Pity the poor person allergic to gluten. In the last few years, an improbable segment of the population has become intolerant to gluten, if not allergic. It used to be that only those suffering from Celiac disease had to stay away from gluten, and their food choices were pretty grim. As only people of Mediterranean descent can be susceptible to Celiac and those who suffer from it amount to only 3% of the US population, gluten allergy and the sprouting of gluten-free bakeries and products is somewhat of a mystery. Gluten free baked goods are the new cupcakes.
The craze might be explained with more and more doctors telling patients that gluten is indeed harder to digest than other foods and that staying away from yeast and wheat does alleviate some minor allergies, as I found out years ago when I abstained from wheat for a few weeks for unrelated reasons and my nose cleared up completely. Which is why I have gotten into the habit of buying some gluten-free products.
A few weeks ago, I found myself discussing the merits of different brands of gluten-free bread with a customer. My personal favourite is made by Rudi’s Organic Bakery, out of Colorado (all gluten-free bread is kept frozen so same day baking or consumption is not an issue). Glutino, an Israeli company whose products for North America are made in Canada, is responsible for some kick-ass pretzels and chocolate covered wafers but they also make bread, bagels, cereals etc. The customer I was talking to suggested I visit The Sensitive Baker in Culver City – their bread is just the best, he assured me. So, on it went on my list of things to do on the week I dedicated to dabbling in gluten-free.
The Sensitive Baker ( thesensitivebaker.com) is a modest storefront operation that makes an impressive array of breads and cakes, cookies and treats. Most of them will not be available when you walk in but they are listed on their online menu and can be made upon request. On the particular Monday I visited it, a very pregnant and very unhelpful lady with whom I tried to engage in conversation about their products was manning the store. She made me sample their bagels which were indeed fluffy and moist but I ended up buying a loaf of millet bread which set me back $8.00. It tasted ok but not as close to the real thing as Rudi’s “Original” which, once toasted, really could pass for Wonderbread.
Gluten free baking is a process of trial and error and bread is usually made with rice flour or grains like millet or corn. They all incorporate starch in the form of potato or corn starch and some sugar such as honey or molasses. At The Sensitive Baker they had boxes of pretty cupcakes but, being $8.00 poorer, I passed. Their website also lists some other mouth-watering concoctions.
Instead, I embarked on making my own gluten free treats, having come across a recipe for Gluten Free Sugar Cake Doughnuts by Erin McKenna of famed Babycakes in NY. Unexpectedly, I had most of the extravagant ingredients at home, compliments of a friend who really wanted me to try gluten-free baking and gave me some rice flour and garbanzo and fava bean flour together with some xanthan gum (more about that later). Coconut oil I had bought to experiment with not long ago so all I needed was applesauce and other staples.
Baking sweets with no gluten is even harder than making bread. Replicating fluffiness and moistness with flour made from pulses or rice is hard. Xantham gum, more commonly used in the food industry than you might think, is a polysaccharide derived from the bacterial coat of Xanthomonos and it’s used as a thickener and a stabilizer. In the case of gluten free, a small amount of the powder helps aggregate and keep together the ingredients, in the absence of eggs. Unrefined coconut oil is a good substitute for butter but, as it turns out, its taste doesn’t really match everything.
I mixed all the ingredients, scooped the batter in savarin molds and lovingly put them in the oven – they did make the kitchen smell delicious. When I unmolded the little cakes and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar,they looked really pretty and appetizing. The texture was perfect – fluffy and moist. The drawback? I am not sure whether it’s because of my extra sensitive palate but, after the first one, I just couldn’t get rid of a bizarre aftertaste of chickpea mixed with coconut oil, not one of my favourite combinations, it turns out. I waited an hour and tried again with not much improvement on my taste buds. Which is why the rest went in the trash and I blessed my lucky star who didn’t endow me with big boobs but lets me eat proper doughnuts whenever I feel like it.