07/01/2015 -  against the grain Book Review  
 

Gluten-free, fork-split English Muffins with home made blueberry jam
 
       
 

Like the gluten-free products you can now buy in supermarkets that have gotten better and better as people learn the art of gluten-free baking, so have the gluten-free cookbooks. The new books section of our public library yielded yet another winner and something very different. against the grain (extraordinary gluten-free recipes made from real, all natural ingredients) is written by Nancy Cain, the owner of Against the Grain Gourmet bakery in Vermont. If you live in a metropolitan area, it is likely that your gluten-free grocer carries Against the Grain products.  Ms. Cain's new book is encyclopedic in scope, covering 40 pages of fundamentals (yes, there is something new even for the experienced gluten-free baker), breads and flat breads, sourdough baking, quick breads (non-yeast), savories, and lots of dessert-type goodies. If you want a single cookbook that has easy-to-follow recipes and great scope, this is definitely the cookbook to consider adding to your collection. In fact, you might want to donate some of your others to the used book sale after you buy this one. Why is that?

First of all, Ms. Cain uses no gums (what?). She doesn't think they are necessary. She embarks on a process for some of her bread recipes called pregelatinizing [the] starches*. Does it work? Take a look at the English Muffins, above. Yes, it works, and it works amazingly well—nice chewy English Muffins with just the right amount of sourness to make them interesting. I also asked my non-gluten-free wife to sample them. Her verdict: "Earthy flavor. Fully baked. Good untoasted but even more wonderful toasted. Maybe the best English Muffin you have made, and way better than anything you can buy. Have you thought of substituting maple syrup for the sugar in the recipe?"

Second, Ms. Cain uses two basic ingredients in most of the flour mixtures—tapioca starch and light buckwheat**. Neither is technically a grain: one is a root, and the other a seed of a plant related to rhubarb.

The only downside I can think of for not wanting the cookbook might be if you are intolerant to dairy and eggs. These appear to be key ingredients; although, within the text on baking fundamentals the author does discuss substitutes. No mention is made in any of the recipes, however.

I had planned to make three different recipes before creating this blog, but after the overwhelming success on the first and second recipes I decided that waiting for all three to be tested would do you a disservice. English Muffins were done initially, and ciabatta will have to wait its turn when I eat down what is in already the freezer. I have no doubt that the others will be successful as well because the processes and ingredients are similar.

Did I follow Ms. Cain's instructions for the English Muffins? The spirit, yes, the letter, not exactly. Why is that?

  • I didn't have light buckwheat flour, so I used what I had in the freezer: Arrowhead Mills Buckwheat flour. It is definitely not light. But the English Muffins tasted great anyway. You can get the recommended light-tasting buckwheat flour, suitable for pastries, directly from the miller, Bouchard Family Farms. While it seems a little crazy to ship buckwheat flour from the wilds of Ft. Kent, Maine, near the Canadian border, buying nine pounds directly from the mill with paid delivery is less expensive than the somewhat equivalent Arrowhead Mills flour from Amazon. Maybe nine pounds seems excessive. It is approximately 50 recipes worth, plus/minus. Bottom line: it is feasible if you own this cookbook. You'll use the buckwheat flour. You can also buy as little as three pounds, but the price per pound will be higher. At the time of this writing Amazon charged more than the miller for the same product. Note: If you live in New England local stores may carry the product. Inquire via the Stores tab on the Bouchard Family Farms home page.
  • We don't have a food processor. So, I used our KitchenAid stand mixer with good results.
  • I used Canola Harvest margarine instead of butter and only 2/3 of the amount recommended. Also, I used only half the salt. All of this is more a matter of taste rather than a big deviation.
  • I used non-fat dry milk instead of fresh dairy milk and adjusted the technique accordingly to achieve the same end result. (Why am not specific? I don't want to disturb Ms. Cain's copyright.)
  • Rather than adding the fat to the dough mass as it proofs, I added the fat along with the final ingredient that is added at the end of the proofing process. I wanted the starch particles to react with the yeast without any retardation that might have occurred if the starch particles were coated with fat. I try to do something philosophically similar with all of breads I bake. The author, however, has a different technical view at the starch particle level and probably disagrees with what I do.
  • The recipe uses eggs but not egg yolks. What to do with all those unused egg yolks? Not a problem in our home. We buy liquid egg whites from Trader Joe's, and I used that product. I can make lots of English Muffins without egg yolk overload.
  • The recipe, according to the cookbook, makes 6 muffins. I made 10. I think 8 or 9 would be just the right size for me.

