gluten-free baking

times have changed.

ATK Jack's hands

It’s not often that Jack Bishop from America’s Test Kitchen stops by to bake biscuits with you. For us, it was a one-of-a-kind experience.

(Desmond was only three weeks old when Jack came to see us. And somehow time has tumbled on itself these last few months, fumbling like fingers and thumbs on pliable dough. I’ve been meaning to tell you about this afternoon for months now.)

Jack is one of the kindest men I’ve met in this food world. He was a little weary from a whirlwind book tour for America’s Test Kitchen’s new cookbook, The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook, but he arrived with presents for Desmond and enormous thoughtful energy for baking. I have to admit it — I’m a huge America’s Test Kitchen fan. The folks who run that place are geeks. (Around here, geek is a compliment.) I love the meticulous way the editors there lay out the kind of food they are trying to create, the narrative explanations of every permutation they tried, and the recipes that result. It’s not always my kind of food, but it’s my kind of mind at work. (I wish that I were as meticulously organized as those narratives imply, but I also remind myself that they have a whole team of people working on this! Our test kitchen is me, Danny, and Desmond, who mostly offers cuteness to the equation.) So having Jack Bishop here with us, when we were wildly excited and sleep deprived both? It was a dream.

(Thank you, Jack, as well as Beth. You’re both delightful.)

ATK collage

The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook is in true America’s Test Kitchen form. They tell us what they were trying to achieve and then show us how they achieved it. There’s no question that the recipes in this book are meant for people who are trying to replicate white flour baked goods and more typical American recipes. That’s the largest audience, after all. If you want whole-grain breads or grain-free baking, this might not be the book for you. Those who need to avoid dairy or other foods have expressed annoyance that there is so much dairy in the book. But this book is, as Jack expressed to me, an attempt to create the best gluten-free book possible. It’s not an allergen-free book. And it’s a book intended for an audience who may not be able to find gluten-free ingredients in their grocery stores easily. Jack and I talked, as we made biscuit dough, about how much we love sweet rice flour. It’s starchy enough to bind ingredients together in a baked good, a little like gluten. I always use it in baked goods that work well with all-purpose flour. The folks at America’s Test Kitchen love it too, but they worried about its availability for the widest array of people, so they left it out of their flour mix.

This is a thoughtful, helpful book. After nine years of cooking and baking gluten-free, and especially after doing this for a living, I found much in the book to be a confirmation of what I have taught myself through trial and error. But I still learned from it — I love their trick about how to par-bake pizza dough to make sure we steam out the wetness before making the final pizza — and I still keep it at the studio as a reference. We honestly recommend The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook to anyone who needs to be gluten-free.

When I was diagnosed with celiac in 2005, the phrase gluten-free didn’t appear on restaurant menus and grocery shelves. Once, I had to explain to a confused server in a restaurant that no, I wasn’t trying to avoid eating glue. I need to avoid any trace of gluten to keep myself healthy. Times have changed. It’s grown easier, in so many ways. Having one of the most respected sources on creating great food create a good cookbook about gluten-free baking? It’s a boon.

Thank you, Jack Bishop, and the team at America’s Test Kitchen.

gluten-free soft pretzels

I’ve been waiting awhile to post this recipe for gluten-free pretzels.

It’s not just that I have been making batch after batch with various recipes until I found the combination of flours and techniques that made them look like this (and taste as good as you imagine from the photo). That’s the usual routine around here. We don’t post a new baked good recipe until we know it will work for you.

Instead, I’ve been hesitant to post this recipe because it seems a little silly in the face of what is happening in the world right now.

A terrifyingly large earthquake in Japan. An even more devastating tsunami just after. A nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown, stopped only temporarily by 50 people working in the darkness to pour sea water on increasingly hotter cores, trying to avoid hydrogen explosions.

And, because our eyes and hearts are so clearly focused on Japan, we can barely take in the ongoing oppression and deaths in Libya and Bahrain. Remember when Egypt was the top story of the day? How long has it been since most of us thought about Mubarak? It’s all moving too fast. I’m trying to absorb as much of these human stories as I can. I can’t take it all in.

No matter how happy I am with this soft pretzels recipe, no matter how hard we worked on it with your enjoyment in our minds, I just couldn’t see that this mattered right now.

So I have waited.

I kept breathing, and doing some tonglen, and mostly hugging Danny and Lu. We’ve kept the television off, because we don’t want her to see this suffering without the ability to understand it. (Last night, I switched on the television for her one show after we return from her daycare. The national news was on. Before I could switch to the On Demand channel, she saw a photograph of a vast field of tsunami debris in what used to be a rice paddy. She looked at it, then turned to me, with great seriousness. “Mama, a lot of cars.” Yes hon. A lot of cars.)

