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…

No comments: