Friday, 23 January 2015

Yeast bread techniques, Lesson 3: Density

In the quest for the perfect crusty, open-crumbed loaf for sopping up olive oil and making sandwiches, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the other kinds of bread out there. There are so many kinds of delightfully dark, flavorful breads to be discovered in European baking traditions - they may not have caught on here in the way that lighter French or Italian bread styles have, but they're no less delicious. 
People accustomed to whiter flours tend to equate "dense" with disappointment. Gluten-free bakers, especially, are all too familiar with that association: a slab of bland starch, a crumbly dry sandwich that falls apart when you try to bite it. We've all choked down more than a few slices of that kind of bread.

This is not that bread. 

It's true it may not be as multi-purpose as a lighter bread, but that's not a bad thing. It's somewhat akin to aged cheese, or dry sausage - slice it thinly, pair it with the right things, and you're in for a treat. Yes, dense bread can be a very good thing indeed! 
This particular recipe is a German-style loaf. Vollkornbrot simply means, literally, "whole grain bread." So, while it is most commonly a rye-based sourdough, there's nothing that says it has to be - it just needs to be composed completely of whole ingredients. 
This recipe certainly meets that definition. That's right - it doesn't need any refined starch at all. It also doesn't need any single-function binders or thickeners, not even pectin, or any baking powder. All of its structure, substance, flavor, and binding capacity comes from whole-food ingredients. In this case, that's just grains, seeds, legumes, and sweet potato...and one more, um, unconventional ingredient. You see, I was looking for a way to make good bread while waiting for my sourdough starter to wake up after we'd been out of town. I've had good results using yogurt and kefir for makeshift sourdough in the past, but this time I decided to try something new: sauerkraut! Or rather, sauerkraut juice. Don't worry, it's not enough to taste anything unusual in the bread - just enough to get some fermentation going. And I think it works even better than the yogurt! 
This is a very high-hydration bread; while it does definitely come together as a dough (as opposed to a batter), don't expect to be shaping this one with your hands! On that same note, you really don't need a mixer for this one - in fact, it comes together quite easily with just a spatula.

This bread is also very simple to make. There are no complicated techniques or skills required - the recipe is long because I've included so many notes and pictures to make it as clear and approachable as possible. 

A few notes:
- This recipe is very flexible. Just be sure to keep roughly the same basic proportions of whole grains and seeds (i.e. things you'd normally cook), soft seeds (i.e. those that can be eaten raw), and flours. Using an assortment of small, medium, and large grains/seeds will make the bread more interesting and attractive, but it should still work if you use (for example) all millet for the whole grain or all sunflower for the soft seeds. The chia, flax, and sweet potato are the essential constants - these each contribute unique properties, so changing any of them may change the result significantly. (I'd love to get into the chemistry of this, but this post is long enough already!)
- You need raw sauerkraut for this to work. This means not the canned/shelf-stable kind; it needs to be fresh with live, active cultures. Full disclosure: the kraut I used contains a little bit of ginger, which is known to increase yeast activity, but I really don't think it's enough to make a difference to the amount of yeast required in this situation.
- I touched on the difference between light and dark buckwheat flours in this post, and it may sound like I'm contradicting myself here. In this case, I recommend specifically using dark buckwheat flour from Anson Mills - the color comes from some of the hulls being milled with the grain, as with any dark buckwheat flour; the difference is, the hulls in AM's flour are toasted to bring out the aromatic aspects, and (like all their flours) it's been specially processed and stored in a way that prevents undesirable oxidation. This results in a flour that is complex and flavorful rather than harsh-tasting. However, it's still capable of overwhelming other flavors if used in high quantities, and with this recipe there's a lot of flavor complexity from the other grains and seeds that I don't want to cover up. That's where the other type comes in. Light buckwheat flour is milder, as it does not contain any hull fragments. The easiest way to get it is probably to just grind it yourself from whole buckwheat in a coffee grinder or food processor. If for whatever reason you don't want to use both, I recommend either: using the dark buckwheat in the amounts called for and adding more garbanzo or pea flour in place of the light kind, or using the light kind for all the buckwheat called for. 
- I make sweet potato puree in large batches for feeding my sourdough starter - this batch came out a bit watery, definitely much thinner than regular mashed sweet potatoes, so you may need to water yours down a bit to match the consistency shown. (It should be about the consistency of baby food...I think? It's been twentysomething years since I've encountered baby food, and I wasn't exactly in a position to evaluate it objectively, ha!) Here I used a yellow/white-fleshed variety, but the more common orange types work just as well.
- You will need a Pullman loaf pan or other bread pan with an oven-safe lid/cover (even a makeshift lid will do). Just make sure there is plenty of room for the loaf to rise without hitting the lid! 

Multigrain Vollkornbrot
As written, this recipe makes a smallish loaf. If you would like to use a full-size Pullman pan, you may double the recipe.

Grain soak:
20 grams each: whole millet, whole buckwheat, whole amaranth, GF steel-cut oats, whole teff, short-grain brown rice.
120 g mineral water, hot
1/8 tsp salt

Sponge:
35 g dark buckwheat flour (source)
35 g teff flour
30 g garbanzo flour or pea flour
20 g GF rolled oats
110 g mineral water, hot
15 g sauerkraut juice
1/8 tsp yeast

Combine all grain soak ingredients in a small bowl. In a large bowl, stir the hot water into the flours and oats, and add the kraut juice and yeast once it's cooled a little. Cover both bowls and set aside at room temperature for about 14 hours. 

