Monday, August 8, 2011

Too Much Too Fast: Muffins

Somewhere around January Shauna James, blogger over at Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef and author of several cookbooks with her husband, Danny, wrote about giving up both xanthan and guar gum because it was giving her "digestive issues." (That's code, people. As she puts it, "Nothing says love like explosive diarrhea.")

She relaized that, despite being GF, she wasn't feeling very well. Through trial and error, she discovered her body didn't deal well with gums. Although all her cookbooks and previous blog recipes include xanthan and guar gum, she said, "You know what? These recipes don't need gums. Use them if you want to, but me, I'm leaving them out."

She listened to her body and changed her mind.

I am not a celiac. Twice I've had the genetic testing, and both  genes test negative. Still, I feel better without gluten. And yet... I don't feel as physically well as I think I ought. I have some recent bloodwork that says, "Well, no wonder," but nothing conclusive.

Long story short: I've decided to try the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which means eating no disaccarides -- no grains, no processed sugar, and a few other interesting caveats you can read more about if you like. And I have felt a lot better for doing it. I have had to change my mind about things... and now I'm not sure what I think.

It makes it kinda hard to do a GF baking blog, you know?

I never set out to be a nutritionist, but I've had to become one. Still, there is so much I do not know. I don't know why the incidence of food allergies and intolerances are on the rise. I don't know why people who are not celiacs still can't handle gluten. I don't know what the appropriate strains or balance of gut flora is, nor what genetic markers gut bacteria can trigger. But I do know this: it doesn't matter what diet you're trying to follow -- you need a good muffin recipe.

I developed this recipe when I was on an extremely strict yeast-free diet. I later tweaked it to work as a GF muffin, and I've recently tweaked it to be SCD compliant. This recipe can be made egg, dairy, sugar, gluten, and wheat free, plus vegan. I confess, I haven't tried all of these at once, but I suppose you could. I can think of at least five flavor variations, but three -- vanilla, fruit, and spice -- will give you the blueprint for anything else you can think of.

The flexibility and deliciousness of this recipe delivers the message best: listen to your body, do what you need for health, and don't be afraid to change your mind.

3 cups of (choose 1): almond flour (SCD)
GF flour blend
To make these SCD compliant, use almond flour alone or a combination of other SCD legal nut flours. For GF, use your favorite flour blend. For flavor I like a blend of half nut half GF flours, but I'm being SCD, so it's all nut for me.
1/4 to 1/2 tspsaltOr leave it out
2 tsp of (choose 1) baking soda (SCD)
baking powder
With SCD, soda is the only choice. Almond flour is not inclined to rise high anyway. If you're using a GF or wheat flour and yogurt/buttermilk, a combination of baking soda and baking powder is appropriate; otherwise, just baking powder is fine.
3/4 tsp xanthan gumnot SCD compliant; by all means, leave if out if you like.
a total of 1 to 1 1/2 tsp (choose as many as you like) cinnamon
starch-free baking spice blend
Or leave them out.
1 tsp vanillaOr leave it out.
1/4 cup (choose 1) sugar
honey (SCD)
maple syrup
3-4 packets sugar substitute
SCD is honey. There's also nothing wrong with leaving out sweeteneer entirely and doubling down on the flavoring components. Honey can scorch, so the temperature and timing can vary in your oven.
1/4 cup (choose 1) coconut oil
vegetable oil
Whatever you prefer, but do melt the coconut oil and butter first.
choose 1 1 whole egg
2egg whites
soaked flax/chia seeds for egg equivalent
The flax or chia seeds are vegan, but not SCD compliant.
a total of 1 cup (choose as many as you like) mashed fruit
SCD yogurt
fruit juice
coconut milk
SCD yogurt plus a banana or mango is very tasty. Coconut milk alone can also replace the fat, but check to see if it contains gums. Fruit juice and applesauce can replace sugar. Check to be sure your liquids are SCD compliant.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake papers.

Combine dry ingredients and stir; combine wet ingredients and stir. Add wet to dry. You're looking for a consistency that glops off a spatula; if it sticks, add a bit more liquid.

Divide among the muffin cups and place in preheated oven for 14-18 minutes. Time varies on your oven and ingredients. Many ingredients will affect the finished color, so be sure to press the tops of the muffins, which should spring back. A toothpick should come out clean.

