When I was a kid, I had an irrational love of Tootsie Rolls.
Not so much anymore. Since I went gluten-free and started cooking from scratch, eating in season, and eating whole foods instead of stuff out of boxes, I’ve lost my taste for overly sweet foods. The high fructose corn syrup just doesn’t like me, it seems.
In fact, to my complete surprise, I seem to have lost much of my sweet tooth. The Chef doesn’t really have one, and so we eat far fewer sweets each month. You never could have told me that going gluten-free would change that in me.
(Still, it seems that — at the moment — Tootsie Rolls are actually gluten-free. And after writing this, I think I need one.)
But when I haunted the sidewalks for Halloween, dressed as an LA Dodger or a bunch of grapes, I looked eagerly into my bag after every house. Tootsie Rolls? Cool. Most of them never made it home. But if they did, I sorted my haul into the luxury items (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) to the dreadfully disappointing (Jolly Ranchers — they always left an acrid burning square on the roof of my mouth). Always, I ate the Tootsie Rolls first.
“Why do you like those?” people sometimes asked me. “They’re a terrible imitation of chocolate.”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I know. I like chocolate too. But Tootsie rolls have their own taste. I like that.” And it’s true. A Tootsie Roll doesn’t taste anything like chocolate. There’s a certain waxy, pliable bend to them, a wave of sweetness. Once popped onto the teeth, Tootsie Rolls take longer to chew than most eight-year-old’s attention span. They taste like brown and sugar. Not brown sugar. Brown. And sugar.
Still, I loved them for what they are. Not an imitation of chocolate. Themselves.
That’s how I feel about gluten-free baking.
* * *
I hesitated — and wavered — about putting the recipe for crusty sorghum bread in my book.
I’m happy with the recipe. Really, for gluten-free bread, it’s good. But that’s the thing. It’s gluten-free bread.
Gluten-free bread will (in my experience) never be featherlight, whirled full of air like a French baguette, or spongy and bendable, like my old Gumby and Pokey dolls. You know why?
There’s no gluten in it.
When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I decided I didn’t need bread. Even though I had sauntered into Macrina Bakery nearly every other day for a fresh loaf of kalamata olive bread with sea salt strewn on top, I accepted my fate. No bread.
However, over time, I changed my mind. Make a great potato leek soup, and you want something to dunk in the dredges. If you want crab cakes at home, you need breadcrumbs. And sometimes, I still like peanut butter toast.
So I started making gluten-free bread.
And after a year or more of making it, I came up with some recipes and innovations. Some of the attempts tasted, at best, like a bagel. Others had the texture of compressed sawdust. I could create a decent taste, a lovely crumb. But there was no crunch, no crackle beneath the teeth that signified a great bready experience.
I wanted crust.
So, inspired by the mania for no-knead bread, I adapted the technique of high heat, a cast iron pot, and thirty minutes of steamy baking. That first loaf had a thump, a crunch beneath the knife that inspired me. And you know what? It tasted pretty damned great.
For gluten-free bread.
The Chef and I tested that bread, many times, with tiny variations. Bread is fickle. It responds to humidity, to heat, to how much you work with it. That’s true for gluten bread. Think about the chances for it to go askew without gluten. And we ended up with bags of gluten-free bread crumbs in our freezer. He took them to the restaurant.) The recipe you can read in the book is our best attempt. We were proud. We still are.
But I’m just realizing, now, that if you are recently diagnosed, and you make that sorghum bread, you are likely to be disappointed. You’re going to think, “This is it?” You will have missed the hundred conversations, the unspoken tensions, and the attempts that finally calm your mind and help you accept that it will never taste like good gluten bread.
But that’s okay. Just think of all gluten-free baking like I regarded those Tootsie Rolls. It’s not chocolate. But it becomes its own fascination, a taste you crave.
Last night, the Chef brought home seafood chowder for dinner. It was, without a doubt, the best chowder I had ever eaten: chewy with mussels and clams; savory with shrimp stock; spiky with a touch of brandy. After my first bite, I hit him on the arm and said, “Shut up!” And then we both cut off a hunk of the sorghum bread I made last night, and dunked it into our soup.
I felt like a kid at Halloween.
I’m still learning about gluten-free baking. I always will be.
But there are a few secrets I have learned.
1. Focus first on the foods that are naturally gluten-free. There is so much bounty.
2. Play. Experiment with a dozen little flours and see what combinations work best for you. Don’t go by my recipes exactly, or anyone’s. Make it once as you read it. And then play.
