And we’re back…after two years of radio silence. Nice.
Here’s my tale of woe on gluten-free bread baking. But it has a good ending, so it’s not, like, depressing or anything.
For years, I tried to make the perfect gluten-free bread. Like the gluten kinds…with the brown, hard knocks, crusty goodness; the eye-popping air pockets visible in the slices; the light texture that melts in your mouth.
Since I’m not a gf pre-made mix kind of girl, I tried tons of gluten-free bread recipes using different flour ratios, looked up techniques in GF cookbooks, cut and pasted different pieces of advice from websites and message boards. And the results out of the oven? An expensive edible brick with a sunken middle and a sickly exterior.
No matter what I did—glass pans vs. aluminum ones, 4×8 vs. 5×9 pan sizes, convection vs. baking settings, two different ovens, putting the dough in a turned off microwave along with a bowl of boiling water—I still got the same disappointing results…and a lot of bread to be used as bread crumbs. Boo.
And then, enter the bread machine.
This last Christmas, I asked for a bread machine. The one I got has a gluten-free setting, which differs from the other yeast bread settings by not kneading the dough after an initial rise (no need to stretch the gluten, yo).
Now here’s the part where it’s going to sound like I’m slinging for bread machine companies (I swear to you, I’m getting nothing from them!). Consistently, I’ve gotten great looking bread that rises almost to the top and has a chewy crust every time!
I’m still working out the details to get a foolproof recipe (more to discuss on that later). But even when I do get a dud, it is still better than the best bread I made in the oven.
A couple of years ago there was a big uproar in the foodie world about Mark Bittman’s New York Times article on some kind of no knead bread. I didn’t read the article, nor do I generally care what’s en vogue in the cooking elite, but I did see America’s Test Kitchen do a version of it on their program.
Maybe I’m turning into a masochist, but lately when I see a wheat flour bread/pastry recipe, I want to attempt a gluten-free version. America’s Test Kitchen posted their recipe online, which I took and decided to do it—the worst that could happen would be my flours would be wasted on an edible gf brick.
The recipe called for three cups of all-purpose flour, which I substituted with a blend of tapioca starch, arrowroot, sorghum, rice, millet, corn and soy flour, plus xanthan gum. I also upped the amount of yeast called for.
The Test Kitchen gives a very precise water ratio, but I found it didn’t work with the gluten-free flours. When you add the water/beer, it’s supposed to come together to form a ball because the gluten developed binds it. Well, sans gluten, it just looked like coarse sand. So I poured more beer into the mix, a little more than ¾ cup instead of the recipe’s ¼ cup. By the way, the beer I used was that pretty-much-undrinkable-but-great-for-cooking sorghum ale that Chris made about a year ago.
The real reason I was intrigued by this recipe is the proofing time—up to 18 hours. I actually made the dough the night before and decided to finally knead it when I got home from work the next day. The dough didn’t really rise the way I thought it would’ve with wheat flour, but I’m thinking that maybe the yeast needed more food, like a couple tablespoons of honey, to grow and rise the mix. That’s for another day.
The sit time did allow the water to be absorbed, making the dough less sticky than any other gf bread dough I’ve worked with. It even allowed me to knead it a bit, but I don’t really think that part was necessary; I guess I just wanted to play TV chef.
Other than the impotent rise, the bread did surpass my expectations. Heating up the Dutch oven, or in my case the heavy stockpot, allowed a chewy, golden crust to form. The bread had a sourdough taste, which I asked Chris to confirm since it’s been forever since I’ve had a piece of that.
“Yeah,” he said. “I love sourdough.”
“Me too,” I said.
It’s the second day, and already half the pie is gone. Terrible. My only excuse is this is the first blueberry pie I’ve eaten in, oh, I don’t know, maybe 15 years or so.
I’m not sure if my gf pie crust is really awesome or just a good substitution for regular pie crust. I don’t actually want to taste wheat pie crust because from what I remember of it, I was never really a fan. But I do get jealous when I watch the cooking shows and see how easily that pie dough rolls out. Damn gluten proteins.
Rolling out gf dough is still a bit stressful for me, but I’m learning that there has to be parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap involved. If there isn’t, it just tears and falls apart. The baked result has a good flavor, with a bit of the cream cheese taste coming through; I’m just concerned that it doesn’t have that flaky consistency pie aficionados always seem to be raving about. Again, the “flakiness” of wheat crusts I remember always seemed dry to me, but maybe I had bad pies (although people say my mom’s are pretty great, so maybe not) or my tastes were just immature at the time (expecting too much sugar and chewiness).
I did use America’s Test Kitchen’s blueberry pie recipe and have to say I’ve never made one their dishes that didn’t turn out good. I’ve used their advice on adding an egg yolk in lieu of another whole egg in chocolate chip cookies and was totally in awe of how chewy and soft they came out. The chocolate chip cranberry oat cookies I made for last weekend came out super moist (yes, I’ve discovered I can eat Bob Red Mills’ GF Rolled Oats).
With the blueberry recipe, they include putting a grated apple into the filling for extra pectin. You’re supposed to wring out the extra juice from the apple before you add it in. I was kinda amazed to see how much water is in an apple…about a 1/3 of a cup. Weird, huh?
The filling came out pretty well, not sci-fi congealed, but not runny; although I can’t tout it too much since this was my first blueberry pie attempt. The only complaint might be a bit too much lemon, but it’s not that significant since lemon and blueberry go together like gf bread and butter.
Chris brewed with gf grains last weekend; after he had used the mash containing amaranth, quinoa and rice hulls, he handed them over to me to experiment. We won’t know how his gf beer turns out for a couple more weeks at least, but the spent grain worked pretty well in my bread.
It was a wet mess when I got them, and to separate the many rice hulls from the good stuff, I spread out the grain onto baking sheets and put them in an oven. First, I put the oven on a low temperature, but even that seemed to start roasting it. After awhile, I left the grains in with just the oven light on for about a day.
When the grains were dry, I poured them through a strainer. For future use, I’ll have to get a finer mesh colander because too many of the rice hulls made it into the final product, and that’s a bit off-putting.
I substituted a cup of the spent grains for one cup of the flour mix in my gf bread recipe, and it came out well. I usually put a ¼ cup of flax seed in the mix, which I eliminated when using the spent stuff. I’ve found the extra texture helps structure the bread, which can fall and shrink without the help of gluten. It seems that the grain served this purpose.
The taste of the end product was a little nuttier and the feel was a little chewier, probably similar to a multi-grain kind of wheat bread. Now this becomes greater fuel for the gf brewery and pub house dream…although reading Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” is slowing cutting that down.
It’s been forever since updating this. My lame excuse is that I’ve been busy, and I really have. I’ve been traveling around for business, which is usually a scary thing for me. Honestly, the night before any business trip I have awful visions of being trapped in a hotel room, with no gf food in sight. But after the last two trips I’ve had, I’m optimistic.
I was in two very distinct parts of the country, Hershey, PA and San Diego, CA, in the last month. Hershey was for an association trade show, which means awards dinners. Not knowing what’s going to be on a banquet dinner menu is among the most stressful things. I packed my “Gluten-Ease” stuff just in case, even though I’ve never used it and don’t know if it works.
Chalk this up to experience or age, but when I got to the dinner, I looked around for someone in charge. Among the servers in uniform, there was a guy standing in the back who had a suit on. Since suits are the universal sign of power, I walked up to him and told him that I was in need of a special dinner due to food allergies. He asked if I was allergic to shellfish, and I said no, then he said I should be fine, except for the soup. He ran in the back and came out to tell me that they’d be sending me a different soup than they were serving. And just like that, I was okay.
The San Diego experience was a little more remarkable since I ate at several restaurants and didn’t have a problem at all. My dealings with Croce’s Restaurant were fabulous. I called up, and they connected me with someone at the restaurant who asked for my reservation name and time. He said that they have meals made without gluten and my server would steer me towards those.
No doubt, when I arrived, the server came to the table and asked if someone had gluten allergies. I raised my hand and he walked me through some dishes. He even was keen enough to identify a hidden wheat contamination in my salad before it got to the table. Apparently, they roll a ball of goat cheese in flour; go figure. He came to me and let me know ahead of time and when it got to the table, the chefs had substituted it with something that tasted a lot like brie. It was so nice to be helped by people who understand the allergy and what can make you sick.
I have more confidence in the restaurant industry after the trip. Airports are still a challenge, though. With stalls of barely edible food anyway, most of the vendors really don’t care about food allergies. Luckily, I haven’t had the misfortune of getting trapped in one yet. My only hope is that the CIG gets through to some of them before I do get delayed.
Navigating tradeshows is something I’ve gotten accustomed to. In the past couple of years, I’ve attended my fair share as a trade magazine editor, including one of the biggest shows in the country, the National Association of Convenience Stores. That’s where anything you can imagine inside, outside, around and underneath a c-store/gas station, it’ll be on the show floor.
People love to go to NACS because of the food industry’s booths, Hershey’s gives away ice cream sundaes, Dean Foods hands out chocolate milk…and don’t even ask what Monster Energy Drink does (hint: involves young women in very short skirts, tall high heels and teased hair). The problem with me going there, besides countless hours of walking the floor, is that I can’t eat the majority of samples they hand out, which just echoes the amount of things I can consume in actual c-stores.
But this past weekend at the Thrive Allergy Expo I could eat almost everything at every booth. It’s the only allergy and gluten-free expo in North America and was attended by speakers, vendors and chefs. So, in the pouring rain, Chris and I trekked to McCormick Place on Sunday, shelled out $20 bucks in tickets and proceeded to go absolutely crazy for swag.
We’d stand at booths and wait for someone to say, “Hi, can I show you my products?” And we’d reply, “Yes, please.” Then sample every bread slice, cookie, brownie, etc. It absolutely had the feeling of trick-or-treating, not only because in any other venue, what we were doing would be considered begging by all parties, but in some booths, they had samples available, which we put in our EpiPen bags that were passed out at the entrance.
I felt a little bad trying all the food, knowing that I wouldn’t buy any of their mixes or baked products. I’ve gotten really good at putting together my own flour blends using the products at the Indian markets in my neighborhood. My chocolate chip cookies are just as good (if not better, as a lot of wheat-eaters say) as ones used with wheat flour, and I even mastered the gf pie crust with my secret ingredient. The only thing that I admittedly suck at doing is baking gf bread. It tastes fine, but I’ve had so many disasters where it hasn’t risen or when it does rise properly, it falls when I take it out of the oven or shrinks drastically. So it was awesome picking the brain of one guy who had the puffiest bread for sale at the show.
We went to several cooking demonstrations, including how to make gf tortellini and soft pretzels. There was also a great session, “Working with Gluten-Free Food Services: Searching for the ‘Grain’ of Truth,” given by Cynthia Kupper of the Gluten Intolerance Group. She detailed the work her group has done to educate and create gluten-free options at chain restaurants as well as Chicago’s very own McCormick Place. They’ve even worked with two hospitals to certify them as gf. Now they just need to conquer the dreaded airport, where I find myself trapped in without anything to eat.
Possibly the highlight of the day was meeting the founder of Green’s Beer. There’s more to come about that when I get around to revisiting my first gluten-free beer posting.
As the day went on, we realized we were getting out of control with the swag when I grabbed some kind of baby formula to repair their esophagus and Chris swiped an EpiPen. We still don’t know what we’re going to do with either of those things, but I’m sure taking a scoop of formula won’t hurt my esophagus.
At the end of the day, we were both loaded down with stuffed bags, struggling to get onto public transportation with them (which became even more difficult when we were met by rained-out Cubs fans trying to get home, grrr). We’ve yet to tally the dollar amount of what we scored, but with the four pound bag of Pamela’s bread mix (left by the booth operators), a pound and a half bag of Pamela’s baking mix, three packages of sesame rice crackers (given to us by vendors that didn’t want to pack them up) and a jar of Sunbutter (butter made out of sunflower seeds…it’s SO good), not to mention two packages of gf hot dog buns (I didn’t even know those were available)…that right there is way more than our combined $20 entrance fee.
I guess it’s something I’ve been overly concerned with my whole life. When I was in my early teens, I asked a teacher at my church if he would allow me to sit in his classroom at a school in what I only knew as the ghetto. His school was across the street from the old Chicago Stadium, now replaced by the United Center.
Being from a working class family, my family never had the money to take me to Bulls or Blackhawks games hosted in that area, so seeing the stadium, let alone the ruin that surrounded it, was a totally new sight for me. Only later, when I went to my first UC game using a press pass from the media company I worked for, did I realize what I had been missing. I felt a flash of anger over my previous deprivation while watching people in attendance act so casual, like it aint no thing to spend $50 or much more on a night’s entertainment. I could only imagine a percentage of what those kids growing up around the stadium felt, seeing it every day, as part of their landscape, yet never actually being allowed inside.
One word would best describe the day-long experience in that classroom back in ’92—dirty. The school halls were filthy and full of litter, the desks scuffed and padded with gum underneath every surface; some of the kids even had a thin layer of grime over them after apparently not having had a shower or clean clothes. I was shocked at their remedial 5th grade classroom work, which was at some level much lower than what I could recall doing when I was 10. My favorite part of the day was when I went down to read to the kindergartners, who enthusiastically appreciated taking time out of their day to be read to. I was told by the teacher that books were foreign objects to most of them.
Since the experience was more than 15 years ago, I can’t remember all parts of the day, but probably most memorable was when the teacher dropped me off at my house, I threw up in the bushes as he drove away. At the time, I wondered if I ate something that either triggered food poisoning or my peanut allergy, but none of the symptoms suggested that. Thinking about it now, I think the most accurate explanation is that it was all too much for me to handle.
Given the turmoil in Chicago, and in other American cities, throughout the ‘80s, growing up in the midst of it, perhaps it wasn’t so peculiar to be interested in urban poverty. And for David Simon and Ed Burns, who worked in their given professions during that era, I guess it isn’t so phenomenal that they wanted to create work that explored the causes and effects of it. What is so phenomenal is that they are really the first to do so through the television medium in such a solid, comprehensive and insightful way.
For me, the best outcome of “The Wire” is being turned on to other writers interested in the same theme of urban decay entwined with crime, law enforcement, education, community, politics; really, everything in the American city. Listening to Richard Price’s commentary on the episodes he wrote, and realizing his episodes were the ones I really enjoyed, I was compelled to pick up his book “Clockers,” which has been said to have inspired David Simon.
At times while reading it, I tried identifying what was taken from the book, by Price himself, and used in “The Wire.” The book does a great job of flushing out characters and elements in street-level drug selling, but maybe I’ve been spoiled by the book’s television successor because I wanted more—more about the causes, more about the societal responses and the impact those efforts made with sometimes disastrous, or at best ineffectual, results.
However, my favorite insight of the book was the middle management drug dealer, Strike, reflecting on the public health campaign posters that were hung up in the county jail:
“The walls of the waiting room were hung with black-and-white cautionary posters, encircling Strike with admonitions, the subjects ranging from AIDS to pregnancy to crack to alcohol, each one a little masterpiece of dread. Strike hated posters. If you were poor, posters followed you everywhere—health clinics, probation offices, housing offices, day care centers, welfare offices—and they were always blasting away at you with warnings to do this, don’t do that, be like this, don’t be like that, smarten up, control this, stop that.”
As someone who took a class on Public Relation Campaigns—designed to teach how to influence and change social behavior through messages—in my journalism grad school, this strikes me as especially funny and sad. In a world with so much pain and struggle and grief, shouldn’t people facing the everyday realties of poverty be offered a little bit of solace in institutional buildings, even if following the messages of those accosting posters is in their best interest? Maybe a nice, relaxing Monet print would better ease the uneasiness that goes along with having to visit any of the places listed in the above passage.
But reading the book took me a little longer to get through, sometimes because I was overwhelmed by the problems these characters were submerged in, like a revolving door of poverty, crime, hopelessness, anger, depression, neglect. Just like how I ran scared of being a Chicago Public School teacher in low-income areas, maybe I have trouble reading about the day-in, day-out struggles of those areas.
In some ways, the 14 year old that couldn’t handle so much abject poverty and all sights and sounds that went along with it during a day in the ghetto, this 30 year old still can’t handle prolonged exposure to it. And I feel guilty about my ability to turn my head away from the problem most days.