Gluten Free Ingredients

My little sister, Chrissy, has a gluten allergy.  You would think that as a culinary school graduate, I could whip up anything she wants, whenever she wants it.  Unfortunately, my only set back is the lack of gluten-free ingredients in our pantry.  Furthermore, most run-of-the-mill grocery stores do not stock the type of ingredients I feel are necessary for gluten-free baking.  I recently went into our local Acme on Long Beach Island, NJ, and asked for either xanthan gum or guar gum.  The sweet teenager gave me a quizzical look and stated, “well, ma’am, since I feel like you just asked me for something in a different language, I’m going to have to say we don’t have that here.”  Looking past the fact that I got ma’amed at the mere age of 25 (particularly when he couldn’t have been more than 7 years younger than me), I was severely disappointed that I couldn’t even find some tapioca or potato starch in spite of the fact that there was a whole aisle dedicated to gluten-free goods.  While supermarkets are making some great strides towards stocking gluten-free items and ingredients, it’s fairly difficult to make some more advanced home cooked gluten-free dishes without the use of gums, starches, and wheat-alternative flours.

While I particularly love some cup-for-cup flours when my sister wants some gluten-free goods in a pinch, sometimes they just can’t compare finding the best mix for a particular baked good.  Most of these cup-for-cup flours contain the gums and starches required to mimic the elasticity, chew, and crumb of a typical baked good.  Recently, I used Pamela’s All Purpose Gluten Free Artisan Flour Blend to make some gluten-free cinnamon buns for my sister, and an almost 1:1 substitution was pretty successful (I added a bit more moisture, as you typically do in most gluten-free cooking).

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These cinnamon rolls came out pretty darn good, but when not in a pinch, I’m planning on experimenting with the blend to develop some more elasticity (using gums) as these generally “fell apart,” according to my sister.  Like I said, these flours are a great thing to stock in your pantry for when you’re in a pinch, but they aren’t the greatest if you’re looking for some more advanced textures.

I’ve compiled a list of typical gluten-free ingredients and their affects on a baked item:

Almond meal:  This is a must for my pantry.  Almond meal (or flour) is simply finely ground almonds (usually blanched).  It has a grainy texture and a nutty flavor (an almond flavor due to the fact that is derived from almonds… obviously).  Be sure to seal almond meal and flours in air tight containers in the fridge because these tend to go rancid quicker than whole almonds.

Buckwheat flour:  This label is misleading, as buckwheat is actually a seed and is in no way related to wheat. It is a nutritional superstar in the fact that it is high in fiber, vitamin D, amino acids, and protein, and is a great source of energy.  There are some studies that indicate that buckwheat flour lowers blood pressure and blood glucose levels.  However, buckwheat flour brings along a pretty intense nutty or hoppy flavor that may not be welcomed by some (so keep this flour away from IPA haters… to all the IPA haters out there, you can’t sit with us).

Brown rice flour:  Another nutritional superstar, brown rice flour is full of manganese, protein, vitamin B-6, dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and potassium (just to name a few….).  However, it is high in carbohydrates.  There is a tendency for this flour to give finished goods a gritty texture, so try to select a very finely ground product.  This flour may also taint your baked goods with a starchy, rice-like flavor.

Coconut flour:  While this is an excellent wheat-alternative, coconut flour is not one of my favorites.  I’m not the biggest fan of coconut (unless it is combined with some pineapple and rum), and this flour tends to leave a pretty strong dried coconut flavor.  It also tends to leave a fairly gritty texture.  However, it is high in fiber and low in carbs, so it’s a pretty big winner with the paleovores.

Cornstarch: Usually thought of a waste of pantry space in the form of a big, yellow, rubber container, cornstarch is actually a must have.  It is a great binder and thickener of baked goods.