If you buy the cookbook and decide to make English Muffins as your first project, make sure that you put the dough evenly into the muffin rings, paying attention to the edges of the rings. I didn't, and some of my muffins are a little loppy. It's a cosmetic failure that I'm sure would be unforgivable had Ms. Cain seen the result.

Focaccia with different toppings than was suggested by the cookbook (naturally!)

Italian flatbreads are really versitile. They can be the base for a quick pizza or for a sandwich, Panini-style. The author's recipe for focaccia is similar to the recipe for English Muffins; however, the means of baking the two are very different.

Most gluten-free cookbooks advise a single rise, baking and you're done. Not so in the case of the author's focaccia. This bread has two risings. There was plenty of yeast action on the second rising, and the focaccia plumped up with lots of nice oven-spring.

The recipe called for a very wet dough, and the result was a flat bread with a crispy crust and an almost custardy inside that is fully cooked. I checked on the flat bread 10 minutes prior to the recommended time interval, and although the bread reached slightly over 200° F, which is what I usually consider done to be, the bread was still sticky on the inside. But after the full cooking time, the bread came out, and I am very happy with it.

It is possible that the bread will cook completely differently when I use the lighter grade of buckwheat flour from Bouchard.

After baking two recipes, I'm sold on the cookbook and Ms. Cain's approach to gluten-free baking. I think it shows there is more than one way to bake delicious gluten-free bread as well as figure out how not to use gums to stick the gluten-free flour together.

 

* I'm going to experiment with my favorite bread recipes and see how pregelatinizing the starches affects the outcome.

** For buckwheat geeks: It turns out that buckwheat is not just one kind of plant. Cornell University, a land-grant university, describes five different buckwheat varieties; however, it does not describe the difference in color or taste; however, the Arrowhead Mills buckwheat is very definitely not light buckwheat. Ours is a darker, more distinctive flavor one associates with buckwheat crepes or pancakes.  While this may not be best for delicate pastries, there is no problem with using it in many breads. There is no hint from Cornell as to which variety Bouchard Family Farms might use.

 
  05/05/2015 - Gluten-Free Flour Power book review  
 

Yet another gluten-free cookbook from the public library. Why is this one different? In one way is not different from the America's Test Kitchens gluten-free cookbook, reviewed below, because the cookbook authors do not come from the gluten-free community. To me this shows the path of gluten-free food technology that originated within a small community and has now evolved to being embraced by seasoned professionals who have a wide variety of recipe development experiences. This is certainly the case for the authors of this book, Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot. This duo makes their living in food consulting: recipe development and chef training.  This is their third cookbook.

This book features 90 recipes with lots of illustrations for making the foods. Most of the recipes are straight-forward and well within the ability of someone accustomed to baking. There are, however, a few that are much more exotic and delve into techniques that take a little more patience, such as making puff pastry, a laminated dough or stirring up a sourdough culture. But again, the authors show that it is really not hard and that the task is approachable.

The authors are proponents of fresh ingredients, many of which they advise that you make yourself (and they tell you how) instead of buying them ready made. An example is candied ginger which sells for a huge price from one of the US's biggest spice purveyors. Another example is one of the authors' gluten-free flour blends which they advocate mixing instead of buying a commercial equivalent for more than $5.00 per pound.