Still, Danny and I — like most of you — have been following the news constantly, on Twitter and The New York Times, talking about the devastation in hushed tones so Lu doesn’t pick up all that sadness. We’re going to bed with leaden-grey hearts, thinking about the mothers whose daughters were ripped from their arms by that wall of water.

It has been hard to celebrate pretzels.

However, our friend Jen wrote a beautiful post called “And We Keep Going,” all about this earth, and how tumultuous and beautiful it can be at the same time. She caught the complexity of all this and how important it is to retain our equanimity through heartbreak.

“I have seen a lot of people curse and hate earthquakes and tsunamis on Twitter and Facebook of late. Yes, I completely understand where those emotions come from and I too want very much to keep people safe from these violent and incredible phenomena. But I think it’s important to remember (and I believe the Japanese appreciate this better than most) that the Earth is dynamic: these very processes that can take lives with such indifference are also part of what makes life on this planet possible. Ours is a special planet. Understanding our complex home is essential to mitigating the loss. To think otherwise is just pretending. In the meantime, we are in this together.”

Our friend Tea wrote this poignant ode to the Japan she once knew as home.

“I wanted to share with you some pictures from my Japan—a beautiful, traditional place, far from the hustle-bustle of the cities. It is not unlike the small villages of the north that have been wiped out. I can’t stop thinking of the people there. My heart hurts for them.

Here is an excerpt from an email I received from my Japanese homestay mother:
“The aftershock still come and it shakes. I sleep with my clothes on. A lot of people die, cities disappear. I pray for strength.”

Let’s do what we can to help them be strong.”

Thinking of what we can do to help people stay strong? Of course, we can give. (Tea also has a great list of places you can give money to help out the people of Japan.) Sabrina of Tomato Tart is having an online bake sale to help the people of Japan.

It was that bake sale that started me thinking about posting this pretzel recipe.

I can’t help the people of Japan by sitting here feeling heartbroken. I can bake.

I turned to you, readers and thoughtful people, on the Facebook page for this website. How can I post a pretzel recipe when this is going on?

Thank you for reminding me:

“Through any disaster, life goes on. As each of us eats a pretzel, or anything else, offer up a prayer of thanksgiving being grateful for what you have. And send some money for those who do not.”

— Jeanne Olesky Cowger

“I think it is in times of disaster and human suffering, food (shopping for, preparing, eating, sharing with others) can help heal the sorrow for human suffering. It isn’t silly. Sometimes, it may be exactly what somebody is looking for.”

— Kelly Libby

“I’m very worried about the state of our world, but there have to be simple pleasures that we share with like minded, kind people.”

— Si Issler

“Yes, we are being reminded of the impermanence of things. It’s so important to make the most of every moment.…including nurturing ourselves with good food : ) I struggle with this alot now too, as my son lives in the Tokyo area, and although he’s safe now, the future feels very uncertain/dangerous there. I just try and keep present and breathing.….and cooking actually helps.”

— Eileen Dailey

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”  —Joseph Campbell (via Amanda Schaefer)

“It’s breaking my heart, especially as I have cousins there we can’t reach. But I think at times like these it is important to hold fast to the life we want to create in this world — one full of life, love, laughter & good food. If anybody knows how to eat, & how to feed a guest, it’s we Japanese! Shakata ga nai — it can’t be helped, it is what it is and we must move forward. All of these are fundamental tenants of Japanese culture. So post away, recognizing it as a healing offering. My heart, for one, feels a little bit stronger for the smell of home baked love.”

— Yuri Sagawa

Food is so much more than a meal, a snack, a craving satisfied. The chance to make food with people we love and feed each other? That’s at the core of life. Those without homes or family members or friends they love? They would love to be able to be in a warm kitchen, doing something as gloriously mundane as making pretzels.

I made my first batch of pretzels with our friend Irvin, while his wonderful partner AJ played with Lu in our kitchen. Every time I have made them since, Irvin and I have collaborated over email, talking about different flours and techniques. Each time I have made pretzels, Lu has shouted joyfully “Irvin! AJ!” And we have sat down together, she and Danny and I, with honey-brown pretzels in our hands, and shared this comfort together.

Community, play, kindness, and the gratitude for being alive right now? They all feel like they flavored these pretzels.

I think it’s the right time now.

GLUTEN-FREE SOFT PRETZELS, adapted from Alton Brown’s soft pretzel recipe

Pretzels await you. There are just a few things you need to know before you begin.

Read through this entire recipe before you reach for any flours. If you have never made pretzels before, you might think this recipe is daunting. It’s actually quite easy to make, as well as therapeutic to roll those ropes of dough beneath the palms of your hands. You have to slow down, pay attention to every step, and allow yourself to make mistakes. No one is good at making pretzels by scratch the first time.

