You want to make a carrot cake. Your husband loves it. It’s his favorite cake. He dreams about eating it for his birthday every year. That lush combination of plump cake filled with raisins and walnuts and the grated carrots lending a mild earthy sweetness to the cinnamon hints make each forkful taste like full-bodied celebration. This is no fluffy dry cake-from-a-box. This is cake made with love. Of course you want to make it for your husband.
Problem is, you have to be gluten-free. You’ve never made a gluten-free carrot cake. You’ve never made a gluten-free cake that didn’t come from a mix. You’ve tried a few recipes but they all seemed to call for multiple weird-sounding flours, xanthan gum, and other ingredients you don’t have in the house. (Even some of the older recipes on this site are like that.) And you want that cake to be good. You wish you could just make the carrot cake you have made every year, without the gluten.
What do you do when you want to convert a much-loved recipe to make it gluten-free and delicious?
Here are some suggestions.
1. Start with a flour blend you trust.
Of course, I’m going to recommend you give our gluten-free all-purpose flour blend a try. We’ve worked for years, testing and trying every combination of flours we thought might work. We’d like to tell you that we believe our flour blend is the best on the market. Not only is it the right combination of proteins and starches to make a great baked good, but it actually tastes good. Hundreds and hundreds of people agree with us. Give our gluten-free flour blend a try.
But you might have a flour blend you already like, one that is easy to use and works for you. Good! Stick with it. If you have one you feel makes great baked goods, then go forth and bake.
Just make sure the flour blend works for your family and doesn’t require extra ingredients. It should work — as ours does — as a one-to-one replacement for traditional wheat all-purpose flour.
2. Measure your flour by weight, if you can.
I’ve written so many times about the way that baking by weight improves your baked goods that I don’t want to repeat myself here. If you have a scale, pull it out now to start baking gluten-free. If you don’t have a scale, may we recommend this one to you?
Weighing your flours as opposed to measuring them in cups really makes a difference in gluten-free baking, in particular. (But every professional baker weighs flours. They don’t measure out 18 cups of flours for a recipe at 4 in the morning in a bakery!) Each of the different gluten-free flours has a different weight and density. 1 cup of teff flour is not the same as 1 cup of potato starch. At all. Do yourself a favor. Weigh your flours.
It’s pretty simple to convert a gluten recipe to a good gluten-free recipe when you know this: for every 1 cup of gluten all-purpose flour, use 140 grams of gluten-free all-purpose flour. With most recipes, that’s about all the change you’ll need to make. (Not breads. That’s a different post, soon.)
We use 140 grams for 1 cup because folks we truly trust like David Leibovitz and Dorie Greenspan use that measurement. You might see some folks using 120 or 125 grams for a cup. That’s up to you. If you make a banana bread recipe, and you feel it comes out a little too heavy, use less flour the next time. But seriously. 140 grams for 1 cup of gluten flour works for us every time.
If you just can’t make the switch, then you should know this. We formulated our flour blend to be a 1:1 replacement for gluten all-purpose flour. Just be sure to sift the flour, scoop it into a measuring cup, and swipe off the excess with a butter knife. There. You can use cups!
3. Choose a great recipe to adapt.
This may seem obvious to some of you. Choose the recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation by people who really love to bake. Your grandmother’s pecan pie recipe card wouldn’t be food-stained and dog-eared at the edges if it hadn’t worked well. And the weird jell0 mold with grated cabbage and mandarin orange slices that your aunt made for family gatherings? No one asked for that recipe. Choose the recipe that works, every time.
Now this might not be easy if you are new to gluten-free. Not only do you have to bake without gluten but you might be baking for the first time. So many of us were raised on packaged foods that we don’t know how to make a cake without dumping the dry ingredients out of a box. And pie still intimidates a lot of people.
We’ve googled a lot of recipes just to see what comes up on the first page. I’m sorry to say that the results are haphazard, at best. Some of those recipes weren’t created or tested well. Instead, they sit on websites with big staffs who know how to SEO the heck out of those sites to get them high on the google rankings. That’s not necessarily what you want.
Who do you turn to when you don’t know a good recipe?
Here are some of our favorites bakers in the world. Whenever we have converted their recipes, we eat well.
Baking with Julia: Savor the Joys of Baking with America’s Best Bakers
America’s Test Kitchen
Rose Levy Beranbaum
And here are some of our favorite fellow bloggers, people with great taste who choose great recipes to play with in the first place.
There are so many others, of course. So many good people doing good work out there. We’d love to hear your recommendations for places to find great recipes as well.