Most of the book is dedicated to baking breads, cakes, cookies, tarts and pizza, but there are a few recipes that move into savory appetizers and meals. These include fresh noodles, ravioli, gnocchi, cavatelli, malloredus, angelotti, Asian dumplings, manicotti, savory tarts, and scallion crepes. As a hint of the authors' inventiveness, since there is no such thing as gluten-free semolina, the authors substituted masa harina as the base ingredient to provide the stronger texture found in malloredus Sardinian pasta.

In terms of very interesting content, there are a couple of shout-outs to people with allergies or those who are averse to gums. The first is an explanation for the use of flaxseed meal as a substitute for eggs, and the second is a do-it-yourself flour mix that is gum-free. The latter makes use of sweet rice flour and flaxseed meal. The authors note that the low-allergy blend produces a slightly different result than their other two recommended flour blends that contain both milk ( la Cup-4-Cup) and xanthan/guar gum.

One small caveat that may be important to some readers: Like other cookbooks of a similar caliber, pre-mixed gluten-free flour blends, and gluten-free foods from the market that strive for traditional flavors and textures, this cookbook makes use of flour blends consisting primarily of refined starch ingredients. There is a little use of whole grain flours. That is not the focus of this cookbook. Flavor and authenticity are, and whole grain gluten-free flours tend to be heavier and can impart flavors that compete with the objectives of the dish. As a point of experimentation, I might want to test some of the more flavorful and less picky dishes with successful flour blends that have a greater portion of whole grain ingredients.

Perhaps the best part of the book is that it is a book of ideas. Their techniques and suggestions can be adapted to favorite recipes because none of the ingredients is exotic or difficult to find. In addition, these recipes, plus suggestions from their website, give the adventurous home cook a huge variety of options and opportunities for interesting flavors.

I don't recommend very many cookbooks, but this one is a keeper. The book can be purchased or downloaded from Amazon to your Kindle reader or your PC. 

 
 
04/27/2014 - America's Test Kitchens Gluten Free Cookbook & Broa
 
 

Cook books

Why buy a cookbook? I had to ask myself this question after I read through the new America's Test Kitchens Gluten Free Cookbook that I borrowed from the library. The recipes look absolutely delicious, and I'd love for someone to invite me to a lunch or dinner using these recipes. But would either I or my wife make the recipes - probably not. How come? First of all there is a matter of "style" and "taste." For example ATK's favorite picks of sandwich bread and pasta brand are different from mine as is their choice of pizza sauce and cornbread recipe. My taste is divergent from the authors' and their testing panel. But there are other reasons, too. I don't necessarily want to duplicate the dishes they have painstakingly perfected. Instead, I want to apply an improved technique. And, my focus is bread.

A side note: I think The Science of Good Cooking does a much better job of improving my overall technique. For example, it says that most home ovens lack the heat to really cook pizza well and recommends that the pizza stone and pizza be placed near the top of the oven. Interestingly, this suggestion is in opposition to ATK's gluten free recipe book.

Most of the bread recipes that ATK has developed in the gluten free cookbook are based on their flour blend that uses a lot of refined starch and not much whole grain*. Their bread recipes focus on variations of their butter-eggs-milk bread recipe, which is not a "lean" bread. And lastly, they advocate using psyllium husk powder in bread instead of xanthan or guar gum in the amount of 2X the amount of gum (Page 16). The Gluten Free Cookbook has a nice discussion of ingredients, ingredient choices, and commercial flour blends. Like GF On A Shoestring (see below), ATK does not endorse Cup-4-Cup.

Psyllium husk powder, as a replacement for xanthan or guar gum, has an appeal for those people who seem sensitive to the gums. I searched the internet and found only a few useful references to psyllium husk powder in baking: Shauna James Ahern posted a video (click) and Tara Baker posted a bread recipe using only a small amount of psyllium husk powder and a large amount of xanthan gum (click).