Dry mix:
50 g light buckwheat flour
30 g pea flour or garbanzo flour
20 g dark buckwheat flour 
25 g pepita (pumpkin seed) meal (grind in food processor/blender)
5 g chia meal
5 g flax meal
4 g sea salt

Seeds:
25 g pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
25 g sunflower seeds
15 g hemp seeds
15 g flax seeds
50 g chia seeds

Additional ingredients:
180 g sweet potato puree
40 g mineral water, or more as needed

Next day, mix the chia seeds, flax seeds, and 40 g water into the grain soak and set aside to thicken for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add in the remaining seeds. Stir the sweet potato into the sponge, then the seed/grain mixture. 
Gradually add the flour. The mixture will seem pretty runny at first, but it will become more cohesive as the chia and flax polysaccharides become more hydrated - set it aside for a few minutes to prepare the baking pan. 
Cut a piece of parchment that is large enough to line the entire inside of the baking pan, plus enough extra to come a couple of inches over the top. Fold it so it will lay smoothly against the sides of the pan, including in the corners - essentially, you're folding a paper box to nest neatly inside the baking pan. It is important that the sides be fully covered, and that the paper is folded so it overlaps to form "handles" at the short ends of the box - you will need to use these handles. (This probably sounds much more complicated than it is - the picture below should clear up any confusion.)
Remove the paper box and set it, slightly unfolded, on a flat surface.
Lightly knead the dough with the spatula for a moment - see how much more cohesive it's become? Now, scoop the dough onto the paper, aiming to put it only on the bottom part of the paper box, like so:
Forming the loaf this way produces much neater results than trying to scoop thick dough directly into a lined pan.
Now, re-fold the paper "handles" at the short ends, grab onto them, and lift the loaf into the baking pan. Adjust the paper as needed to straighten wrinkles, scraping any stray strands of dough off the paper with a spatula. Fold the excess paper over the sides of the box, like a collar.      

Smooth the top with a wet spatula or pastry brush, making sure to moisten all exposed surface. Cover the loaf and set it someplace cozy. After one hour, repeat the moistening process, taking care not to tear or squish the surface - don't worry if it hasn't risen visibly by this point. Cover again and let rise another hour. By this point you should notice a slight increase in height - it won't be dramatic, just enough to prove that the yeast is active. Most of the increase in volume will happen in the oven. Make sure your lid/cover allows enough room for that!
Score the top with a sharp paring knife to allow it to expand in the oven. You may notice the top of the loaf has formed a sort of filmy skin - cut carefully so you don't tear this skin too much. Place the pan, covered, directly on the baking stone with oven pre-heated to 475F/245C and bake covered for 6 minutes. Remove cover, continue baking at that temp about 4-5 minutes, then lower the temperature setting to 440F/225 C (this makes sure the oven has returned to the starting temperature before then gradually lowering). After 40 minutes, lower the temperature once more to 425F/220C. Remove the pan from the oven, and -- carefully! -- grab hold of the folded paper "handles" on both ends of the loaf, lift it from the pan, and quickly return the paper-wrapped loaf to the baking stone. Continue baking another 20-25 minutes, until all sides of the loaf are firm.
Once the loaf is cool enough to handle, place it in a paper bag to finish cooling (this helps distribute moisture evenly).
Wait, there's still one more thing you need to do! This is the hardest step: wait 18-24 hours before cutting the loaf. Yes, I know it smells wonderful! I know warm, fresh-baked bread is tantalizing, and you will have the impulse to immediately slather it with butter. But believe it or not, even after all that baking time, it's actually still not "done" yet - the carbohydrate structure needs to finish setting, which happens gradually as it cools. This is true of any bread that gets most or all of its structure from polysaccharide chains - even 100%-rye breads, while they do of course contain gluten, actually get much of their crumb structure from carbohydrates, and as a result will be sticky and pasty if cut too soon. The amount of time this takes depends on many factors in the bread's composition - some breads are OK to cut as soon as they're cool, but others (including this one) take longer. This waiting period also gives some time for the flavor to mature.
Store the bread wrapped in a paper bag. It can be kept this way for a few days at room temperature - past that, it should probably be refrigerated. 

Friday, 16 January 2015

C is for colors...and cookies!

As of a few weeks ago, I've been living gluten-free for 7 years. 7 years!! That's a long time! A lot has changed in the gluten-free world since then. I've previously mentioned how my own approach to baking has changed and evolved over that time - why I became less and less interested in duplicating the properties of gluten, per se, but have instead been increasingly drawn towards finding the inherent properties special to our ingredients, and applying them in ways that make the best foods. (There is a difference, especially in the context of bread - something I will elaborate on very soon, with a loaf bread recipe!) I've already shown you a bit of how I've been applying this...but it goes beyond just the flours and baking techniques. I promised I'd keep you updated on the bigger picture - so here's one of the pieces I've been working on these past several months. 

It all started with a cookie.

A repertoire of chocolate frostings, white fluffy buttercream, pearly royal icing, and lemon glaze will go a long way towards covering most things that require decoration of the sugary persuasion. But a little over a year ago, I got the urge to make sugar cookies for Christmas - meaning colors would be required. So festive! So pretty! I was excited to have an occasion to get a bit fancy. Now, at this point I should mention that I don't use synthetic food coloring in my kitchen. Surely there would be suitable alternatives, though...right? Yet, the (horrendously expensive) natural colors obtained from a certain (notoriously overpriced) natural food store chain turned out to be a bit...underwhelming. 

Sure, they were pretty. But the initially-bright colors faded noticeably as the icing dried, and because of the chemical nature of these vegetable pigments, the color range is very limited by what kind of recipe you're adding it to (they are very pH sensitive, among other things). Neither of these things were surprising, from a chemistry perspective - it was something else that was still bothering me.

Maybe it was frustration with hearing GF baking referred to as "imitation" or "a substitute for the real thing" that spurred me to become more critical of my choice of ingredients. Maybe it was annoyance at seeing the egregious misuse of the term "artisanal" on the packaging of one too many clearly-mass-produced food products. (Artisanal tea bags? Really? What is that even supposed to mean??) In any case, when I really thought about it, I realized it wasn't just about the results of the colors themselves, or even the expense. I was bothered by the idea of buying food coloring.