Let cool completely before freezing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Maximizing Failure.

I just made some truly awful pancakes.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at them. The pictures are crummy because the pancakes are crummy. One side is like pale, crispy elephant skin, the other a wet blueberry, blubbery mass.

That blueberry there in the middle? It’s looking at you.

Okay, so what happened? I’ve made pancakes before, and I’ve made pancakes from this recipe before, and I’ve never had them turn out like this. What’s the deal?

Because I only changed one variable, I can only surmise that almond milk has heretofore undreamed of properties. Thinking about it (while crunching on my crappy pancakes), it makes sense---almond milk is essentially fine particulates of ground nut suspended in water, whereas cow’s milk is an emulsion of fat and water. I suppose that the almond milk contains fats as well, and nuts are high in vitamin E, but I don’t think they’re emulsified in almond milk. The point being is that the almond milk behaved like a nut---it toasted up real crisp.

When you attempt to convert recipes over to gluten free components, you will fail. The muffins will fall, the bread will be wet and shrink into a star shape, the cookies will crumble like sand. You will want to throw things and cry. You will fail spectacularly, because when you aim big, you can fall far.

Once upon a time I failed quite nicely making a pound cake recipe from Martha Stewart. I failed three times---and the ingredients for pound cake (copious amounts of butter, sugar, and eggs) are not cheap. After the third failure (a wet, sad cake that would not bake on the inside) I exploded with a lengthy invective that included only two words that weren’t curses: “mother” and “Yankee.” In retrospect, I’d like to apologize to my Northern friends; I was rude. But in addition to hair-curling epithets, this is what I learned: mixing techniques create the final texture of baked goods, pan size matters, baking powder was invented for a reason, and some recipes just plain suck.

The point is not to avoid failure. If you want to avoid failure, stay home. The point is to maximize your failures so that each successive attempt yields predictable and better results so that you are finally able to achieve your goal. I would like to provide you with a few key ways to maximize your failures at gluten free baking:

Timing is everything. If you have never tried to convert Aunt Edna’s German Chocolate Cake recipe, do not attempt it for Grandma’s 80th birthday celebration. You may get lucky and it turns out beautifully. You may end up with a sodden mess. Important celebrations with lots of witnesses are not a good time to experiment.

Research and compare. You want to convert a chocolate cake recipe. Is there a GF version already out there? What changes were made to the GF versions versus the one you have? Should you use xanthan gum or guar gum, how much, and what’s the difference? You may decide to forge ahead with your own recipe, but taking the time to see what other bakers have already done can give you some ideas for how to change your cherished recipes.

Write out what you intend to do before you do it. Pull out the original recipe and study it. Put sticky notes next to it. Then copy the recipe over on the sticky notes. Write out how much of which flours and how much xanthan and/or guar gum you intend to use. Experimenting by halving your recipe? Do not attempt fractional division on the fly! No one will care that you know the difference between the numerator and the denominator if the bread has the texture of a sofa cushion.

Take notes. Because there’s nothing like doing it perfectly and then forgetting what the hell you did.

Change only one variable at a time. If the first time you try to change a recipe you use GF flours, reduce the amount of sugar, use half butter half vegetable oil, and forget to add the xanthan gum, good luck in trying to figure out why the chocolate chip cookies could double as paving stones. Changing too many variables at once leads to unpredictable results, and you can’t be sure what lead to failure.

Vanilla ice cream covers a multitude of sins. If you ignore the first bit of advice and decide to treat your dinner guests to a brand-new rustic plum tart recipe because you want to impress them and the whole thing leaks, burning a sticky sugar mess on the edges of the crust, serve it with ice cream. Always keep vanilla ice cream on hand for dinner parties. Ice cream blanks out the brain receptors responsible for criticism. I have found that even lactose intolerant people are happy as a clam to eat ice cream so long as they can take Lactaid first. But it has to be good ice cream, not whipped air, skim-milk stuff. Save the guar gum for the piecrust.

Anyone who says that we should be happy about failure should be slapped—hard. Failure stinks. But failure can teach us a lot once we get over the stabbity feelings that accompany it. I can giggle about my pancakes because I know what I did wrong, and I know I can do better next time. But that pound cake thing? Grrr…

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Peach Panic

In late July/early August I got buried under 70 pounds of peaches. You read that right. I got nailed with 3-5 pounds of peaches daily. I have made frozen peaches, peach stuff, peach jam, peaches over ice cream, canned peaches, peach hooch (vodka and brandy), peach crisps and peach smoothies. Next year I'm trying peach leather and Jamaican jerked peaches.