Gluten-free oat flour:  Oats have been on the gluten-free debate docket for years.  While oats are naturally gluten free, they are contaminated with wheat particles so often that celiacs and gluten-allergic sufferers should make sure to purchase oats and oat flours with a gluten free label.  Oats and oat flours are a great substitute for wheat, but you may be left with a gritty, chewy texture reminiscent of oatmeal cookies that your mom baked and then tricked you into thinking they were chocolate chips instead of raisins. Scarred for life.

Glutenous rice flour:  Like brown rice flour, glutenous rice flour may impart a starchy, rice-like (because it’s derived from rice) flavor to your baked goods.  Don’t let the “glutenous” label throw you off.  This flour (typically used to make mochi), is great for binding and developing a sticky texture.  It is not the greatest choice when looking for a batter for frying, but its sticky, binding texture helps when developing baked goods.

Guar gum: Derived from guar beans, this powdery substance is excellent for thickening, binding, and allowing for rise in baked goods.  Guar gum also protects from syneresis, or weeping (when water in a baked good is expelled after a period of time).  As a gum, it allows for more resiliency and stretch in many baked goods, and replace the elasticity found in many wheat based items.  Some studies show that guar gum may cause uncomfortable digestive side effects for people with gastrointestinal issues, but only in large amounts.  In my opinion, a gum is absolutely necessary for the production of a baked good, so if this turns you off, try xanthan or locust bean gum.

Millet flour: A fine, powdery flour derived from millet (a grassy grain).  This flour is high in starch and fat, but is low in carb content.  Unlike most nut and rice flours, millet does not impart a very strong flavor to your baked goods.  It creates a cake-like consistency in baked goods.

Potato starch:  Similar to cornstarch, potato starch gives goods a soft, tender rise.  It is an excellent thickening agent.  One of the biggest drawback when using potato starch is that it often imparts a baked-potato-esque flavor and texture.  It also may inhibit the browning of some baked goods.

Sorghum flour:  One of the most desirable and under-appreciated flours on the gluten-free market, sorghum flour imparts a smooth texture and mild taste to baked goods, most similar to all-purpose flours.  However (and this is a big one) sorghum flour is only best when used in a blend of gluten-free flours.  Sorghum can produce a dry texture, so extra moisture may be necessary.

Tapioca starch:  Typically used as a thickener, tapioca starch can create a tough final texture of a baked good.  Unlike potato starch, tapioca starch will create a desirable browning in baked goods.  It adds structure without grittiness, but should be used in combination with potato starch to avoid adding excessive toughness.

Xanthan gum:  Used to develop elasticity and structure of a baked good, it is a thickener that is sometimes questioned due to its synthetic creation from bacteria.  Like guar gum, xanthan gum can cause digestive issues in those with gastrointestinal problems.

Onions in the Backswing

When my sister woke me up one morning urging me to get downstairs and check on an in-progress cake in the fridge, I was petrified.  Did our brother come home from the bar last night and eat the cake that had to be delivered today? Sadly, that was the first conclusion I had jumped to (Sorry, Rick……).  I ran out of bed, into the kitchen, and saw my dad’s face full of apprehension and concern.  Reaching for the refrigerator, my dad told me to just “take a whiff.”

Onions.  The smell of freaking raw onions was burning my nostrils, and seemingly permeating my delicious, flambéed banana-filled cakes with their noxious odor.

While I was sleeping, a friend, who was then living at our house while his was being rebuilt after Sandy, decided to make some chicken kabobs for his lifeguard barbecue and leave them in our fridge until noon.  Fortunately for me (and, to be truthful, my friend’s livelihood), the buttercream-iced cakes did not take on the taste or smell of raw onions.  He got a warning and a free pass for that one.  That, and the fact that he’s basically the best houseguest/lifeguard captain a person could ask for, as long as he never cuts an onion whilst in my vicinity ever again (I mean it Matt… NEVER again).