I cared about more than just what the product is made from. I realized what I really wanted was the aspect of craft. I guess that's become a bit trendy these days, but I don't think that makes it any less important. Artisanship, in the actual definition of the word - a combination of skill, knowledge, and artistry - gives the end product meaning beyond just the sum of its ingredients, much more than a vague "all-natural." I could do better than a bottle of cabbage juice concentrate - both in the sense of better results, and in the sense of fitting much better with that from-scratch philosophy. 

So, that's what I did. Using actual foods and some science, I've been working on making my icings just as special as the cookies. No recipe today, but here are some more pictures of the process: 

At first, I had two colors...then three...

...Then four...and more!
A few favorites from this year's Christmas cookies: Hedgehogs, owls, a goose, and a moose!







Saturday, 22 November 2014

For Thanksgiving: A Savory Apple Cobbler

The other day I stumbled across a recipe for savory oatmeal cookies. I thought it was a clever idea, and was particularly intrigued by the nice balance of novelty and familiarity it evokes - something that manages to feel traditional, yet at the same time is fresh and new. That same approach, I realized, could go beyond simply creating delicious food; it could also provide an elegant solution to a dilemma that becomes especially apparent as holidays approach: how to reconcile the desire to keep with tradition, and the need to change tradition that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with food sensitivities. I don't mean just swapping sweet and savory, or using alternative ingredients; I'm talking about that larger idea - something that's not quite familiar, yet somehow seems to belong, with all the appeal of the other well-loved traditions on the table. Sometimes we directly adapt the old recipes; other times, we replace them with something entirely different. And sometimes, there is something in between - a bit from both, a bit from neither - which neither replaces nor competes, but rather adds. It takes the focus off of dietary restrictions, and instead allows food to be simply food - with all of the enjoyment that entails.

This is one of those foods. With its roasted squash, apples, savory herbs, and nutty cornmeal-oat topping, this cobbler even tastes like Thanksgiving - all autumnal and cozy, homey but by no means homely. There's just a hint of sweetness to complement those flavors - it's definitely a side dish, not a dessert (though it would fit in wonderfully as an accompaniment to a cheese course, too). The recipe is designed for flexibility: almost everything can be done a day in advance, and the quantities/types of filling can be varied as needed. Best of all, the grain ingredients - just cornmeal and oats, no added starch or binders - are easy-to-find (and all "normal" ingredients, for those family members who may be skeptical of GF baked goods!).

Savory Apple Cobbler
For the crumble topping:
80 g GF rolled oats, divided
70 g cornmeal
30 g brown sugar
60 g EV olive oil and/or butter (I used 30 g of each)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
3 g (1/2 tsp) salt
1 large egg (approx. 50 g)
80 g water, boiling hot
35 g hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

several fresh sage leaves, minced
sprig of fresh thyme, or a good pinch of dried
small sprig of fresh rosemary
black pepper & sea salt, to taste

1. In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, salt, and about half of each of the herbs (save the rest for the cobbler part). Rub the mixture between your fingers to help release the herbs' oils. 
2. In a larger bowl, stir together the cornmeal, 40 g of the oats, baking soda, and baking powder. Pour in the water and stir well. Cover the bowl and set it aside for a few minutes.
3. Meanwhile, add the remaining 40 g oats to the first bowl. Then add the oil and/or butter (butter, if using, should be cut in as for pie crust before adding oil). Add pepper to taste.
4. Add the egg to the large bowl, stirring well, and then stir in the hazelnut pieces, followed by the other mixture. It will form a soft dough. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. 

For the cobbler:
These measurements are approximate, and for the most part are very flexible as far as proportions and substitutions go. Don't be afraid to improvise!
1 large butternut squash, cut into smallish pieces - or about 2 pounds precut squash
3-4 apples, preferably a mix (suggested varieties include Stayman, Granny Smith, Jonathan, Braeburn, Cortland, and Gala)
1 yellow onion, sliced thin
a few handfuls cremini mushrooms (about 5 mushrooms), sliced very thin
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
a handful or two of walnut pieces
olive oil
1-2 tsp real maple syrup (not absolutely necessary, but I think it really enhances the mix of flavors)

1. Toss butternut squash pieces with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast at 400º F until moderately tender, about 45 minutes - stir occasionally to prevent burning.
2. Sautee onions in oil until just softened. Add remaining herbs, garlic, and mushrooms (and more salt & pepper, to taste). Lower heat and cook for a couple more minutes.
3. Combine the cooked squash pieces, onions, and mushrooms with the raw apple pieces, then add the walnuts and stir in maple syrup.  
4. --If you are preparing ahead of time, this is the point to pause - cover and refrigerate mixture until needed. Otherwise, continue.--
5. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Put above mixture into baking dishes (two 8x8" dishes or equivalent would do nicely - I used one 8x8 and one 11x13, but the topping was spread a bit thin). Break up the chilled dough until crumbly, and drop small spoonfuls evenly over the surface. Sprinkle a little more pepper and salt on top if desired. 
6. Cover the baking dishes with foil. Bake 30-40 minutes covered, then remove foil and bake another 20-30 minutes. After removing from the oven, loosely drape the foil over the dishes again and let it sit for just a few minutes. Serve warm.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Pizza? Pizza.


The picture says it all: gluten-free pizza that's easy to handle. You might even say it's...easy as pie (pun entirely intentional).  Easy to shape - no more dough stuck to the baking sheet. Easy to transfer directly to a baking stone, no parchment required. Easy to top with anything you like, without having to worry about the crust tearing or the sauce leaking through. Easy to enjoy - crisp and chewy, no soggy crust, no fork needed. It even keeps its texture after a night in the refrigerator. (And if cold pizza's not your thing, don't worry - it reheats beautifully too.)