I loved the buckwheat flour in this recipe because it provided protein and a soft texture. However, please know we did NOT use the standard buckwheat flour available in stores. For years I scratched my head as to why anyone likes buckwheat. It has a faintly bitter taste, like a wincing memory still playing in your brain the next day. We hadn’t bought any in years. However, recently, our friend Ali told us that commercial buckwheat is toasted before it is ground into a flour. That’s the bitterness I have been avoiding. Raw buckwheat, ground down into flour, has an entirely different taste, a little like wheat, almost sweet. Since then, I’ve been buying raw buckwheat groats and grinding them into flour in our blender. That’s what we used here. We encourage you to do the same. If you don’t have any raw groats, however, you could substitute an equal weight of sorghum or brown rice flour.

(As always, this is true for any ingredient in here that you cannot eat. That’s why we list our ingredients by weight instead of cups.)

Don’t skip the part about freezing the formed pretzel dough. It’s the secret to successful pretzels. The cold-to-slightly-frozen dough will stay in the simmering baking soda water for up to a minute. Without having lived in the freezer for a bit, the dough starts to fall apart in the water almost immediately. Once I figured this out, every pretzel we made stayed together.

In these times, we could all use a taste of something familiar, a comfort, something we thought we had lost and found again.

Enjoy the pretzels.

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 ounces (58 grams) unsalted butter
1 ounce (28 grams) ground flaxseed
1 ounce (28 grams) ground chia seed

6 ounces (170 grams) sweet rice flour
4 ounces (115 grams) buckwheat flour (grind yourself)
4 ounces (115 grams) corn flour
4 ounces (115 grams) white rice flour
4 ounces (115 grams) potato starch

10 cups water
1 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon honey

Rising the yeast. Combine the warm water, sugar, salt, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn on the mixer, briefly, until they are combined. Leave the bowl in a warm place in the kitchen
until the yeast has doubled in volume, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Making the flaxseed/chia seed mixture. While the yeast is rising, melt the butter. When it is entirely melted and hot, pour it into a bowl with the flaxseed and chia seed. Whisk them all together, quickly, until the flaxseed and chia seed have combined with the butter. The mixture will look like wet, clumped sand.

Making the dough. Put the sweet rice flour, buckwheat flour, corn flour, white rice flour, and potato starch into a large bowl. Whisk them together until they are fully incorporated into one flour and aerated. Add this flour mixture to the bowl of the stand mixer, along with the flaxseed/chia seed mixture. Run the mixer on medium speed until the dough has formed and whirls around the paddle stiffly, about 5 minutes.

Letting the dough rise. Grease a large bowl. Add the dough, which will be stiffer than typical gluten-free bread dough but still not quite as stiff as a typical gluten dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place in your kitchen until it has risen by at least half its volume, about 1 hour.

Forming the pretzels. Take the risen dough out of the bowl. Divide it into balls of 85 grams (about 3 ounces) each. Dust the countertop with white rice flour. Roll each clump of dough into a tight ball, then roll it between your hands to make a thick cigar-shaped dough. Put that on the floured counter. Starting from the middle, slowly roll the dough back and forth, moving your hands gently toward the outside as you do. The dough should lengthen into a fairly even rope. Stop when it is about 16 inches long. Press along the length of the rope to make sure it is solid and not about to tear.

Pick up the rope of dough and form it into a large u, with the two ends at the top. Wind the two ends around each other, twice, then fold them onto the bottom of the rope. This should look like a pretzel. (This might take a few tries until this feels familiar.)

Freezing the dough. Put the completed pretzel dough onto a plate. Repeat until the plate is full. Put the full plate in the freezer for at least 15 minutes before you work with it again. Continue filling plates until you have rolled the entire dough into pretzels.

Making the baking soda water. Combine the water and baking soda in a large saucepan, stirring them together as the water comes to a full boil. Reduce the water to a lower temperature until it keeps at a steady simmer.

Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 450°. Prepare a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

Dunking in the baking soda water. Take one plate of the pretzel doughs out of the freezer. One at a time, lower the pretzel dough into the baking soda water, on a slotted spoon or peltex, for about 30 seconds. This will give it the pretzel taste. Do not go longer than 1 minute or the dough will start to fall apart. Lift the dunked dough, still in its original shape, onto a waiting baking sheet. Continue until the baking sheet is full.

Baking the pretzels. Whisk together the egg and honey. Brush the egg-honey wash over each pretzel. Top with coarse sea salt. Continue until all the pretzels are washed. Bake until the pretzels are firm to the touch and a lovely dark brown, about 15 to 18 minutes, depending on your oven.

Remove the pretzels from the oven and cool them on a cooling rack.

Finish the remaining pretzels with the baking soda water and oven until you have baked them all.

Makes about 12 pretzels.

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