From time spent on the line in restaurants to teaching cooking classes at several local Superstores, Chef Kathy Jollimore has experienced many facets of the food industry hands on. Over the years, she’s designed menus to accommodate a wide variety of allergies and special diets, and she says cooking for a diverse crowd can be easier than you think.

“From nut allergies to vegans, I've cooked for it all,” she says. “Knowing your guests allergies in advance is crucial, but when it comes to the menu, try not to complicate things. Instead of making complicated substitutions, cook what you know. For instance, meat and potatoes are naturally gluten free.

“Accommodating guests can be as simple as providing allergens like nuts and cheese on the side instead of, say, in the salad itself.”

In addition to hosting holiday meals, ’tis the season for special baking, which often includes common allergens like nuts, eggs, dairy and gluten.

“You likely have holiday favourites that are already allergen free. Fudge, truffles, macaroons and chocolate bark are all gluten free, for example,” Jollimore says. “Some of these can also be dairy free, depending on chocolate you use. A personal favourite is the PC extra dark chocolate bar. It is 70 per cent cocoa and dairy free, so using it for chocolate bark, for example, provides an allergen free dessert that is easy and customizable. Just top with your favourite nuts, dried fruit or candy. Anything goes.”

Jollimore suggests opting for simple, allergen-free recipes rather than attempting substitutions with products you aren’t familiar with.

“It is quite easy to substitute non-dairy options for dairy. Most baking will fare well with vegan substitutions for butter, like vegan margarine or coconut oil such as the PC Cold Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil. One exception may be dough for pies and pastries since coconut oil will melt at a lower temperature, resulting in a less flaky finished product.

“Likewise, non-dairy milks can easily substitute dairy in baking though the best substitute is likely soy because of its higher protein content. This also makes it best suited for savoury applications like cream sauces. However, other non- dairy milks, like almond or cashew, can also be substituted with little change to the finished product. Nut and soy milk can even be soured to replace buttermilk.”

The main restrictions for making substitutions in baking is changing the ratio of ingredients.

“Olive oil can’t replace butter without a change in the liquid ingredients. Also, because certain ingredients provide specific attributes to a baked good, substitutions don’t always produce the same finished product. A great example is gluten-free bread. Since gluten provides elasticity to dough, gluten free bread is generally more dense.”

Eggs can also be swapped.

“A great egg substitute is flaxseed. You simply mix together 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed with 2 1/2 tablespoons of water and let it sit five minutes to thicken. Use this in place of one egg in your baking.”

When in doubt, ask your guests to be sure your menu is ideal for the occasion.

“A lemon polenta cake will impress the gluten-free guests while a vegan chocolate pie (where tofu produces a silky filing) will satisfy the dairy- and egg-free ones. Again, keep things simple. Luckily with access to the wealth of knowledge on the Internet, finding allergen free ideas is merely a click away.”