Apparently, psyllium husk powder in the 2X amount works well in ATK's bread recipes, but it certainly didn't work in my test recipe—Portuguese Broa, the fairly "lean" bread I wanted to perfect. Below is a photo of two different attempts of using psyllium husk powder in two different concentrations. The bread dough formed a nice boule and was easy to work with; however, the dough didn't rise well, and the bread had an off-flavor and remained wet and sticky inside. Both breads, unfortunately, went into the garbage as basically inedible. The large amount of psyllium husk powder sucked up lots of moisture and affected the taste, texture and color of the loaves.

Here is the Portuguese Broa recipe that I used for the test (click). I used some psyllium husk powder, but not nearly as much as ATK uses in their breads. The boule was a little flatter than the two tests above and still did not rise as much as I wanted; however, I loved the taste of the bread**.

The PBS interview of the ATK cookbook authors identified a surprising omission—gluten free croissants. When the interviewer asked the author, he said that he felt that making gluten free croissants was not possible. I personally haven't made a gluten free croissant, but there are lots of recipes on the internet, and some of them look really delicious. Just put gluten free croissants into your browser's search bar. Here are a couple of recipes that look noteworthy, but there are many others— GF on a Shoestring and GF Canteen.

Another surprising omission was the lack of a discussion of sweet rice flour/glutinous rice flour and gelatin in bread baking. I haven't found gelatin useful, but maybe I'm wrong because it is a staple in Nicole Hunn's recipes. I have found sweet rice flour helpful, but I'm still working on amounts and proportions. I know that too much makes for a rubbery result.

Here in California we are blessed to have an abundance of Asian and Latin American cuisines. I was pleased to see a nice write-up on arepas which are made from pre-cooked maize flour and are prominent in the cuisines of Colombia and Venezuela. I would have expected the cookbook to have a section on making Asian dumplings, but it did not. Andrea Nguyen, a Bay Area cookbook author and cooking instructor has several recipes, all worth investigating: GF pot stickers (you might want to try other GF flour blends), pot stickers #1, pot stickers #2, rice dumplings #3.

In conclusion, I have a lot of respect for America's Test Kitchens because they exhaustively modify and test to achieve the ultimate as far as their taste and preference dictates, and I love the fact that they have created a gluten free cookbook. There was a lot of interesting science related to gluten free baking, some of which I have read in other places. I'm glad that ATK pulled the best science together in one place. There were also some interesting hints for baking bread. I would classify a number of the recipes "special event dishes" because they are either complex or are richer than what I eat on a day-to-day basis. There are a number of Amazon reviews for this book, and I recommend that you read them, particularly the ones that are not complementary. A number of these have merit. One example that I can think of is the lack of nutritional information. But if the recipes are special event dishes, then nutritional information may not be that important.

All cooking is a matter of taste and preference. You are free (and encouraged) to disagree with me.

* Carol Fenster has a nice discussion of flour blends in an article in Living Without magazine (click). Beth Hillson also has a very nice article as well (click). Both Carol and Beth are experienced and well respected bakers within the gluten free community.

** A member of the ICORS list serve forwarded this link to me (click). Annaliese Roberts, a cookbook author and noted pastry chef in New York, has tested the effect of psyllium husk powder and found that it retards loft in her test recipes.

 
 
03/27/2014 - Bagels
 
 

Bagel

This is the second bread experiment from the book Gluten Free on a Shoestring Bakes Bread. In this experiment I baked bagels. Like the blog entry below, the top line is: the bagels worked. If that is all you need to know, stop here and just buy the book.

Good gluten-free bagels are extremely hard to find in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time of this writing, it is my opinion that there is only one bagel in the Bay Area that is even in the same league, and that is Odd Bagel. All other bagels from the freezer section of Safeway, Whole Foods and Sprouts, plus other local artisan bakers, I'm sad to say, fall far short in taste, texture or both.

More or less following the instructions of the author, I baked a batch of nine bagels. These bagels are properly dense, have a nice structure and a chewy consistency. These are definitely bagels and not round bread. These bagels are authentically boiled. Keeping with the eggless nature of the bagel dough, the eggless glaze I selected for the bagel gives it a nice chewy crunch. As you can see by the photo above, the bagel has a nice fine-grained texture. Bagels should not be overly airy or overly fluffy. To give you an idea, a three inch diameter bagel weighs about 3.5 ounces. The bagels have no added fat except for the minor amount they might pick up from the oiled plastic wrap or the light oil spray that keeps the dough from sticking during the first rising and refrigeration.