Unfortunately, onions were the least of my worries that morning…

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the East Coast during the summer months knows that stepping outside feels like the human body should have been equipped with gills.  The amount of moisture in the air is on par with that of a steam room, and the heat is like being punched in the chest by a flaming Socker Bopper filled with molten lava.  Summers in the Jersey humidity are about as comfortable as your brother’s obsession with perfecting the Socker Bopper knock out punch…. as in not at all.  However, there is blessedly a way to escape the heat and humidity in the form of the modern technology known as air conditioning.  That is, if your father (who resides in sunny Miami) decided to get air conditioning in the house… unlike mine.  We do, however, have some room units that my sister keeps blasted to allow our furbabies some relief from the heat, until my dad comes home and opens all the windows to let in the wind due to his hatred for this modern convenience.  All in all, my house is an air conditioning stand-off in which no one truly wins.

Because this was Father’s Day weekend, we decided to honor my dad by keeping the windows open to bring in the wind, smell of salt air, and, inevitably, the humidity.  Well, after I got over the onion-induced anxiety attack, I moseyed on over to the cute, golf-themed decorations I had meticulously molded the previous night expecting to find dry, solid golf clubs, flags, balls, and bag only to find a moist, goo-like coating on my semi-melted decorations. No bueño.  Cue anxiety attack numero dos for the day.

Example: this little guy was just a bit of late night shenanigans, and because I was decorating this cake for a friend, I deemed it necessary that he make it onto the cake.  But that moist sheen on him is the result of some the soupy-humidity of the Jersey Shore.

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Thankfully, my sister realized that there was a “dry” setting on the air conditioner in our kitchen window.  My dad, recognizing the dire situation and sweat dripping down my face from the heat, humidity, and wet-fondant-onion-stink-induced meltdown, took pity on my poor soul and granted me control of the air conditioning.  A few hours later, I had myself some mostly-dry golf clubs, flags, and bag to adorn my friend’s cake.

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When Life Happens

So it’s been a couple months since my last post… Thats about a couple months longer than I expected.  Well to bring y’all up to speed, this is what I’ve been up to:

  • dyed my hair violet (because, why not?)
  • took a trip to California to visit some of my favorite CIA chefs, wineries, and, of course, some best friends
  • dyed my hair bright pink (because, again, why not?)

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  • baked a kick ass LBI, NJ themed cake for some friends
  • dyed my hair light brown, because I’m definitely not cool enough (or patient enough) to keep up with the pastel hair trend

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  • went to LBI HopSauce Fest with my dad (just on a whim but had a great time)
  • accompanied my mom to Florida for some medical procedures
  • back to NJ to attempt to develop some kind of normalcy in my crazy life

All in all, there has been a lot of travel over the past couple of months.  While it’s looking like there is not going to be much of a let up in the next 2-3 weeks, here’s to hoping for some semblance of peace and quiet.

But in the spirit of my love for NJ and the island I call home, I wanted to share my favorite cake to date.

Here’s the story:

My brother’s girlfriend texted me one morning and all sorts of crazy thoughts popped into my head… is she pregnant, is my brother in a hospital somewhere (again) for supermanning over his bike into the pavement, did she hate my pink hair, are they engaged or eloping… I’m a worrier, yet romantic optimist.  Nope, none of the above.  Tess just wanted to know if I’d be interested in making a Long Beach Island themed cake for her family as a surprise to their parents for buying their beach house.  Was I interested? Heck ya, I was!

So off I went to make this cake, and I can assure you that it went anything but easy.  In my giddy haste, I messed up about every aspect of this cake.  Seriously an accident in the baking.  I didn’t do my math right TWICE (once with the cake and once with the buttercream) but that gave my cousin, Ellie, and me some goodies to eat.  Finally, I got the basics down and was down to the nitty gritty, and my favorite part, the decorations.  I promised Tess that I would give her something along these lines:

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I needed to perfect each of these items, not only because my brother’s girlfriend’s family would be judging me (they have a very large, fun family) and would disown my brother forever if it was horrible, but I had to do right by the island.  In my mind, every mistake I made for each component was a sign of disrespect towards the island I grew up on….no pressure.