I became a peach pusher.

I took peaches to classes. I left unmarked bags of ugly peaches on porches. I became embarrassed explaining to everyone why my peaches are so ugly--Coryneum blight, people. Also called shot hole disease, California blight, peach blight or pustular spot, all caused by the fungus Coryneum carpophilum. 'Elberta' peaches are really bad to get it, and the humidity of the Eastern seaboard never lets up.

Other than the zinnias, the rest of the garden died in this year's heat. Broke my heart. I bled peach puree everywhere.

I stopped pushing peaches and just scrambled to use the damn things. My garage is now an advertisement for Ball canning supplies. I went to the Amish country of Ohio and scanned the Internet, looking for peach tips. MP couldn't find anything in the freezer because it was packed with peaches. I ate peach smoothies for two weeks.

MP dislikes peaches. I began to resent his tastes.

I learned that click bugs really click and that it takes ants 2 days to bury a whole peach.

The canned peaches were terrible--too soft. MP suggested granitas. With a generous shot of dark rum it was awesome. Peach daiquiris were not far behind. The peach hooch was a disaster; it tasted like cough syrup and I could not tell which was the vodka and which was the brandy.

Any post I made from July through August would have read like Dr. Miles Bennell screaming, "Look, you fools, you're in danger! Can't you see?! They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! THEY'RE HERE, ALREADY! YOU'RE NEXT!"

After that, there was really nothing to post about, because when you're surrounded by peaches and it's 95 degrees and you've already spent 4 hours next to the stove, experimenting baking with hamburger buns just sounds like a bad idea.

But I'm excited now. Because it's cooler, because the peaches are all gone. Because I'd like to tell you about my recipes for bread and thin mints and hamburger buns.

Still there are peach mysteries out there. One last peach hung and hung on the tree for days, hard as a Styrofoam ball... and then it was gone. Did one of my young neighbors pilfer it? Doing some work in the flowers up next to the house, I found a pile of 20 peach pits. What stacked them there?

For the moment, the peach tree is still. I eat my toast with peach jam and plan for the holidays.

Hey Aunt Marsha, guess what you're getting for Christmas!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is That... A Ripe Peach? A Gluten-Free Bun?

For somebody who really hates to travel, I do an awful lot of it.

This latest round wasn't too bad (MP cooked), but there was one really dismal restaurant meal. I ordered from their "gluten-free menu" and got, exactly, a piece grilled salmon, grilled asparagus, and a lemon-half. There was no salt or pepper on the fish or asparagus. No butter or oil. No herbs. Nothing. What I listed is what I got on the plate.

It wasn't about good food; it was about not getting sued. I thought, "Dude, are you even trying in there?"

All these little peaches out there look like this:

Except for these three. And I have no idea what's up with this.

They're very close to the ground (I totally should have cut that branch this spring but I didn't because I am a wimp)and maybe... Nope. I got nothin', just three mutant peaches. I check out the big one and, alas, it has some end-rot or something. It would never last in this heat. I squoze it a little and... huh?

Ladies and Gentlemen, is this not a ripe peach?

I ate it and it was divine. Ripe peaches in June? Whoever heard of such a thing? Elberta is supposed to be a late-season, August-September peach, and I get mine at the end of July -- except for this, and I don't know what this is.

Gardening is very engaging. Little mysteries everywhere.

Look at this.

Yes, go ahead. I'll wait.

Do you see that? Do you see that bun? I made that bun! An honest-to-goodness hamburger bun, the likes of which I have not had in seven years! (BTW -- the beer in the back is a K├Âlsch, which was a great choice with the burger.)

There are still some issue to be worked out, but I am seriously on to something. When I get this ironed out, you can bet I'll post it here!

And there's a restaurant I know of that needs some recipes, too.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Love and Lemon Squares

There is a mockingbird perched in the peach tree, panting. No one believes me when I tell them birds pant when they're hot, but it's true.

Welcome summer. I want lemon squares.

Not that I know anything about lemon squares. I've never made lemon squares before, my mother never made lemon squares, and I have no childhood memories of tire swings (ours was made out of a plank), swimming pools (it was a creek), or nibbling tart lemony confections on a screened-in porch at twilight (okay, that I totally made up). At some point in my life I must have eaten them -- except I can't say when -- and at some point in my life I knew I would someday want to make them because I have no less than five different recipes clipped from magazines and saved in my baking binder.

Nevertheless, it's hot and I feel the lemon square call of shortbread and tart citrus and a fine dusting of powdered sugar.

I confessed all this to MP one afternoon. As there are only two of us in the house, I can't really see any point in whipping up a batch of something only to find out upon completion that MP has always hated what I just whipped up. Seeing as I had five different recipes, each claiming to be the One True lemon-square, I asked MP if he liked lemon squares and if he had any opinions about them.

Confronted with the possibility of lemon squares, MP leapt into action. He studied the recipes with much frowning and tongue clicking. On the subject of zest-usage he could see both pros and cons; on the matter of powdered sugar he was absolute -- there can be no lemon square without powdered sugar. Not only did MP have an opinion about lemon squares, but he provided me with the exact mathematical ratio of lemon curd to shortbread that would optimize for lemon square perfection.

Suddenly this became much more intimidating. I wasn’t sure I could whip up what is essentially a two part dessert (shortbread plus lemon custard) with such precision.

“Don’t worry if they don’t come out perfect,” replied MP, “I’ll eat the evidence.”

Love takes many forms.

I went with Joanne Chang’s lemon bar recipe from a 2002 issue of Fine Cooking. Because her ingredients were also listed by weight, it made the conversion to gluten-free easier for me. I did 4 oz of my white rice/tapioca starch/potato starch blend and 2 oz of brown rice flour, which gave me a bit over a cup of flours. With an added ¼ teaspoon of xanthan gum, I had my GF shortbread base.

A word on curd: once again, here’s a recipe that uses eggs in ways the casual baker may not have tried before. Try it anyway -- yes, making your own curd is some trouble, but it is worth it.

And strain your curd! I have no idea what this cruft is. I didn't scramble my eggs when tempering them, I swear! I'm gonna claim that the cream curdled because of the acidity of the lemon juice.

A strained curd is a smooth curd. This is what is meant by "coating the spoon."

Ms. Chang and MP disagree on both the ratio of curd to shortbread and the powdered sugar issue. In her experience customers love the thicker layer of lemon curd, and she doesn’t feel that the bars really need the layer of powdered sugar. MP is a shortbread hound and likes many of his baked goods to be topped with a sugar crust. I would say that these are philosophical differences in the lemon square vision, and each baker must follow their heart.

I did not pour all of the lemon curd over the shortbread, but only enough so that shortbread and curd existed in MPs 1:1 ratio. Having leftover lemon curd did not bother me at all, because I also had leftover macarons in the freezer. Believe me, the curd found a home. In addition, I did feel that the lemon squares required a faint dusting of powdered sugar –- but only upon serving (left on the bars it melts right into the curd), passing the sugar so that each could arrive at his own level of sweet perfection. (Note: one of those hinged tea-balls makes a great powdered sugar shaker.) They need to be stored in the refrigerator; the shortbread is pretty buttery and it helps the cut bars keep their shape.

For someone who had no previous lemon square experience, I was pretty pleased with myself. And true to his word, MP ate the evidence.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Around the Yard -- Peaches

Stepped out with my coffee one morning to survey the yard and I saw this little guy:

He was so cute, I stalked him.

I have no idea how he got in. I just had a new gate and fence installed for the very purpose of keeping bunnies out. This little guy was not ten feet from my tomato seedlings. This did not amuse me. Taking pictures, I knew at some point he would run, and then I'd find out how he got in.

I got pretty close.

I finally dropped the camera and thought, 'Well you dumb bunny, just how close are you going to let me get?'

Not closer than that. He took off toward the gate. But I guess when you are very young and small you panic easily. He went and donked his wee head on the gate. But on the next try, to my surprise, that little guy squoze between the gate and the gatepost! A two inch gap, maybe? I dashed to the gate behind him to see where he went.

Nowhere, I guess. No bunny in sight.

That a bunny broke into my back yard reminded me that a) it's time to get the tomatoes in the ground, and b) I'd better make sure all the little green peaches are up off the ground. Rabbits will eat little green peaches, and if they know there are green ones, they will hang out looking for ripe ones (says my inner Farmer MacGregor, anyway).