3. You have to combine. One gluten-free flour does not wheat flour make. Find your own combinations.
4. Accept your fate. Instead of constantly bemoaning the fact that you cannot mindlessly dump in a cup of white enriched flour, think of this as a chance to learn. Everything will shine if you live this way.
5. Remember. It will never taste like the food you are used to eating. But slowly, it will become something else, something with which you will feed yourself.
6. Food is beautiful. Enjoy the mistakes and laugh, a lot.
When I was finishing the book, I wrote up a little guide to the different gluten-free flours. This glossary never made it into the final book. But at the back, in little letters, it says, “For a guide to gluten-free flours, please see glutenfreegirl.com.”
So, here it is.
Take raw, blanched almonds, grind them to a fine flour (but not so much that they become almond butter), and you have almond flour. This and other nut flours — such as chestnut and hazelnut, macadamia and pistachio — add protein and vibrant taste to gluten-free baking.
The tiny whole grains that make a surprising breakfast cereal can be ground into a fine flour. Frankly, I have never successfully ground them in the spice grinder. I buy this flour in small bags, and add it in handfuls to crepes and quiche crusts. Amaranth has a grassy, earthy taste, so it works best in savory dishes, like pizza dough.
The name alone is enough to make you want to try it. Legend has it that the Arawak people of the West Indies, long before the arrival of Columbus, used arrowroot powder to draw out the poison from arrow wounds. Hopefully, it will have similar beneficial properties for those of you cooking gluten-free. It is best used as a thickener, for rouxs and sauces, and fillings for fruit pies. Those who are allergic to corn are especially grateful for the existence of this starch.
Dried beans can be ground into flours as easily as grains can. Chickpea flour — also known as garbanzo bean or ceci flour — makes a memorable flatbread in the south of France. Lentil flour shows up in Indian cuisine. Even fava beans become flour, and show up in some commercial gluten-free baking mixes. Experiment with the beans you like, in small doses.
You may not have heard of corn flour yet, but you have eaten it. Have you ever enjoyed a corn tortilla in a Mexican restaurant? That was made of corn flour. After corn kernels have been dried, soaked in lime water, and then washed, the corn is ground into a fine flour. Buy some authentic masa harina (as Mexican cooks call it) and make your own corn tortillas at home. You can also try it in gluten-free corn bread.
The seeds of the guar plant, which grows in India and Pakistan, make a granular flour when dried and ground. Take a look at many processed foods — such as commercial ice creams and puddings — and you will see guar gum on the list of ingredients. In small amounts, guar gum can be a somewhat effective binder, mimicking some of the effects of gluten.
Mild and ever-so-slightly sweet, millet is an adaptable grain. It soaks up the tastes of the foods surrounding it. It sings in harmony, rather than blaring out loud. Millet flour lends a crumbly texture to breads and muffins, and it is especially good in quick breads.
Potatoes are endlessly useful. Their starchiness makes them fantastic when mashed. And that starch, when extruded by machines and put into little bags, helps gluten-free cooks to eat well. As is true for all the gluten-free flours, potato starch will not substitute directly for wheat. It needs to be combined with other flours and starches in a blend. Those who celebrate Passover or are allergic to corn are particularly grateful for the existence of potato starch. (This is not to be confused with potato flour, which is dried potatoes ground into a flour. If you want the taste of potatoes, choose potato flour.)
As a grain, quinoa is nutty and delicious. As a flour, quinoa is a little bitter. It is packed with protein, however, and the texture adds density to gluten-free baked goods. I like to use a little quinoa flour, in combination with other gluten-free flours, in something savory: cheddar-cheese biscuits; zucchini bread; or herb muffins.
When rice farmers harvest rice, they shuck the grains of its outer husk, which is inedible. What is left after this process is brown rice. If the farmer also removes the germ and brain from the rice grain, he or she is left with white rice. Brown rice flour is made from the first type of rice, and white rice flour is produced from the latter. Whether it is brown or white (or black or green), rice comes in three different categories: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain. Each type can be ground into rice flour. The starchiness of short-grain rice makes it the perfect candidate for rice flour. Smooth and finely ground, sweet rice flour thickens sauces and gravies so well that no one eating them can tell they are gluten-free.
