The Freedom Feast: Flour-free ... and Delicious
Part I: Sweet Somethings
Someone I care for very much cannot eat wheat or gluten. I hadn't realized just what a challenge a flour-free diet can pose to a cook until I set out to find alternatives to common foods that fulfill her needs and also taste good. Sure, if you do web searches you can find wheat-free recipes for all kinds of things -- including breads, pies, and pancakes -- but beware: many of these are made with flours from other products that are designed to function as wheat flour does in a recipe. The result is often something with a texture that approaches wheat-flour foods, but a taste that rivals cardboard.
The reason for this? One of the most common substances used in gluten-free flour (GF flour, as it's commonly known) is bean flour. It has the bulk necessary to provide substance to breads, cookies, and cakes, unlike rice or potato flours. However, it also provides a distinct taste that just can't be masked by other ingredients. While it may be acceptable in some foods (a debatable point among those who must be wheat-free), for me it just isn't. My standards are higher than simply a wheat-free food: it must be wheat-free and worthy of eating for its taste.
Desserts are a particularly important category, in my opinion. Who wants to eat a flourless cake that tastes like a bean turd? While it may seem that tasty flourless alternatives for some desserts are almost impossible, with a little creativity and flexibility the possibility-scape is almost as wide as for individuals with no dietary restrictions. In this article I present general ideas for wheat-free desserts that the whole family will love, along with recipes. These should see you through birthdays, and even the upcoming holiday season, without problems. In a forthcoming article I'll tackle other delicious, wheat-free alternatives.
Cakes worth celebrating
Flourless cakes are not impossible ... but they can be tricky. I've dismissed the recipes that use various GF flours and have focused on options that use other means to provide structure to a cake. While the flavor options aren't as unlimited as with regular cakes, there are still plenty of choices that will satisfy even a child's sweet tooth. I know -- my children have eaten these cakes and enjoyed them.
Eggs are the primary alternative to flour for providing structure in a cake. By using eggs in innovative ways, one can get a dense, cheesecake-like texture in a flourless cake, or a light, almost-angel-food texture. The difference comes from how you treat the eggs.
The simplest method is simply whipping the eggs, and adding them to the other ingredients. As the batter bakes, the egg proteins cause the cake to puff up, and ultimately settle into a thick-textured cake. Because egg proteins are very susceptible to heat, and overcooking makes them rubbery, these cakes are often baked in a water bath (also called a bain marie). This isn't necessarily a complicated thing, but does require a bit more care in handling and preparation.
Another method, which results in a somewhat lighter texture, is to gently warm, then beat whole eggs until they're very light and tripled in volume. This treatment keeps the proteins from forming the tight chemical bonds they do in the above method. These cakes will also puff some, but tend to retain their volume, and form lighter but still creamy cakes.
The last method relies on egg whites only for structure. These are the most delicate cakes, and produce a texture rather like angel food cakes. However, without flour to help support the cake, these cakes will collapse if baked in 1" or deeper cake pans. Instead, cream of tartar is used to help maintain the whipped whites' volume, and the cake is baked in a very shallow pan, usually a jelly roll pan. Once baked, the cake can be cut into shapes and layered to provide a more typical appearance. Types and flavors of fillings are limited only by your imagination and tastes.
My experimentation with flourless cakes has led me to an interesting discovery. Many of these cakes call for the baking pan to be coated with shortening and then dusted with flour, in order to help the cake release from the pan cleanly (which can be problematic for some of these cakes). That flour layer isn't necessary, though. I've found that white sugar can perform this task well. It works best if whirled in a blender or food processor to grind it extra-fine (this doesn't make powdered sugar -- that has corn starch in it), and a very generous layer is swirled in the pan. Regular sugar can be used, too, but may provide a crunchy texture to the edge of the cake. It also doesn't seem to work as well.
Because the more delicate structure of these cakes can't support a lot of ingredients, the quality of those other ingredients is much more important than regular cakes. Most flourless cake recipes I've seen rely on chocolate as the flavoring (in part because chocolate acts as a thickening agent itself). I cannot overstate the importance of using the best-quality chocolate you can find! Any harshness or unpleasant tastes will be amplified in the cake, and could render it totally unpalatable. The general rule of thumb I've developed is to use "eating chocolate" rather than "baking" or "cooking chocolate." Most recipes call for a bittersweet or dark chocolate to provide deep, pure chocolate flavor -- and do they deliver on that! If that much chocolate punch isn't to your taste, you can offset it with fillings and frostings, or, in some recipes, you can add extra sugar to help mute the chocolate punch. Chocolates that I've found best include Lindt bittersweet, Scharffen Berger (an excellent American chocolate), and Valrhona, which may be our favorite. Different chocolates will yield different tastes -- and textures -- in the same cake recipe, so try various ones to find a result you like best. All these, and other interesting chocolates, are available online from Chocosphere.