When we got back from Paradise, I thinned the peaches (left). Today, I thinned them some more (right). All told I think I thinned five pounds of green peaches. It was a great fruit set this year, and I'm very excited.

I'm really bad to thin peaches. I'm too tender-hearted. All those beautiful clusters of three and four and five peaches look like a turn of the century postcard! But I must be firm. Two reasons: thinning the peaches in the long run gives you bigger peaches and helps keep the tree producing year after year without skipping.

And here's the second reason:

Do you see that, that crescent-shaped mark on the peach? That's from a plum curculio. These little bugs look for the surface where two peaches touch and enter one of the peaches at that site. It's protected there; predators can't see the mark. Thinning peaches so they're 6-8 inches apart puts a crimp in plum curculio style -- no cozy, inside surfaces.

I have a feeling that part of the reason a few peaches have been dropping is not just that the tree is unloading. I think the curculios have been busy. Well, I can get busy, too.

It's not like we're suffering here. Plenty of peaches. Still, you know, there's the oriental fruit moths. And then the mockingbirds -- first year I covered the tree with netting, but this year it's so big I'm not sure I can.

Harper Lee tells us it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, but I sure would thwack one with a peach-pit if it ever went after my peaches. It's the way they do it; they use their beaks like a knife and spoil the peach and move on to the next one.

Now if mockingbirds ate plum curculios, that would be different...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

True Adventure – Tomato Basil Risotto

 When you are Very Young, Adventure sounds like a Wonderful Thing. Unknown lands! Exploring new places! Experiencing new foods! But when you become Older, “Adventure” seems more like “Bother.” Fingers get pinched, feet get sore, bowels are unsound, and figuring out where to eat night after night is a chore.

It isn’t easy to travel gluten-free. Sometimes you end up eating plain, crappy food—or none at all. Airports are a carbohydrate wasteland. In public spaces, we want to be sure we are never more than 200 yards from a soda. "Shelf-life" is a problem for food chemists, not chefs.

Of course I pack my own food—what the TSA will allow. But one cannot feel satiated on fruit and nut bars. Salad doesn’t quite cut it, either. Besides, after eight hours in an airport, who wants to eat iceberg lettuce out of a cup? Forget the dressing; “modified food starch” could mean anything. (Note to self: learn to make beef jerky.)

Arriving at a restaurant isn’t always better. The best people: bartenders who know nothing about food allergies, say so, and are willing to go into the kitchen and read the labels on the boxes for you. The worst people: servers who assume they know about food allergies and, as a result ask neither you nor the kitchen staff any further questions. It is very common for servers to confuse “gluten-free” and “low-carb.” If only you knew how many times waiters have refused to serve me French fries...

My vacation was fun, we had a wonderful time, and there is no doubt in my mind that I ate wheat and got sick from it. We were ready to come home for some comfort food.

Risotto fits the bill nicely. It’s hot, creamy, and eaten with a spoon (okay, a fork if you want, but spoons work better in bowls). It can be made in endless varieties of flavors, vegetarian or not, as a main course or a side accompaniment. It knows no season. Risotto rocks. It’s no accident that one of New York City’s premiere gluten-free restaurants is named Rissoteria.

So, ah... Why am I not showing you a picture of this fabulous Tomato Basil Risotto of which I speak? Well, um... It’s MP’s fault. He made it, and it was so fabulous, I thought, “This is absolutely my next post!” but we’d eaten it all so I was going to photograph the leftovers when I had them for my lunch but MP who almost never eats leftovers snuck into the kitchen and ate it for his lunch and there wasn’t any to photograph. The fiend.

Here. This picture is from Last Night’s Dinner, which is where we got the recipe from. Yes, it really looks that fabulous.

Many instructions for risotto are very hyper-vigilante, “You Must Keep Stirring!” but really, risotto isn’t that much of a diva. The texture will still be lovely even if you only stir it every few minutes. If you’ve never done a risotto, this tomato-basil version is a lovely place to start.

When you are Young, Adventure is Grand; when you are Old, it is a Bother. When you can embrace all that Adventure can be, knowing that the best part of Leaving is Returning to your own Home Cooking, then you have reached just the Right Age.

Looking over our photos, MP and I think we’re pretty darn close.