The best part: it works with almost any recipe. That's right. This isn't a recipe per se - it's a process I've been using for a while now, and it's made pizza go smoothly no matter what kind of dough I'm working with. Don't worry about the strength of your dough. In fact, a relatively soft dough will be easiest to work with here, and will create a better texture in the pizza. As long as you're using a dough that can be handled - meaning actual dough, not a batter - it will work with this technique! Even for thin-crust pizzas! 

So are you ready for the secret? OK, here we go:



Yep. It's spring roll wrappers. Simply press out the dough on one of these rice-flour wrappers, and you have a small-ish pizza that stands up to everything pizza dough should. (OK, most things. Don't go trying to spin it over your head or anything silly like that.)

Is it cheating? Maybe a little. 
...Oh well, I'm too busy enjoying pizza night to let it bother me much! 

So here's how to do it:

Start by mixing up some dough. Personally, I really like using a multigrain sourdough, but a lighter dough (as shown in these pictures) is great too. If you're in need of a recipe, something along the lines of this, this, or even this will do just fine.

Next, weigh your dough and divide it up. For a standard wrapper, based on my experience, 190 grams of dough will make a thin crust, and up to 250 grams for a thicker crust. You may need slightly more or slightly less depending on how wet your dough is and how workable it is; don't worry if it's not quite exact. Press each portion into a disc shape.

Get out a spring roll wrapper. They are quite thin - make sure you're getting just one! Dust a work surface (countertop, baking sheet, pizza peel, whatever) with some cornmeal, and set the wrapper on it. Brush the entire surface of the wrapper (just one side!) with a little water, taking care to avoid letting any water get underneath the wrapper - that will make it stick. It doesn't need to be very wet, just moisten it enough that the dough will adhere to it.

Now, put one of your dough portions in the center of the wrapper. Using a gentle rocking motion, use the heel of your hand or the side of your hand to roll the dough to the edges. It may take a minute to get the hang of this motion, but once you get it, the process goes pretty quickly. Don't push or spread it, or anything else that will put a lot of force on the dough - this will stretch out the wrapper and possibly tear it. For this same reason, don't use a rolling pin. Just gently rock your hand to gradually squeeze the dough from the center outwards. 


Repeat for the rest of your dough portions.

At this point, you can move them to a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel/baking sheet to let them rise and add toppings now, or you can put them in the fridge for a few hours before topping them (if refrigerating, drape some waxed paper over them so they don't dry out).
When you're ready to bake them, preheat the oven to 450º F with a baking stone on one of the lowest two racks. 
Put on whatever toppings you like.
When the oven is at a stable temperature, simply grab the edge of each pizza and drag it onto the stone. I didn't get a picture of this step because it's very hard to take a picture while standing in front of an open, hot oven. But it's essentially the same move as this - just don't lift the edge so high, obviously, or the toppings will fall off!


Bake time will vary depending on crust thickness, topping types, and amount of toppings. Generally, though, the pizzas will take 20-30 minutes. If they are done, it should be easy to slip a pizza peel or baking sheet underneath them.

Let cool for just a few minutes before cutting. I find it easiest to cut them with kitchen scissors. 

I realize you're probably wondering where the pictures of the finished pizza are. Sadly, I didn't manage to get any of those either. By the time the pizzas came out of the oven, it was dark, meaning the lighting was terrible. (Also, it was late, meaning we were hungry.) The good news is, since making pizza is so easy now, I make it pretty frequently. So, don't worry, I promise I'll take some pictures the next time! For now, enjoy your pizza!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Butternut Polenta Bread


The first sign of fall comes not with the changing of the leaves, but rather with the appearance of recipes. Or so I realized a couple of weeks ago, as I saw - even in the summery heat - the umpteenth new food-related thing with fall or autumn in the title. Of course, it actually is autumn now, although there are enough warm days ahead to make it feel still a long way off. Late summer has that way of making time seem to stand still. Indeed, the first changes were nearly imperceptible, drowned out by the cicadas' droning in the humid air, and the continuing bounty of summer vegetables distracting from the fact that the sunset comes a bit sooner each day. Yet, rather than remain enthralled with the season, we rush its exit as we begin - as if by some kind of instinct - longing for coziness, apple cake, and casseroles (and pumpkin spice lattes, apparently). It might be strange, given how fall inevitably gives way to months of cold, that we welcome the end of summer so readily. Fall has always been my favorite season, so personally I understand getting excited over the subtle signs of the weather changing. But I think there's something special about this transition which causes us to notice things like crisp mornings and reddening leaves with a particular kind of anticipation. The onset of autumn is just so much more sudden than, say, the gradual budding of branches - in a matter of days, the color of a landscape can change completely. Is it any wonder we get so excited about it?

I realize I've written about seasons frequently here - many food blogs do, by nature of the ingredients, but unlike heirloom tomatoes or chanterelle mushrooms or delicate strawberries, the ingredients that go into bread are (generally) not a seasonal food. Yet, the essence of a particular time of year goes much deeper than what can be found at the farmers' market. Many flavors which are so imbued by a season became that way through association and memory more than any inherent quality of the ingredients. Lemons ripen in winter, yet their fresh tartness and bright color bring to mind spring and even summer. The spices which make up "pumpkin spice" or "cider spice" - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom - also make their way into recipes throughout the year. Nonetheless, when combined, they seem to intrinsically evoke the essence of autumn, and we begin to crave them even while the leaves on the trees are still quite green. The traditions of recipes and flavors pervade the season, even after most "seasonal" foods are now available perenially.
Perhaps that's part of it - we used to have so many inherently seasonal, often ephemeral tastes and textures from fresh vegetables and fruits; in colder months, seasonal association of spices and condiments would be influenced by what stored well and even which spices helped preserve other, more perishable foods. 