Bagels rising

Bagels rising under plastic wrap

Batch of Bagels

Finished batch of bagels

Were the bagels hard to make? Not really. I mixed up the dough, and kneaded it with the dough hook for 5 minutes. The dough proofed for about two hours and then went into the refrigerator for 17 hours. I then formed the bagels and allowed them to rise in a warm oven for an hour. I boiled them, glazed them and baked them. The dough was stiff enough to work with. It was a little like pottery clay.

The flavor of the bagels is on the neutral side with yeasty overtones and a slight sour note from the long rest in the refrigerator. Next time I make them I will substitute some whole grain sorghum and millet flour for some of the brown rice flour. But most people like a neutral tasting bread. I did put in a little corn meal for texture and flavor, and next time I'll add more.

The single most expensive ingredient in the recipe is whey protein isolate. It costs $14.00 per pound bulk, and the recipe called for about $2.50 worth. Is it necessary? The author said effectively yes on page 5 because "we have removed a protein (gluten)". I'm not sure I totally agree, but that is not the point. Research into whey protein on the The Fresh Loaf web site—arguably the most authoritative artisan bread baking source http://www.thefreshloaf.com/—actually advises against adding whey in any form to bread. It makes the bread tough. It occurred to me that the author added whey protein isolate to combat the flabby texture of gluten-free bread which may have protein, but not the stretchy gluten protein (which by the way is entirely indigestible by non-celiacs). Could we substitute something or change the recipe in any way to avoid using it. I think so, but the substitute might not be quite as "hard" as the whey protein isolate. I replaced 60% of the whey protein isolate with something else, and I was happy with the results as was my wife who is not gluten-free and has a bagel daily. I'll work on eliminating 100%.

The next exotic ingredient is Expandex, and I feel that it, or another form of modified tapioca starch, is essential without going to a lot difficult trial and error testing. Although I haven't fully optimized my own recipes for Expandex, I would have used only about half of the amount the author uses. I won't get into the technicalities here, but I believe Expandex can be reduced through the addition of other stretchy ingredients. Just to note Odd Bagel uses none of the exotic ingredients and makes a great bagel. Since Expandex is hard to get, I've substituted as described in the Ciabatta write-up below.

The last exotic ingredient, Pomona's pectin, is discussed below as is the amount of xanthan gum the author uses.

Do I have an argument with the author or do I advise against buying the book. Not at all! There is no single one right way to do most things, especially making bread. The author has done an amazing job producing breads that are hard for the gluten-free community to get or are very, very expensive commercially. She has certainly taught me techniques to improve my baking. She has also dispelled a number of myths about the limitations of gluten-free baking. If you bake bread you should try baking some of Nicole Hunn's. You will really be surprised. Should you experiment with your own modifications? You bet! I'm guessing that even Ms. Hunn would agree to that.

 
 
03/25/2014-Ciabatta
 
 

 

 

This is a new book in our public library. It has the directions for making breads that I used to have before going gluten free. So my wife and I looked through the book to find the right, rare bread to test the cookbook. That turned out to be ciabatta. Ciabatta has to have a subtle crunch and a slightly sour and yeasty character with just the right amount of chewiness. Here is the top line: the ciabatta worked. If that is all you want to know, stop here and buy the book. (No, I'm not in cahoots with the author, and I have never met her.)

Ciabatta proofing under plastic wrap for the last time

Ciabatta loaf right out of the oven - delicious!

