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…