Now, we're of course fortunate to have access to fresh, nutritive foods throughout the year. But even with our nutritional needs taken care of, still we remain hungry for the ritual of changing flavors. Perhaps the desire for this seasonality actually is some kind of instinct - deeper even than tradition, a biological longing to take part in a cycle of time and place. Interesting to think about, isn't it? But I'll stop there, lest I stray too far into philosophical culinary anthropologist territory. The point I was getting to is: the second sign of fall is the arrival of butternut squashes - which are a very good topping for bread, as it turns out!
I know I explained recently why I might not be posting any new yeast bread recipes for a while. However, after some further thought, I decided to also work on some breads which don't require the sourdough starters or involved techniques or unusual ingredients I've been so enamored with lately. Breads in the style of the ones so many readers here have made and enjoyed. This one is based loosely on my ciabatta recipe, but using different, more flavorful flours. It's been so long since I made a dough of this kind, I wasn't sure what to expect - I started out envisioning something similar to a focaccia, but the recipe ended up taking a different direction with the coarsely-ground cornmeal. (I was so excited a few days ago to find a local source of truly gluten-free white and yellow cornmeal, I just couldn't wait to put them in something!) It's actually somewhere in between focaccia and cornbread in its texture and flavor. But I think it's pretty good. Also like both those breads, this is good for when you want a bread that's almost more like a side dish - pleasantly savory and filling. The natural sweetness of the cornmeal and the squash complement one another nicely, and still allow the flavor of the oil and herbs to come through.
I used rosemary, but I think fresh sage would be even better. (In fact, I'd planned on using sage, but when I went out to my little garden, there were hornets on my sage. So...yeah. Rosemary it is.)

This is a simple two-stage dough: first an overnight sponge, and then the remaining ingredients are added the next day to make the final dough. It's also very easy to make, as there isn't any shaping procedure - the dough goes straight into the dutch oven as soon as it's mixed, and easily spreads to the edges as you press the toppings into the surface.

For the sponge:

60 g finely-ground yellow cornmeal
40 g coarse cornmeal/polenta (I used half yellow and half white)
25 g buckwheat flour
25 g garbanzo flour
10 g potato flour (not the same as potato starch)
180 g boiling water
1/8 tsp dry yeast

Combine the dry ingredients, except the yeast, and stir in the boiling water. Cover the bowl and let stand for about 10 minutes before mixing in the yeast. Cover bowl and set aside for about 14 hours.

For the final dough:

85 g tapioca starch
85 g potato starch (not the same as potato flour)
15 g sweet rice flour
35 g garbanzo flour
2 tsp psyllium husks
1/2 tsp Pomona's citrus pectin
6 g sea salt
1 tsp double-acting baking powder
120 g water, warm
2 tsp white chia meal
up to 1/4 tsp yeast (depending on how active the sponge seems; I used 1/8 tsp)
30 g olive oil (use a flavorful one)
2-3 fresh sage leaves or fresh rosemary sprigs
about 100 g butternut squash, peeled and sliced very thinly (I used a mandoline)
(optional: a small handful of shredded lacinato kale or additional fresh herbs)

Pour the olive oil into the bottom of a dutch oven and add the whole sage leaves or rosemary sprigs. Warm the oil over low heat until the herbs have softened slightly - stir them around occasionally to help release their flavor. Remove from heat, remove the herbs and set aside. Combine all dry ingredients except the chia meal and yeast, and set aside. Stir the warm water into the sponge, followed by the chia meal and yeast. This mixture will thicken over the next couple of minutes. Next add the dry mix, about 1/3rd at a time, to form a soft dough. Then, pour out 15 g of the oil into the dough bowl (make sure it's not too hot!). Mix until the oil is just combined.
Pour most of the remaining oil over the squash slices, leaving a bit in the dutch oven to coat the bottom generously. Sprinkle ~ 1 tsp cornmeal over the bottom of the pot, and scoop the dough into the oiled dutch oven. Cut the sage leaves into small pieces (or strip the rosemary leaves from the stem) and scatter herbs over the surface of the dough. Then arrange the squash slices, overlapping them slightly, gently pressing each slice to help it stick. Cover the dutch oven and set aside to rise for 60-75 minutes. 
Don't worry if the dough doesn't quite reach the sides of the pot - it will expand as it bakes. 

Meanwhile, put an oven rack in the lower half of the oven, and heat the oven to 450º F. When bread is finished rising, place the covered dutch oven into the oven. Bake for 9 minutes covered, then remove the lid and lower the oven temperature to 420º F. Bake for another 40-45 minutes. (Add the kale or additional herbs, if using, about 5 minutes before the bread is done.) Let rest in the pot 10-15 minutes, then remove and let cool at least 45 minutes more before slicing.
P.S. - Speaking of seasonal things... for those of you in NC, the Triangle Gluten Intolerance Festival is this Saturday, September 27, at a pumpkin farm! Plenty of food tastings and family activities, all gluten-free - sounds like fun!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Chocolate Cherry Chestnut Torte

Every year, as Jon's birthday approaches, I ask what kind of cake he would like. Invariably, the response has been the same: "something chocolate." This leaves things very much open to interpretation. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of very different things that can be considered chocolate cake. So, as usual, I found myself looking through lots of recipes for ideas and some points of reference - after all, cakes aren't something I make very often, so it's the least I can do to make sure his birthday cake actually tastes like...well, a birthday cake. But did I mention that there are a lot of kinds of chocolate cake? Fluffy and light, rich and fudgy, dense and flourless, elegantly simple, extravagantly layered...there is no basic formula, because there are so many different approaches. All are delicious, but in such different ways. How to even begin to choose?