If chocolate isn't your thing, there are other flourless cake options -- but not many. Some options we've tried and enjoyed include: walnut cake and espresso cake (it has chocolate in it); the walnut cake is interesting and using different nuts will yield other yummy cakes. Others I've yet to try include lemon almond cake, orange cake, and a flourless carrot cake.
A web search for wheat-free cookie recipes will result in many possibilities. But honestly, do carob- or spelt-something cookies with GF flour sound good to you? Better to stick to recipes that don't require flour and rely on good-tasting ingredients. Yes, they do exist!
Rice krispies treats are a sort of bar treat that's almost a cookie. A less sweet variety is scotcheroos. When using cereals, though, one must take care. For some wheat-sensitive individuals, the malt flavorings and other coatings that can be put on rice and corn cereals may trigger a reaction. There are rice cereals that don't get that kind of processing, and you shouldn't have to go to specialty shops to find them. Our local Wal-Mart has a puffed rice cereal that works well.
Macaroons are one type of cookie that doesn't rely on flour, and can be made in several variations. Others rely on egg whites for structure, and can be thought of as verging on meringues. Other possibilities include various kinds of no-bake cookies. Many of these hold up well to experimentation, so you can make your own varieties that satisfy your dietary needs and taste preferences.
If you're looking for fancier dessert options, flour becomes much less of an obstacle. Many whole classes of desserts don't rely on wheat flour, so substitution isn't even an issue. Many of these desserts are fairly easy, and make impressive displays while not requiring special equipment or treatment. Many don't rely on chocolate, either.
Cheesecake is one of my favorite indulgences. It's rich and creamy, and the lusciousness of the cream cheese blends well with a large variety of flavors. In my experience, cheesecake recipes run the gamut from unpalatable offerings filled with shortcuts (if you're going to eat cheesecake, indulge and enjoy, and count calories elsewhere, I say) to clever combinations that are truly inspired. How can you pick and choose from cheesecakes without testing every recipe? Here are my general guidelines:
If you're daunted by the thought of baking a cheesecake, why not give a mousse a try? Light and airy, yet creamy and filled with flavor, these desserts have an impressive reputation but are typically fairly easy for a cook to prepare. Chocolate mousse is by far the best-known variety, but others are out there (fruit mousses are fairly common). The delicate texture and flavor of mousses generally make these desserts among the most perishable -- usually the mousse is best if consumed within 24 hours after it's prepared. But it can be prepared in advance and then held in the refrigerator or freezer, so is still a good choice for a special occasion dessert.
Similarly spectacular, not very common, but not too difficult to prepare are desserts based on meringues. No, this isn't the weepy, syrupy, overly-sweet confection that tops meringue pies. Meringues are ethereal creations based on whipped, sweetened and/or flavored baked egg whites. The batter can be baked until a chewy texture is reached, or longer for a lighter, drier one. The meringue can then be used in a variety of clever ways to make wonderful desserts. A simple, classic technique is to create shells of meringue, then fill them right before serving with fruit and syrup (perhaps ice cream, too). The contrast of textures and tastes makes for a memorable end to a good meal. The various components can be prepared in advance (the meringues need to be stored in an aitright container to keep moisture from softening them), with assembly being the final, fast preparation. An alternative to individually-prepared dessert meringues is to create large meringue discs -- rather like cake layers -- and layer fillings between the discs. As the fillings' moisture seeps into the meringues, the flavors blend, and the meringue takes on a wonderfully chewy texture. An easy dessert of this sort is to simply soften high-quality ice cream of various flavors, and spread them between layers of meringue. Wrap and place in the freezer to re-firm the ice creams, then remove and serve, garnished with fresh fruits if desired and appropriate. Meringues themselves are amenable to lots of flavor additions -- liquids as well as chips and nuts -- Miss Meringue sells delicious meringues and offers ideas to help nudge your creativity.
Still not convinced? What about creme brulee, souffles, candies, homemade ice creams, sorbets, granitas, or simple (yet lovely) rice pudding? If you're insistent upon pies, you can often substitute a crumb-type pie crust using rice or corn-based cereals with great success. Such crusts are quite flexible, and can be frozen or baked before filling.
I hope by now I've gotten your creativity energized, thinking about other possibilities, or ways you can modify family favorites to accommodate wheat-sensitive loved ones. If you have recipes to share, please email them to me and I'll give them a try. I'll be adding recipes here as I'm able, so please check back for more great, tested recipes that are wheat-free and worth eating.
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