It is astounding that people in India and across the continent of Africa have been eating sorghum for generations, and I only discovered it when I had to go gluten-free. To me, sorghum flour is the closest in texture and taste to traditional wheat flour of any of the gluten-free flours. I’ve come to love it, and I use it in nearly every baked good I make. In a few cases, it even works as a direct substitution for wheat flour, such as in pancakes. It makes the basis for a decent gluten-free bread, which is a godsend. Some people, however, detect a bitter taste in sorghum flour, so you should try some for yourself.
What we in the West call tapioca comes from a plant originally from Asia, known as cassava. (In South America, it is known as manioc.) When the root has been dried, it is ground into a white flour. This tapioca flour is also known as tapioca starch (just to confuse us). Its starchiness makes it an excellent gluten-free flour, but it must be used in combination with other flours to make great baked goods.
The tiny seeds of teff make a fascinating porridge. Dark brown as molasses, with a slight taste of chocolate, teff porridge will fill you up in the mornings. You can also cook up the grains the way you would polenta. As a flour, teff is nearly miraculous. The fine flour — ground from the tiny seeds — almost dissolve in baking, giving it a slightly gelatinous quality. This binds the baked goods in a somewhat similar fasion to gluten. Teff flour adds to fabulous waffles and banana breads.
Geeky chefs in love with molecular gastronomy adore xanthan gum. So do commercial food producers, who put xanthan gum in salad dressings and frozen foods as a stabilizer. If you have ever looked at the ingredients of your toothpaste, you saw xanthan gum there, since it binds everything together in a uniform consistency. Now, you can buy some for your gluten-free baked goods. Only a tiny amount (1/2 teaspoon or less) is enough to bind that dough to make cookies and pie crusts.
And of course, there are so many other options, ones I’m excited to explore more fully. Pea flour, mesquite flour (we have some, as you can see from the photo above, given to us by the lovely Shuna for our wedding, but life has interceded between me and the mesquite flour baking), soy flour, kudzu starch (thanks for the tip, Nina!), and Montina flour. As the world becomes more and more aware of the need for gluten-free alternatives, I’m sure we’ll find even more options.
If any of you reading have suggestions of which flours to use, in specific combinations, for particular baked goods, by all means — fire away! We all have so much to learn from each other.
Now, go forth and bake.
Apple and pear cobbler, adapted from this recipe
And once you have played, and the flours feel familiar under your fingers, you might create something like this cobbler, which the Chef has been making at the restaurant through October. All the customers eat it, not just the gluten-free ones. Everyone is sighing into the wine-rich taste of the apples and pears, mingled with cardamom, topped with this glorious crust.
¼ cup sorghum flour
¼ cup tapioca flour
¼ cup potato starch
¼ cup almond flour
1 teaspoon iodized salt (or kosher salt you have ground down fine)
4 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon cloves, ground
¼ cup sour cream
3 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Forming the dough. Combine all the gluten-free flours with the salt, sugar, cardamom, and cloves. Cut the pieces of butter into the flour until the mixtures comes together and has the texture coarse cornmeal. Spoon in the sour cream and stir the concoction with a rubber spatula, until it all just starts to come together. Stop stirring.
Making the dough ball. Put the completed dough between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Form a large ball of dough between the sheets, and then flatten it into a square. (Do this gently. This isn’t the opportunity to work out your animus.) Set the dough square into the refrigerator and let it chill while you prepare the filling.
Apple and pear filling
2 pounds crisp, fresh apples (Honeycrisps or Jonathan Cox do well here)
2 pounds Bartlett pears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¾ cup organic cane sugar
¼ teaspoon cloves, ground
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheating the oven. Turn on the oven and let it heat to 375°.
Preparing the fruit. Peel the apples and pears. Remove the cores of each of them. Cut the apples and pears into small cubes. Lay them all into your favorite baking dish (pie plate or 9-inch cake pan does well here). Squeeze the lemon juice over the fruit. Sprinkle the sugar over the apples and pears. Toss the ground clovers on top. Splash the vanilla extract over it all. Stir it up.
Finishing the cobbler. Retrieve the dough square from the refrigerator and carefully lay it over the prepared fruit. Slide the baking pan into the oven and close the door. Bake for 35 minutes and check the color and consistency. When the cobbler topping has a firm feeling and is lovely and brown, the fruit bubbling up the edges of the pan — the cobbler is done.
Let it cool a bit — you don’t want to burn your mouth — and then eat, with great gusto.