Visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Maine this winter, the talk turned to baking. Specifically, flourless baking.
"These cookies are so good," Emily said, munching on an almond-butter round packed liberally with chocolate chips but no flour. I'd brought them in my carry-on from San Francisco; they were surprisingly sturdy for having such a delicate texture. They were also slightly addictive.
I dipped another one into my cup of tea and wondered aloud at the peculiar chemistry that goes into baking sweets without flour. I noted that during my recent experiments I'd been delighted to discover it wasn't so difficult to bake gluten-free if one devotes a little more care and attention to the endeavor. Then: Does one even need wheat flour? Can other substances, such as egg whites or ground nuts, suffice instead?
As their cat Fotis nosed around our feet for crumbs we debated the merits of various gluten-free flour mixes — Emily makes her own — while my brother Kurt cooked dinner (polenta with vegetable ragout, also flour-free), and discussed whether or not you can ever incorporate too many hazelnuts into a chocolate cake (unlikely). We pondered cornmeal cakes (with lemon zest), flourless ginger cookies (with fresh ginger), and how flour derived from chickpeas is an acquired taste.
In short, we became slightly obsessed.
For me, talking about cooking and how to fine-tune our creations so that they are as good as they can possibly be is a good obsession. This past year Emily, already an accomplished cook, went gluten-free for health reasons, thus turning her attention to baking without flour. I've been similarly inspired.
It's estimated that 1 out of 133 people in the U.S. must cut out gluten because of celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Other people might prevent different health conditions by avoiding gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. But they can continue to enjoy a myriad of favorite treats by substituting gluten-free flours made from nuts, seeds, legumes and rice (technically these would be called "meal" but are usually referred to as "flour") such as brown or white rice flour, amaranth, corn, millet and quinoa flours, among others. A combination of gluten-free flours substituted in recipes that call for all-purpose flour produces the best results. There are many commercially produced gluten-free blends, but many bakers prefer to develop their own recipe through trial and error to meet their specific tastes.
For gluten-free folk, it's best to look for oats and cornmeal that are labeled gluten-free on the package. Oats, for example, do not contain any gluten but may be manufactured on equipment that also is used to process wheat flours that could trigger an allergic reaction. An issue to keep in mind if you don't keep a strictly gluten-free kitchen but are baking for someone who is gluten-free is cross-contamination from regular flour. Make sure to carefully clean all utensils and equipment so as to avoid inadvertently including gluten.
If you're intimidated by the unfamiliar flours or are an infrequent baker, you could try recipes that are naturally flour-free. I've made many flourless recipes that are appealing for their simplicity and spare ingredient list, and which are gobbled up by flour abstainers and embracers alike.
When I sent off my annual holiday package to the East Coast filled with assorted homemade items — fruit and nut candies, cranberry jam and the like — I also added some gluten-free treats. I needed to atone for the awful gluten-free banana bread I presented Emily with last July when she visited us (though it must be said the brownies I also baked then were wonderfully fudgy and silky smooth). It could have been a bad combination of gluten-free flours or my own ineptitude — either way, the banana bread was pretty awful.
This winter I made up for it. My offerings weren't especially fancy — just peanut butter cookies, chocolate chocolate-chip cookies and gingersnaps. But they were delicious — I sampled as I baked — and were a snap to put together.
As I pored over my cookbooks and the Internet searching for flourless baking recipes, I found myself drawn to those that were more naturally flour-free, such as a simple flourless chocolate cake that called either for ground nuts or none at all, and which relies on fluffy egg whites and a stint in a water bath to bring it together. And while I used brown rice flour to make a batch of cookies that turned out not bad at all, I found I preferred the taste and texture of a flourless peanut-butter cookie made of the simplest ingredients: 1 egg, 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of baking powder.
Throughout my attempts to find the perfect flourless cookie, it's been a revelation to find that these naturally flour-free sweets are among the easiest to master. Many of my creations rely on cornmeal, lots of eggs, chocolate, an assortment of nuts and a food processor rather than an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend. From a spare ingredient list — egg whites, a little lemon extract, some sugar — come airy meringues that are perfect with morning coffee. And those almond butter cookies — I've made them at least once a week for the past month, and while I firmly believe the spirit of adventure is imperative when cooking, I can't regret my repetition. I've played around with adding slivered almonds, a handful of semisweet chocolate chips, a hint of maple syrup, which surely is all the adventure I need. I certainly never miss the flour.
I hold myself to a high standard when baking — meaning it must be nearly perfect or I'll do it over, and yes, I have ditched a batch of cupcakes that rose insufficiently even though it meant another hour of work — and baking gluten-free is no different. That banana bread disaster will live on in my mind as my lowest point. The lemon-cornmeal cake served with a dollop of whipped cream and cherry compote may be the current high. (I won't mention the flourless chocolate "cake bites" that turned into flourless chocolate cookies to my chagrin, though they still were delicious.) Through trial, error and slight adaptations of some of my standards, I'm coming closer to understanding the peculiar alchemy that goes into flourless baking (and baking in general).
The next time I visit Maine, I'll ask Emily to show me her particular all-purpose gluten-free flour, a mysterious blend she developed that includes sorghum and rice flours. (She substitutes it in a favorite recipe to produce the most delectably light buttermilk biscuits I could eat nearly every day.) As I'm still dipping my toes in the flourless baking waters, I'll stick with baking naturally flour-free desserts for now. And I'll savor every bite.