Here are things to consider before making your first loaf of bread from the recipe book:

  • The breads in the book take awhile to make. This particular bread dough rested in the refrigerator for 4-1/2 days, but the process was pretty easy.
  • The breads are not intrinsically dairy-free; however, the author does provide a dairy-free alternative using pea protein isolate. This particular bread, like many in the book, is egg-free.
  • Many of the instructions from bread-to-bread are redundant. But, each recipe is complete unto itself.
  • Everything you may need to know is not necessarily in the book. The author's web site delves into important details, and if you are serious about baking delicious bread according to the author's approach, then you need to tour the web site and read the various FAQs: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/ . Here are two other important links: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/about/faqs/ and http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/gluten-free-bread-questions-answered/ (Scroll down below all of the photos.).
  • Gluten-Free on a Shoestring does not mean cheap or inexpensive. The special type of pectin (Pomona's) recommended for the ciabatta sold for $4.50 per box (almost 3 bread recipes) at Sprouts (similar to Whole Foods), and the whey protein isolate sold there cost nearly $2.50 (bulk) per loaf . Expandex, when it is rarely available, is very expensive; however, the author suggests a substitute (Ultratex 3) still costing more than $1.00 per loaf. And the recommended super-fine rice flour has a high shipping price from Authentic Foods or a more moderate shipping price but still over $5.00 per pound from Amazon in lots of 3 pounds each for brown and white rice. But further reading in the book and web site reveals:
    • There is a flour blend recipe that leaves out the special pectin (meaning it is sort of optional although I did use it in the ciabatta)
    • The recommended finely milled rice flours are also sort of optional because the more easily available and more coarsely milled rice flours soften considerably over the course of 4 - 5 days of refrigerator resting
  • I substituted Chebe All Purpose Bread Mix for Expandex. I used 2X the amount and left out the equivalent amount of the base flour blend used in the recipe.
  • The author uses a large amount of Xanthan gum. I researched a lot of other recipes in books and online, and most recipe authors use only half as much. I cut the xanthan gum in half, and the bread is still properly chewy with no hint of crumbling. In fact, I might be inclined to reduce the xanthan gum a little more.
  • The step just before baking is to take the bread dough out of the refrigerator and form loaves. My ciabatta took longer to double in bulk than the two hours the author suggested. The dough was still very cool to the touch even after 3 hours, so I placed it in a warm oven to finish proofing. Our home is cool.
  • When I baked my ciabatta it took longer to reach an internal temperature of 205° F than the author suggested. I wound up baking the bread for an additional 12 minutes. Perhaps if I had a pizza stone the bread would have cooked faster, but I used the author's substitute recommendation of an overturned baking tin. Also, I used the convection setting on the oven (25° F lower) because it makes the baking more even.

The author will take questions. Here is where to go to find out more: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/contact/ . Do take a look at the FAQs near the bottom of the page.

Take a look at http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/all-purpose-gluten-free-flour-recipes/ Note that this hyperlink discusses flour blends you can make, some of which are very close to expensive blends on the market like Cup-For-Cup which the author likes for pastry but not for bread.

Also take a look at http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/baking-ingredient-substitutions/ for ingredient substitutions. Actually, I have to admit that I make a substitute for brown rice flour since we don't use it any longer and there is none in our home. Celiacs eat a lot of rice in gluten-free prepared foods like pasta, and brown rice contains a larger amount of arsenic than does white rice. Therefore, I substituted a 50% - 50% mixture of sorghum and millet flours. These grains absorb water differently than does brown rice, so if I were to make the recipe again, I would make a test recipe using brown rice, note the consistency and work for that consistency in substituted grains.

So here is a question you might ask: Will I abandon all of my other bread recipes and bake exclusively out of Gluten Free on a Shoestring? The answer is probably not. Nicole Hunn has a particular style of baking, and while it is very good, there are other styles that are also very good and very satisfying. Many of these alternatives are quicker, easier and less costly. But her techniques are useful, and I will incorporate some of her style into my bread baking.

Will I make other breads from the recipe book? Of course! They look both beautiful and delicious.

Will I follow the author's directions exactly? Probably not. I've been baking bread long enough that if I know a recipe isn't coming together right, I feel very comfortable changing it on the fly to texture, etc that I know will work.

Happy baking.