Set the Table with Gluten-free baked goods
Written onJune 01 , 2012
We fell in love over dessert—pie to be specific—and when our relationship began, a friend exclaimed to Edge, “This is perfect! Katie loves to bake, and you love to eat baked goods!” The truth is, we both love to bake and eat, so for one whole summer we enticed each other with homemade bread, muffins, and treats made of flour and sugar and butter, stuffing dozens of cookies in our packs for each climbing or hiking trip. During that same summer, Edge was battling a parasite he’d picked up in Mexico the winter before. After many weeks of seeing naturopathic doctors, he finally gave in to a three-day antibiotic regimen, which killed the parasite for good and wiped his gut clean at the same time. That changed everything.
At first, he felt better than he had for months (the parasite was finally gone), but as the weeks went on, new problems arose—heavy limbs and intense fatigue—and Edge slowly came to associate them with gluten intake, a fact he fought hard to deny. After much deduction and many conversations with gluten-free folks, we came to suspect that the antibiotics triggered Edge’s new sensitivity. And since gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, almost all familiar grains became suspect.
Suddenly, bread was out of the picture. Cookies were a definite no. Pies could only be eaten down to the crust. Luckily, our relationship had grown enough that this dietary change did not make our feelings stale. On the contrary, gluten-free baking, along with our marriage, has provided a new realm of possibilities.
Re-learning to bake
We started out with the most popular gluten-free mixes: Pamela’s, Bob’s Red Mill, and Namaste and found that those with predominately sorghum flour and/or rice flour had the lightest texture and best flavor. Garbanzo bean, or chickpea, flour can have an overwhelming bean-y taste, and even when used sparingly its flavor stands out. (Since we tend to bake cookies, brownies, muffins, pancakes, waffles, and the like, we don’t use much garbanzo bean flour.) Our favorite mix is Pamela’s Pancake and Waffle Mix, which makes great scones and other baked goods, but one 4-lb. bag costs $16, and when you make pancakes three times a week, this becomes expensive. Many mixes also contain additives like xanthum gum, soy lecithin, and modified starches. We try to steer clear of anything that had to be processed in a lab or factory, and thus began our exploration and experimentation with whole gluten-free grains and baking.
First of all, it’s different. Sometimes you can substitute a cup of wheat flour for a cup of a gluten-free mix—that’s how we started with cornbread—but if you want to create your own recipes or transform old favorites into gluten-free recipes, you have to be willing to re-learn how to bake, using unusual kinds of flour. Surprising as it may seem, flour can be made from almost any grain, seed or bean, and even from dried potatoes—once these foods are put through a grinder or a mill, they become flour. This past summer, we grew two varieties of dry corn and bought a grain grinder that can turn grains, corn, and beans into flour, so we have been using a lot of fresh cornmeal, along with brown rice flour, buckwheat, and millet. (Millet becomes rancid quickly and must be used fresh, so it is best to grind it yourself; if you don’t have a grain grinder, it can be ground in a blender.) Grinding our own grains has brought a delightful new taste into our lives—cornmeal tastes like fresh corn and there is no rancid bitterness to the brown rice or millet—and as with all foods, the fresher the better.
Growing your own grains is empowering and exciting, but there are also many Vermont farmers growing and processing grains such as cornmeal and oats. (If you are completely gluten intolerant, make sure the oats were not grown near or processed on the same equipment as wheat, since oats can become contaminated this way.) Morningstar Meadow Farm in Glover grows oats and dry beans; Solstice Seeds in Hartland grows oats and experiments with quinoa, rice, corn, and sorghum; and Butterworks Farm in Westfield grows buckwheat, corn, and oats. Also, VTbeancrafters.com is a great resource for finding local dry beans that can be ground into flour, and the Northern Grain Growers website, northerngraingrowers.org, has a wealth of information on all types of grains (gluten and gluten-free) grown in New England.
Second, take chances. We have made cookies that fall apart into crumbs, pancakes that are too heavy, and bread that is…interesting. Even now, our pancakes change each time we make them, but that is more because of our cooking style and reliance on feel rather than recipes. Our basic pancake ingredients are as follows: brown rice flour, buckwheat, millet, yogurt, egg, water, butter or sunflower oil, sea salt, baking soda, and poppy seeds. Sometimes we don’t have millet, sometimes we use only rice flour, sometimes we throw in a bit of cornmeal, and sometimes we use milk. It all depends on what is at hand. If you do like to follow recipes, still take chances. Over the course of a few months of baking cornbread, we have arrived at a final product we like so much that we follow the same formula each time.
Third, mix and match. I have to admit, I love wheat bread, and I still bake sourdough loaves once every week or two, but since Edge became gluten free, the diversity of grains in my diet has increased dramatically. Wheat was once the primary grain I bought and baked with, occasionally adding in oats and cornmeal, but now I can add buckwheat, sorghum, garbanzo bean, millet, and brown rice flours to the list. Plus, there are many more flours to explore: amaranth, chestnut, lupin, potato, quinoa, soy, and tapioca. Diversity and pairing of grains increases good health. Take buckwheat and millet, for example. Gene Logsdon, author of Small Scale Grain Raising, writes that buckwheat has a “high content of lysine, a protein our bodies need but can’t make and that is hard to come by in most other grains,” and, “[Millet] is nutritionally superior to many of our common grains, containing more essential amino acids than wheat, oats, rice, barley, and rye. It lacks only lysine, the amino acid buckwheat is high in, making buckwheat and millet a good combination in your diet.” A breakfast of buckwheat and millet pancakes does indeed keep me full and energized all the way to lunchtime, a feat that buttermilk pancakes with white flour attempts but never achieves.
Fourth, keep learning. There are many great books out now about gluten-free baking. My first foray into this genre began with babycakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York’s Most Talked-About Bakery, by Erin McKenna. These recipes are great if you are vegan or on an elimination diet and still need your dessert fix, but I love eggs and dairy products and find them so useful in creating gluten-free baked goods that I have strayed from the recipes in babycakes.
An unlikely but fantastic source of gluten-free recipes is the book Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own, by Andrew Whitley. He has a 25-page section on gluten-free baking, including a helpful table of grains, and recipes for rice sourdough, pizza bases, cakes, and pastries. This is an especially wonderful book if you are like me and continue to also bake with gluten-filled grains.
If you are interested in growing your own grains, Small Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers, by Gene Logsdon, is a wonderfully written guide filled with personal anecdotes, instructions, history, and recipes.
Last, enjoy! You don’t have to be gluten free to enjoy the delicious possibilities of gluten-free baking. Just as farms and communities benefit from diversity, your body will benefit, too, so add a few new grains to your diet and feel the energy they bring.