Warm muffins just out of the oven. The sour-sweet kick-in-the-mouth taste of rhubarb this time of year, sliding through each tender bite. Soft as sighs.
I’ve been thinking about making these muffins since I saw the rhubarb plants in our backyard nudge themselves above the dirt. A few weeks ago, those plants exploded with growth. Time to play. I knew what I wanted, and I didn’t mind baking, tasting, and tweaking until these muffins were it.
Now you can have some too.
There’s something wonderful about rhubarb. I love its tanginess, its celery-like stalk, its girth when fully grown. The leaves are enormous. Did you know that? Even the thickest longest stalk is dwarfed by the palm-frond-sized leaves. (Maybe the slugs stay away from that shade. Whatever the reason, I’m glad at least the rhubarb was safe this rainy season.) It’s an umbrella plant, spreading outward, the ruby stalks hiding.
Straight, it has a tang that makes you close your eyes against it for a moment. Stewed or simmered, rhubarb softens into something sweeter, ephemeral and pleasant. After a lifetime of not eating rhubarb, I look forward to its appearance in the farmers’ market. It’s the first real fruit of spring around here.
Rhubarb and vanilla are fast friends. So one day, after we cut down as many stalks as we could, Danny and I diced the rhubarb, sliced open a vanilla bean, slithered out the insides, and let them mingle.
This, I thought, will make an amazing muffin.
They look good, right? I mean, they were good. They were soft and yielding and slightly sweetened. But the streusel topping for which I had high hopes (rhubarb streusel muffins, I told people, and some of them swooned at the sound of it) ended up dominating these muffins. The warm oats and brown sugar had a soft, clumpy texture. Next time I make a coffee cake, I know the topping to use. But these rhubarb muffins? The struesel topping stifled the rhubarb. After waiting all year for that fruit, I wanted to taste it.
Back to the countertop for more baking.
I was inspired to try these whole-grain muffins by this wonderful book, Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours. After reading raves by Heidi and Deb, plus Luisa’s beautiful post about editing the book, I was convinced to order it. Never mind that every single recipe in the book contains gluten. That doesn’t faze me anymore. In fact, I really only consult baking books that use gluten. It’s baking that compels me, the ratios and techniques, the way butter and sugar and vanilla blend with each other to become something different.
Besides, how many baking books have chapters on amaranth, buckwheat, corn, oat, quinoa, and teff flours? Even if the recipes Kim Boyce so lovingly put together with those gluten-free flours use traditional all-purpose flour as well, I knew I could adapt them.
Reading the introduction of the book, I started smiling almost immediately:
“Baking with whole-grain flours is about balance, about figuring out how to get the right combination of structure and flavor from flours that don’t act the same way as regular white flour. Getting the texture right was a challenge.…The muffins I mixed using exclusively whole-grain flour came out dense and tough, sometimes almost leaden. Pancakes were heavy and limp. The elegant lift and structure of pastries I’d made with white flours were nowhere to be found. I found myself getting discouraged as I learned to bake with these whole-grain flours and almost stopped using them altogether. Maybe this is the reason more people aren’t baking with whole-grain flours, I thought.”
If you have been baking gluten-free, this has to sound familiar. In fact, it felt so familiar to me that I felt elated. Aha! It’s not just those of us who have to bake without gluten who have to play and tweak and wonder what to do next. It’s any of us who want to bake with anything other than all-purpose flour.
You probably haven’t thought of it this way. I hadn’t, at least not in clear words. Baking gluten-free means baking with whole grains. Baking with whole grains has its own special charms and frustrations. It’s easy to think of the frustrations, but it’s important to remember the charms. As Kim wrote:
“As I focused on the individual flavors of the various flours, I began to appreciate what was unique about them. I soon found that I enjoyed baking with them. As the flours came into their own, so did I. As I worked my way through different bags of flour, learning how each one behaved in my recipes, I began to trust my instincts.”
Exactly! That’s the joy for me of baking now. I throw a little teff, a little oat, some superfine brown rice flour together, and then see what happens when I combine them with starches. Honestly, at this point, the idea of baking with just all-purpose flour is pretty boring.
Even better, gluten-free baking with whole grains can be healthier than traditional baking.
“Here I was, a mom baking at home for my family and friends. Most days I was in the kitchen, mixing up muffins, pancakes, or quick breads, and I realized that I couldn’t continue using the endless handfuls of sugar and white flour I had used during my professional years. But I couldn’t stop baking! Now with my newfound interest in whole-grain flours, pairing them with seasonal fruits for incredible flavor, and making them with less sugar and butter than I used to, I realized that I didn’t have to stop baking.”
I’m never going to stop baking. Baking with almond flour and amaranth, sorghum and quinoa makes me feel much better about the daily baking we do around here, just as it does for Kim Boyce.
Her recipes are not made entirely with whole grain flours. As she wrote, use only whole grains and you have leaden muffins and sunken-ship scones. Mix the whole grains with some all-purpose flour and you have something great.
Here is some all-purpose flour, gluten-free.
For years now, people have been writing to us, asking if we had an all-purpose flour mix we liked. We did, and we didn’t. We’ve been throwing together flours and storing the mixes in giant Cambros like this since Danny and I met. But I haven’t published one here because I am wary of “THE all-purpose mix.” You probably know what I mean. Most gluten-free books contain a particular mix, an assemblage of flours in a specific proportion. All the recipes in the book require that mix.
