Gluten-free baking, when done well, is looked upon by some as art even finer than the Mona Lisa. Many of us have experienced the worst of it, from cupcakes with the density of a sponge to cookies with the flavor of sidewalk chalk.
Two ladies who seem to have mastered this art are Christine and Sandy Penney, co-owners of the gluten-free (GF) bakery Something Sweet Without Wheat. With many years of experience - starting with a lot of trial-and-error - these sisters have developed and perfected a knack for creating delicious GF desserts. Christine and Sandy recently sat down for a Q&A to share some of their secrets to successful GF baking, from knowledge of celiac disease and flour types to money-saving tips and tricks.
How would you define gluten-free?
A. When we're asked what exactly it means, we explain that gluten is a protein found in wheat that can be problematic for many people. For people with celiac disease, gluten attacks the small intestine, disallowing the body to absorb certain nutrients. This can cause headaches, fatigue and stomachaches, but there are many ways wheat can affect people.
What did you first struggle with when you began GF baking?
A. When we first began baking with gluten-free flours, it was a disaster. A niece was the first to be diagnosed and she wasn’t taking the news well, so we tried [working with] some gluten-free white rice flour.
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It was not edible. It took a lot of horrible cakes and cookies to figure out that we needed to mix about three different kinds of flours, add xanthan gum and figure out the right textures of the batters. Sometimes, you also need to figure out the exact amount of guar gum that's necessary.
What kinds of flours do you use and for which pastries?
In our bakery, we use a mix of bean flours, with sorghum and brown rice flour. That way, you get some fiber from the beans. It’s really about mixing the right amounts of up to four different flours and “playing” until you get the consistency - and most of all, the taste - right. It can’t taste grainy or gummy. That’s the tricky part.
To make an easy GF brownie or cookie, try replacing traditional flour with a combination of three different flours, or use a multi/all-purpose GF flour (see these from Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur). Using an all-purpose GF flour simplifies things by allowing you to follow old recipes. In fact, many of my recipes are the same ones I always used before; I just replaced the traditional flours and added xanthan gum.
Any money-saving tips for regular folks who want to try GF baking?
Unfortunately, GF flours can be more expensive, which is hard to avoid. But you can - and really have to - shop around. Some stores are very pricey compared to others. Ordering online, too, directly from your preferred flour company or a wholesaler, is often cheaper.
For more tips on gluten-free foods and lifestyles, check out these 6 Gluten-Free Foods To Live By.
image: REL Waldman