It would be an exaggeration to say I completely scrapped all those recipes I was comparing and just improvised, but it's actually not such a huge overstatement. The recipe I ended up with doesn't quite fit any standard ratio I've previously followed, and it probably breaks some rules here and there as far as what "should" go in a cake, or the order in which things are usually done. Yet the results speak for themselves. Despite any rules I may have broken, the cake is light-textured, tender, moist, and rich, and pairs wonderfully with the equally delightful fluffy frosting. I'm really pleased with how it turned out - and I think if you try it, you will be too.

First, the flavor: The cake has some cherry juice in it, which complements the cherry filling and really brings out the fruitiness of the chocolate. I had some homemade almond milk on hand from another project, so I used it in the cake in addition to almond meal, to further emphasize the cherry-almond combination (cherries and almonds, after all, are related, and there is some overlap in the chemistry of the flavors we associate with them). Even if you usually use regular milk, I highly recommend almond milk in this recipe for the depth of flavor it contributes.

The cake itself is similar to a genoise, containing a significant proportion of nut meal and getting its light structure from a well-developed egg network rather than any added binders. Unlike most other sponge-type cakes, though, it also features two other distinctive flours, which also happen to be two of my favorites: chestnut (as you can tell from the title), and buckwheat. If you associate buckwheat with a "harsh" or intrusive flavor, as I often see recipes describing it, you might be surprised to see it in such a delicate cake. Let me tell you something: buckwheat should not be harsh. From what I understand, that flavor - as well as the dark, gritty appearance often associated with it - comes from small fragments of the bitter black hull remaining mixed in with the grain. I grind my own buckwheat flour, and the difference is striking. I'm not using any special variety of buckwheat, it's just that buckwheat packaged as whole grains will usually have any trace of hull removed. Its flavor, while still distinctive, is mild and pleasantly nutty. As you can see, the color is also much more appealing - almost creamy. I highly recommend giving it a try. If you don't have a high-powered blender or food processor, try grinding small amounts in a clean coffee grinder.

Front: fresh-ground buckwheat;
Back: store-bought buckwheat flour.
Difference: huge!
As for the chestnut flour, I'm lucky to have a good local source; if it's not available where you are, try substituting coconut flour - it will definitely change the overall flavor composition, but I'm sure it will be equally delicious.

I'd planned to complement this cake with a meringue buttercream, both because it's a special occasion and because a sponge-type cake like this is best with something less overwhelmingly sweet than standard powdered-sugar frosting. Just a couple of days ago, though, my kitchen thermometer spontaneously broke! (It's stood up to the high temps of deep-frying and candy-making, but apparently measuring the temperature of a warm water bath was just too much for the glass to handle...) Yes, I know, a lot of people make meringue icings without needing a thermometer and everything turns out fine, but since I've only made them on a couple of occasions, I didn't want to risk it. I was very much not in the mood for last-minute thermometer-hunting, so I decided to go hunting for a different frosting recipe instead.

Well, I never thought I'd say this...but I'm kind of glad my thermometer broke. If it hadn't, I might never have discovered this frosting! It's creamy and rich-tasting, yet it is not too sweet, and it is very light, not at all oily or heavy the way some buttercreams can be. It's still a cooked frosting, but it's pretty unusual as far as those things go - rather than egg white, the thickening comes from making a sort of pudding with starch and milk, and it uses regular granulated sugar instead of powdered sugar...but the sugar is creamed right into the butter! The trick is letting the mixer run a long time - eventually the sugar will be fully incorporated, not grainy, and the thick starch pudding will be transformed into velvety, buttery fluff.

Chocolate Cherry Torte

Makes a 2-layer, 8" round cake, with frosting and cherry filling.

Because the richness in the cake comes from the chocolate, egg yolks, and almonds rather than butter or milk, the cake itself happens to be dairy-free. The frosting and filling, on the other hand, are very much dairy-full; however, I've included a note at the bottom with some suggestions if you cannot tolerate dairy.

For the cake:

80 g almond meal
60 g chestnut flour
60 g buckwheat flour (see above)
25 g arrowroot starch
2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder (I used Rumford)
1/2 tsp sea salt

170 g sugar
3 eggs, room temperature (mine weighed 155 g total)

240 g unsweetened almond milk
120 g cherry juice, very hot

60 g semisweet chocolate chips
50 g high-quality cocoa powder (look for one with relatively high cocoa butter content)
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375ºF/190ºC. Prepare two 8" round pans, lining bottom with parchment and buttering lightly.
Pour hot cherry juice over chocolate and cocoa in a small bowl, stir to combine, and set aside (stir occasionally to make sure mixture is completely smooth). In the bowl of a mixer, combine eggs and sugar. Beat on medium-high for a few minutes, until foamy and glossy. This network is what will bind the batter, as well as trap air to provide leavening, so don't rush this step!
Add flour mix (including salt and baking powder) to the egg foam approximately 1/3 at a time, alternating with almond milk 1/2 at a time, stirring slowly after each addition and taking care not to deflate egg mixture. Stir vanilla and almond extract into cooled chocolate/juice mixture, then very carefully fold mixture into batter by hand, until just combined. Gently pour batter into pans, place both pans on insulated baking sheet, and bake 45-50 minutes, until cooked through to center.
Cool 15 minutes in pans, then turn out onto cooling rack. Make sure cakes are completely cooled before proceeding.

For the frosting:

The recipe I adapted this from calls it a custard frosting - despite the fact that it contains no eggs, this is a pretty accurate description of its flavor and texture. My special twist is using goat cheese in place of half of the butter, which gives the mixture a cheesecake-like flavor. This does admittedly make a softer, even lighter-textured frosting - if you want to be able to pipe it decoratively like shown in the link, it's probably best to stick with all butter. I just really love the subtle tartness the goat cheese contributes. (I think cream cheese would probably work too, though I haven't tried it.)

240 g whole milk
200 g granulated sugar
32 g starch (cornstarch recommended; see note below)
112 g unsalted butter, room temperature
112 g plain goat cheese
pinch salt
1/2 tsp almond extract

Combine milk and starch in saucepan and heat gently, with stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat and set aside to cool, stirring several times as it cools. Meanwhile, put sugar, butter, goat cheese, and almond extract in the bowl of a mixer and beat on medium-high for 4-5 minutes, until light and well-combined. It may seem more intuitive to add the sugar to the liquid, to dissolve it that way. Don't do that! The sugar would tie up too much of the liquid, leaving not enough free liquid for the starch to fully expand - meaning it won't thicken as well as it should, and will still have a raw starch aftertaste. (Trust me, I tried it.) When pudding mixture has cooled to room temperature, add it to the mixer bowl and beat a few more minutes, until fluffy and smooth.

For the filling:
120 g frosting, above
60 g additional goat cheese
50 g chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100 g high-quality jarred cherries, well-drained and roughly chopped (look for tart cherries with no added colors, in juice or sugar or in brandy/liqueur; not pie filling)

Combine frosting and cheese. Gently fold in chocolate and cherry pieces until just combined.

To assemble the cake: Spread filling mixture thickly between cake layers. Chill briefly before proceeding with frosting the rest of the cake, to ensure the filling does not get squished out the sides.
Frost sides and top of filled cake. If desired, decorate the top of the cake with cherries, finely grated chocolate, and/or almond pieces.
Keep decorated cake refrigerated.


Note about starch: The frosting pictured was made with arrowroot starch, which - as I would quickly discover, much to my dismay - apparently does not mix very well with dairy, becoming stringy and gloppy when they are combined over heat. While I was eventually able to force it to cooperate through extensive mixing (and a couple of spoonfuls of powdered sugar), I advise against using arrowroot in the frosting. I'm recommending cornstarch as per the original recipe linked above, but I confess I have not tested my full recipe as written with cornstarch, nor have I tested other starches such as tapioca.

Note about dairy substitutions: I honestly don't know yet whether this frosting would work with non-dairy milks - I'm not sure whether or not the milk is essential to the pudding thickening properly. If you want to be sure the frosting will turn out right, it might be better to use a recipe that does not call for dairy. If you do wish to experiment with this recipe, though, I would suggest possibly altering the procedure slightly depending on your ingredients. Since many ingredients used in baking as natural alternatives to butter (coconut oil, palm shortening, etc) are entirely fat, whereas butter contains some water, I think there's a chance the sugar may not be able to dissolve as completely. If you want to experiment with one of these fats, you might try reserving a small proportion of your chosen milk substitute and stirring that into the sugar before adding it to the creamed fat, then proceeding using the rest of the liquid for the pudding base as written. Blended butter substitutes (spreads, etc.) will contain some water, so while I haven't tested it to be sure, I would guess those would probably work with the regular method.
If you try making this frosting with non-dairy ingredients, please let me know how it turns out!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A taste of things to come

OK friends. I'll just be blunt: I have been a Bad Blogger. Not only have I not posted any recipes in more than a year (a year!), I have been terrible about keeping up with emails and social media. Despite what that evidence might suggest, I'm still here. And still baking. Definitely baking. In the meantime there have some pretty big changes - some hard ones, but some exciting ones too. I don't often like to stray too far from recipe-related things in posts, but under these circumstances, some explanation seems pretty relevant. (And then we'll get back to bread.) 
In case you need proof: bread. Specifically, sourdough rolls.

Some things emerged a while back which forced me to reassess...well, pretty much everything. At first I thought I wouldn't really go into it here - after all, this is a baking blog, not a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life blog. Yet on the other hand, it felt like unless I could be open about those things, I just wasn't being honest. Every time I tried to put it all aside and just make a post about bread, it became glaringly obvious that the supposedly-personal stuff was just too big to avoid. Not to mention, with all that was going on, sometimes there weren't many recipes to post anyway - baking, unfortunately, became very infrequent for a while. 

In any case, I should probably stop being vague and just get to the point: Some long-time readers may remember the other time I've written about something totally off-topic here. In the weeks following that post, I was caught off-guard by the number of supportive and encouraging emails I received from so many people I've never even met. (To everyone who I didn't manage to reply to directly, I want to take this opportunity to say a public (ridiculously overdue) "thank you" - your messages really meant a lot to me.) Anyway, as I learned later that year, I do in fact have the disorder my doctor suspected. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but it still felt a bit strange and surreal seeing the results from the geneticist. The diagnosis was a relief, in a strange way - I had my answer, and although the condition is a major pain to deal with sometimes (both literally and figuratively), it is fairly manageable on the grand scale of things. And I am not at risk of the super-scary complications which come up with one particular sub-type of the disorder, which was a huge relief to find out. Yet after a while, I noticed the weight on my mind was much heavier than I'd initially thought. Accepting the situation wasn't such a problem, at least not in theory. The hard part - the thing I didn't anticipate - was adjusting to actually living with it, with the knowledge that it's not going to go away. Getting on with my life while running on half the energy one would expect to have at my age (plus the chronic pain) - that's a lot more difficult than just accepting the idea of having a disorder. As the prospect sank in more fully, I got a bit overwhelmed by it all. 

Baking, like all things, took energy - of which there was already not enough to go around. There were bigger, more long-term things that needed doing, so I had to compromise somewhere - thus, as I mentioned above, baking got repeatedly pushed aside. I hated not having time for something I was so passionate about, but it was just a hobby, right? Making bread wouldn't lead to a degree or a career. These other things were more pressing, more "important." 
And then it hit me. These plans I was trying to stick to were ones I made when I didn't know I'd need to account for the effects of a chronic condition, and my stubbornness was keeping me from seeing the bigger picture. Things weren't going to go back to that particular normal - if I felt like there wasn't room for baking now, I certainly wasn't going to suddenly find extra time for it while I was focused on a thesis or an internship. Sure, I'd be able to make things here and there so we could have decent bread and such at home, but actual in-depth methodical recipe development - the thing that got me interested in food science in the first place - would generally need to wait. Would that kind of compromise really be worth it? What's more, were the things I'd been aiming for even realistic at this point in time? Reluctantly, I admitted I had to acknowledge the possibility that maybe the direction I'd been heading was not currently sustainable. I would need to make some choices.

This all makes a bit more sense if I take a moment to mention that for a long time, I'd been occasionally musing about turning the food-science research and baking experience I'd gathered into something bigger. Wondering, for instance, if I might eventually put together a cookbook, or once in a while when studying got especially frustrating, making jokes about how I should just go start a bakery instead (and then daydreaming for a few moments about whether that could actually work). It was always just a "maybe someday" kind of idea, not any specific plan. And when I'd been working on the assumption that baking would have to wait, that vague possibility seemed even more remote. Now, though, as I really critically examined things, what had started as a whim began to grow into an idea I was seriously considering. 

So, gradually, I began to bake again. Now that I'd officially made it a priority, I could take the time to really focus on a recipe, and fine-tune it until it was right. The results got better and better. Especially the bread. The taste, the texture - it was even obvious just looking at them that these new breads were even better than any I'd made before. But they're different in some more essential ways too. 

You see, in the process of all this baking, my bread has evolved. Not just the results - the whole process has changed. It's not like my older recipes and techniques. As far as I know, it's not like anyone's recipes or techniques. It's still developing, but I can see that it has the potential to grow into a distinct style of breadmaking, involving steps and properties which are specific to bread made from these ingredients - and that's a good thing. These loaves pictured are not adaptations of other recipes, or GF "versions" of existing bread varieties; this bread has many familiar qualities, but it also has defining characteristics of its own. And it's definitely not a "substitute for the real stuff" or a "replacement" for bread. This is real bread. (I have some pretty strong feelings about this distinction after encountering some opinions that GF bread can't be "real," but that's for another post.) 

Yup, pretty sure this counts as real bread.

Something it does share with many existing styles of bread, though, is that a recipe is not just a recipe - it is a craft, requiring not only attention and ingredients, but also skills and methods which in some cases take a good bit of practice and experience. Several books put out by experienced traditional bakers in the past few years - and the blogs and online communities which go through them recipe by recipe - have proved that plenty of people do want to put that kind of time and effort into a really great loaf of bread, and maybe even find it fun. But many people, even people who generally enjoy baking, don't exactly enjoy monitoring long multi-stage fermentations and maintaining sourdough starters and getting the hang of tricky shaping processes. My breads aren't any more difficult than those traditional artisan-style loaves, but there are a lot of steps compared to what you'd normally expect from a GF recipe, and some of the processes are pretty unusual. Especially since gluten-free baking can be already intimidating enough for some people, I always hesitate to post recipes that are particularly complicated. I started this blog partly with the hope that I could make genuinely good gluten-free food seem at least a little bit more accessible to everyone. I know a number of people who end up on this site are new to baking, and I definitely don't want to scare people away with recipes that look overwhelmingly involved.

Of course that, by itself, is no reason to keep a good recipe to myself. I know there are plenty of people who would find it easily worth the effort, even if a few might consider the recipe somewhat formidable. Bread this good needs to be shared. 

Here's the thing, though: as I said, some of what I've been doing is different - really different. Some of the baking techniques I've been developing...well, let's just say that if anyone else is doing these same things, I haven't come across anything about it. In other words, these breads aren't simply good - they are really something special, and possibly even truly original. 

When we get overly focused on trying to make something turn out "just like the normal kind," we miss out on so many wonderful results that use unique properties of our flours. It took me far too long to realize that if, rather than combining ingredients with the aim to make something nearly indistinguishable from the food I remembered, and instead started using ingredients in ways that actually placed emphasis on their unique qualities, I could create something just as delicious yet also distinctly different. Not only that - I could create something people enjoy specifically because of its differences. As much as people like familiarity, so many of the foods we love are the result of taking an ordinary concept and giving it a fresh regional, personal, or cultural twist. You end up with something that's familiar enough to be undoubtedly delicious, yet different enough to earn a separate place of its own.

Approaching baking with this new philosophy has helped solidify my decision to turn this from just a hobby into something greater. That's partly what I've been working on all this time - trying to decide what exactly that means and how to go about it. The bread recipes are only one element of it, but their originality is crucial to being able to make these plans a reality. I hope you'll understand, then, why I hesitate to post any of the recipes at this point in time. As much as I'd love to share these breads with everyone, I think the wisest choice is to keep certain things as "secret recipes," at least for now. The wait will be worth it.

So what does this mean for the blog?

Well, for one thing, there will still be other recipes that I can happily share. I plan to update the blog much more frequently now that I've reached some decisions about which recipes I can post and which ones are essential to keep under wraps. Unfortunately that means there may not be new yeast bread recipes for a while, until I can figure out the best thing to do about that. (Hopefully sooner than later!) There will also be a lot more chances to talk in depth about techniques and information that are useful for gluten-free baking. There are some questions about techniques, substitutions, and recipe conversion that I see a lot, both in emails and around the internet in general, so I will also be devoting some posts to these questions specifically - there will be an FAQs section so those posts can be found all in one place. 


I'm really excited about the bigger projects I have planned. I can't go into detail about the specifics just yet, but I will definitely be able to post updates as things develop further! And, of course, I can post plenty of pictures - I know it's not as good as a recipe, but while I'm working on the rest of it, I still want to share these breads in some way at least. 
Sourdough loaf shown above, sliced.