I’ve tried them, used them, and liked them. I have liked almost all the all-purpose mixes I have baked with in our kitchen (well, except the ones with any bean flours. I just can’t take the bean flours). If they all work sort of well, what were we to do? How could I recommend THE all-purpose mix?
It wasn’t until I started baking by weight that it all came together for us. As Kim Boyce writes about in her book, we need whole grains and lighter flours both. For us gluten-free folks, we need brown rice and potato starch, sorghum and tapioca. After lots of fiddling, Danny and I have realized that, in our kitchen, what works best is a 40% whole grains/60% starches mix.
Like this one:
The Aherns’ All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour Mix
300 grams superfine brown rice flour
250 grams sweet rice flour
150 grams tapioca flour
100 grams sorghum flour
100 grams potato starch
100 grams cornstarch
Mix them all up in a large container. Put on the lid. Shake it around. You have flour.
If you look at this combination, the brown rice flour and sorghum flour make up 40% of the mix by weight. The sweet rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, and cornstarch make up 60% of the mix by weight.
Here’s the important part: if you keep to this same ratio of whole grain to starches, you can use other flours you like more for your all-purpose mix. Use millet instead of the sorghum, or amaranth. If you can’t eat corn, use more potato starch in place of the cornstarch. Stick to this ratio and mix up a big batch of flour. You’ll have all-purpose flour again.
You can bake almost any one of your old baking favorites now, substituting this mix for the all-purpose flour in the recipe. It’s easy.
The only thing you have to remember is this: do not simply measure a cup of the gf all-purpose flour and expect the recipe to work. When you substitute your gluten-free all-purpose flour in a gluten recipe, use 140 grams or 5 ounces for every 1 cup of gluten all-purpose flour. 140 grams or 5 ounces. These measurements are your friends.
(And if you haven’t bought a kitchen scale yet, what are you waiting for?)
Once Danny and I decided on this all-purpose flour, the rhubarb muffins fell into place as well.
I’d made a second batch, with a bit of batter in the tin, a layer of rhubarb compote in the middle, and more batter on the top. They came out.…good. Still not rhubarb-y enough. Danny’s brother Pat was staying with us when I baked these. He liked them. He thought they were done.
However, when I made the last batch, and Pat tried one, he said, “Oh, now I get it.” These were spiked through with rhubarb. Just as I have learned to combine both all-purpose flour and whole grain flours, I used both rhubarb compote and raw rhubarb, which softened in the heat of the oven.
As much as I loved these final rhubarb muffins, I have to tell you this: the adventure of figuring out the flours and techniques tasted even better.
Rhubarb Muffins, inspired by Good to the Grain
This final recipe for rhubarb muffins is so entirely different than Kim Boyce’s ginger-peach muffins that I can say it is entirely mine. I really like the whole-grain taste and softness that the teff lends to these muffins. These don’t taste like white-flour muffins at all. However, Kim Boyce’s book inspired me, with her whole grain and AP flour combination and her baking techniques. So thank you, Kim.
The secret to this rhubarb muffin is the double use of rhubarb. You’ll need a good, tangy rhubarb compote — we love Dana Cree’s recipe or the one I wrote about two years ago — and a cup of raw rhubarb. Believe me, rhubarb has such a specific vegetal sweetness that you want the taste to shine through.
Here’s a good secret, too. Once you feel comfortable with this muffin recipe, you can make it all summer long with whatever fruit is in the farmers’ market. I made strawberry muffins the other day, after throwing together a quick strawberry compote and slicing up some small sweet strawberries. Danny loved them. Lu ate three of them in one day. We’re going to be making fresh raspberry muffins, blackberry muffins, peach muffins, huckleberry muffins.…
Mornings will be sweet around here this summer.
280 grams (about 2 cups) all-purpose gluten-free flour (see above)
140 grams (about 1 cup) teff flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon guar gum
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup sour cream (or thick Greek yogurt)
1/2 cup rhubarb compote
1 cup raw rhubarb, fine-diced
Turbinado raw sugar for the tops of the muffins
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease the muffin tins with canola oil or butter. (we prefer butter.)
Combining the dry ingredients. Combine the AP flour and teff flour. Sift them together into a large bowl. Add the baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, and guar gum. Set aside.
Combining the wet ingredients. Stir together the butter, sugar, and brown sugar. (We did this in a stand mixer, but you can easily do this by hand.) Add 1 egg at a time, stirring well between each egg. Plop in the sour cream and compote. Combine until they are mixed well.
Finishing the muffins. Add the wet ingredients to the bowl of flours and stir until they are just combined. Stir in the raw rhubarb. Scoop the muffin batter into the tins, slightly above the edge. Sprinkle raw sugar on top.
Baking the muffins. Slide the muffin tin into the oven and bake for 12 minutes, then turn the muffin tin 180° to promote even baking. Bake until the tops are golden brown and the muffins feel firm to the touch, about another 10 to 12 minutes. Take them out of the oven.
Let the muffins cool for a moment or two, until you can touch them. Take each muffin out of the tin and turn it on its side in the cup to cool. (Thanks to Kim Boyce for this suggestion. This keeps the muffins from growing soggy.) Eat.
These muffins are best when you eat them the day you make them, but they work the next day too.
Makes about 12 muffins.