3. Don’t make too many substitutions.
This one is tough, of course. If you find that you can’t eat eggs and dairy besides gluten, you’re wandering in the wilds at first. My suggestion? Find blogs you trust that use those restrictions as a place to start eating well. We highly recommend the work of our friends Tom and Ali at Whole Life Nutrition. They eat well and joyfully without many of the foods so many Americans commonly eat. We love their recipes and use them often.
However, if you start with a traditional recipe, replace the gluten flour with a gluten-free flour, use flaxseed gel as a replacement for the eggs, and then a bit of almond milk (and then you run out of it so make up the rest with coconut milk), and that cake turns out funny and lumpy? Well, you made too many substitutions.
Danny had a head chef once who insisted on this: make the recipe as written once, so you know it. And then you can change it. It works. We make any recipe we want to convert once with our gluten-free flour and no changes. And then we assess. What do we want to do differently? Coconut oil instead of butter? Honey instead of sugar? Ginger instead of cinnamon.
I used to teach my students — long ago when I was a high-school English teacher — that they needed to learn the rules of grammar so they could break the rules later. The same goes for baking.
* * *
You still want to make that carrot cake?
Enter Barefoot Contessa, the estimable Ina Garten. I adore her, for many reasons. But mostly, her recipes work, every time. I’ve read a couple of times that she tests every single recipe in her books the same way: she writes the recipe, then watches her assistant make it in front of her and notes down any inconsistencies or places that are not clear, then changes the recipe and asks someone else to cook the recipe in front of her. (Wouldn’t it be a little bit intimidating to cook for Ina Garten?) Danny and I test and test our recipes, and the ones for cookbooks we send out to people who patiently make the recipes in their own homes. But we don’t have the means to follow her method. Some day, perhaps?
So last week, I converted her carrot cake, using our gluten-free flour. We loved it. And then we wanted to tweak it. So we made it again. We used melted coconut oil instead of vegetable oil. (Coconut oil has a wonderful unctuousness that makes cakes soft on the tongue.) We used a bit of coconut sugar for its caramel taste, along with organic cane sugar. Next time, I’ll add ginger with the cinnamon. And suddenly, this cake was ours.
There were empty plates, licked-clean forks, and happy smiles after this cake was served.
That’s all you want, in the end. Your cake doesn’t need to look just like the gluten version.
You just want it good.
gluten-free carrot cake, adapted from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust
Years ago, Danny and I developed a gluten-free carrot cake recipe we loved. (It’s in our first cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: A Love Story with 100 Tempting Recipes.) It’s still a great recipe, made with fresh carrot juice we reduced slowly until it’s no more than a puddle of concentrated carrot juice. But we don’t make it anymore. With two kids and busy lives, even we want the cake that’s easier to make.
Here it is.
280 grams (2 cups) gluten-free girl all-purpose flour blend
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/3 cup organic cane sugar
2/3 cup coconut sugar
1 1/3 cup melted coconut oil
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound carrots, grated
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 400°. Grease 2 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with greased parchment paper rounds, then sprinkle a little gluten-free flour on the bottom and sides.
Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
Make the batter. Add the sugars to the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running on low, slowly add the melted coconut oil. When the sugar and oil are creamy, add the eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is light yellow and fluffy. Add the vanilla.
With the mixer still running, add the dry ingredients, a bit at a time. When all the flour has disappeared into the batter, add the grated carrots, raisins, and walnuts. Mix until everything is fully incorporated.
Bake the cakes. Divide the cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Smooth out the tops. Bake for 10 minutes, lower the heat to 350°, and bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, another 30 to 35 minutes.
Cool the cakes in the pans for 15 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. Let them cool entirely before attempting to frost them.
coconut-tahini frosting, from Dan Lepard
Dan Lepard is one of my favorite bakers in the world. Devoted to the craft and friendly to boot, this man knows his stuff. I wanted to make a vegan cream cheese frosting that didn’t include vegan cream cheese. I wanted the texture and sweetness of cream cheese frosting without using a lot of expensive ingredients I don’t normally buy. When I asked on Twitter, Dan sent me this recipe of his. Oh my, people. Oh my.
100 grams (about 1/2 cup) coconut oil
25 grams (about 2 tablespoons) tahini
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons almond milk
350 grams (about 2 3/4 cups) powdered sugar
Melt the coconut oil, then pour it into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the tahini, lemon juice, almond milk and powdered sugar. Run the stand mixer on medium speed until the frosting is thick and creamy. If you let the frosting sit for a few moments in the bowl, it will hold its shape even more firmly. Spread the frosting on each layer of the carrot cake and over all the sides.