Essentially, I sketched out how I would execute each element.  Initially, I thought Barnegat Lighthouse was going to be the biggest pain, but I was wrong.  I cut the pieces of the lifeguard stand a little two thin for my liking, so they were a bit (a lot of a bit) too delicate when dried.  Seriously, I tried everything to get that thing together…

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The ocean waves and birds were colored on with different colors of food coloring gel.  I was pretty happy with them in the end.

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The only thing about this cake that I absolutely did not like was the sign.  It was a brainless move by me, but I decided I would paint the sign (in the form of a Garden State Parkway street sign) with food coloring instead of color the gumpaste… big, big mistake. It came out pretty darn awful, and then I couldn’t get as detailed as I wanted to with the sign.  But I didn’t have enough time to make another one so it went on.

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But in the end, and thankfully without any more brainless mistakes made by me, I think it came out pretty spiffy.  I mean, I got the colors of Ol’ Barney right, so there’s that.

Gluten Free Sugar Cookies

I think it is pretty safe to say that the gluten free trend is now a permanent fixture in our culinary culture.  Having worked in the food industry as well as having been voluntarily gluten free, I have both given and received “the look.”  It’s the look that a tired, cranky cook gives a server when his or her patron requests a gluten free burger (aka sans bun) before chowing down on the glutenous beignets the table ordered for dessert.  This “look” is what occurs when people bastardize a severe health concern for the sake of their waistbands.  While I have to say that I felt leaps and bounds better while maintaining a gluten free diet, I’m damned to stomach pains and headaches due to my inability to stay away from sourdough breads and snickerdoodles.   Fortunately for me, those are my only health concerns when it comes to gluten…. my sister is not so lucky.

My sister has a wheat allergy resulting in itchy, unattractive hives/rashes that last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.  Having seen these red patches and watched her anguish until they’ve faded, my blood boils when waiters and waitresses give her the eye when she asks for gluten free options.  Like I said, I know that look, and I’ve probably given it skeptically when a waiter has asked me to do a dish gluten free after a long night.  I wish I could go back and slap myself every time I gave that look now that I see that look given to my sister.  In short, don’t be a jerk when someone says they’re gluten free, and don’t be a gluten free jerk.

To redeem myself from past gluten-skepticism, I made my sister some gluten free sugar cookies that we childishly rolled out and cut out into Easter shapes (seriously we’re both over twenty years old and we still fight over who gets the bunny cookie-cutter).  The kicker? My picky, 17-year-old cousin didn’t even know they were gluten free… That’s a win in my book.

Gluten Free Sugar Cookies

  • Butter                       1 1/2 sticks
  • Sugar                       1 C
  • Egg                          1 ea
  • Milk                          1 Tbs
  • Vanilla bean paste   1 tsp
  • Gluten free flour       2 C
  • Baking powder         1 tsp
  • Almond extract         1/2 tsp
  • Xanthan Gum           1/2 tsp

1.  Using a paddle, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

IMG_00012.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add egg, milk, vanilla bean paste, and almond extract.  Combine.

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3.  Add in the flour and baking powder.  Mix until combined.

4.  Form dough into a flat rectanglue and wrap in plastic.  Put into a fridge until form and cold.

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Hint: If you can make your dough even flatter than this, it will aid you when it comes time to roll out your dough.  Yes, I know that’s not a rolling pin… Mine is still lost in a moving box somewhere in the depths of my basement.  But hey, its round and it did the trick.

5.  Working quickly, roll the dough out onto a floured surface.  Use whatever cookie cutters you’d like (or go just go abstract artist on it and freehand some shapes with a knife) and transfer onto a cookie sheet lined with a silpat or greased parchment.

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6.  Bake in the oven at 350˚F for about 12-15 minutes.  Make sure to rotate half way through.

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7.  Let the cookies cool completely before decorating if you are planning to decorate with icing.

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