack and enjoy!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why YOU should participate in a food allergy research study (Northwestern University currently seeking participants)

Research scientists must continually pitch their ideas.  Scientists “pitch” a funding agency when they write a grant – an elaborate document of their proposed studies, often including significant preliminary data to convince grant reviewers that their ideas are “going to work.” Writing grants is an essential part of a scientist’s job because without the money supplied by grants, research grinds to a halt (even for a university researcher!). And if that isn’t challenging enough, the scientists performing studies with human subjects must “pitch” their ideas to recruit a sufficient number of study participants to acquire enough data to draw trustworthy conclusions. It is true – the job of a scientist is part salesperson!

So here’s my pitch to all of you.

Share this post with as many people as you know because:
  1. It will help a great group of food allergy researchers at Northwestern University recruit participants to better understand a concerning problem for food allergies – what makes adolescents/young adults (14-22 year olds) more at risk from their food allergic reactions.
  2. Participating is easy – it is a short survey that can be accessed by internet (i.e. you don’t have to drive to Chicago to participate!).
  3. Answering the study questions will undoubtedly spin off many more questions that will help fund future grants, thus driving our understanding of this problem forward and ultimately improving the lives of those affected by food allergies.

I am including the details of the study with appropriate links below. If you’re already “sold” on sharing this widely or even participating, great! Scroll down to the section - STUDY OVERVIEW - to read the details provided directly by Dr. Ruchi Gupta’s team at Northwestern. If you need a little more “evidence,” I’ve got that, too. Read on.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta and her team with Illinois state Attorney General Lisa Madigan this past July. Dr. Gupta and her team helped advocate for a new law to expand Illinois' existing stock epinephrine for schools law.

Why I strongly support Dr. Gupta’s research group:

Any food allergy researcher who “pitches” their work to a funding agency, whether it is the federal government, a non-profit organization, or private investors must convince reviewers that food allergies are in fact a significant problem. Dr. Gupta’s group is behind many very solid studies that other researchers cite in their grant proposals to do just that – convince reviewers that yes, food allergies are in fact a large problem. Her group recently defined how prevalent food allergies are among U.S. children (1 in 13 children under 18 years of age)1 and just how enormous the economic burden of food allergies truly is on the U.S. economy (estimated at nearly $25 billion annually).2

I have no doubt that the outcome of the current study will serve as a research catalyst for herself and other researchers - a prominent citation in a grant proposal to justify further research funding to define why adolescents/young adults are more at risk of fatal anaphylaxis from their allergic reactions.3,4,5 While this is tragically a recognized problem, researchers still don’t fully understand why. Is it part psychology (e.g. teenagers/young adults tend to take more risks in general)?  Is it part biology (e.g. something about the biology of this age group drives stronger reactions)? Or is it some combination of both? Her work just may start to tease out the evidence to address those very questions in the future. If we understand the problem, we can design strategies to mitigate them.

Dr. Gupta “gets it.” As a mother to a child with food allergies herself, her work is not only driven by her scientific integrity, but also a very personal drive to make a difference in the lives of all who are touched by food allergies. The scientific questions she asks truly come from a deep understanding of food allergies. In addition to her busy job, Dr. Gupta lends her voice as a prominent researcher to advocate for and support the larger allergy community as a whole. She has written a book, The Food Allergy Experience, and regularly updates her blog, chronicling the many events where she has given back to the allergy community in very powerful ways.

Please help Dr. Gupta’s research group help all of us! Participate. Make a difference.


Researchers at Northwestern Medicine are conducting a research study entitled “Risk Taking Behavior among Adolescents with Food Allergy," which is currently enrolling participants.  The goal of this study is to learn more about the risk taking behaviors of food allergic adolescents – both in regard to general risk taking and risk taking as it relates to food allergy.  In order to participate in the study, adolescents between the ages of 14 and 22 years who currently have a food allergy are being asked to complete an entirely anonymous and confidential electronic survey.  No protected health or identifying information is being collected.  No compensation is being offered in exchange for study participation. All aspects of this research study have been approved by the Northwestern Institutional Review Board, IRB STU00097291.

If you are between the ages of 18 and 22 and are interested in participating in this study, please click on this secure link to access the anonymous and confidential survey [].

If you are a parent with a food allergic child between the ages of 14 and 17 and have no objections to your adolescent child participating in this study, please forward him/her this link [].  The link will take him/her to the completely anonymous and confidential survey.

If you would prefer for your child not to participate, no further action is required.

If you have any questions prior to making your decision, please feel free to contact me directly at, or Dr. Gupta at


1.           Gupta RS, Springston EE, Warrier MR, et al. The prevalence, severity, and distribution of childhood food allergy in the United States. Pediatrics. 2011;128(1):e9-e17. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0204.
2.           Gupta R, Holdford D, Bilaver L, Dyer A, Holl JL, Meltzer D. The economic impact of childhood food allergy in the United States. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(11):1026-1031. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2376.
3.           Bock SA, Muñoz-Furlong A, Sampson HA. Fatalities due to anaphylactic reactions to foods. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2001;107(1):191-193. doi:10.1067/mai.2001.112031.
4.           Pumphrey R. Anaphylaxis: can we tell who is at risk of a fatal reaction? Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004;4(4):285-290. doi:10.1097/01.all.0000136762.89313.0b.
5.           Sampson HA, Mendelson L, Rosen JP. Fatal and near-fatal anaphylactic reactions to food in children and adolescents. N Engl J Med. 1992;327(6):380-384. doi:10.1056/NEJM199208063270603.