Adventures in gluten-free baking

I’ve now completed two weeks on a g-free diet. The jury is still out as to whether I’m feeling the benefits, but I do know this one thing: Gluten-free baking is hard.

Like sleeping babies, these muffins look dreamy in their beds but become divas once removed

Like babies, these muffins look dreamy in their beds but are temperamental once removed

Four and a half years ago, I was not a baker. My greatest culinary accolade was microwave-made Ghiradelli fudge. I once tried to broil chocolate-chip cookies. In hindsight, it’s no wonder that my attempt at gluten-free banana bread was a sad, crumbly hovel at an office bake-off.

Since then, I’ve made my share of successful bundts, cupcakes, muffins, cakes, and cookies. I even took third-place at another workplace bake-off.

It was with this slightly inflated ego that I approached g-free blueberry and poppy seed buckwheat muffin recipe. Hubris, it turns out, is not barred from the baking world.

Although I used the same all-purpose mix as the author (brown rice flour and cornstarch), the muffins were structurally unsound– most lost their bottoms before popping out of the pan. I’m not sure whether to blame this kerfuffle on my lack of a kitchen scale, substitution of Greek yogurt for buttermilk, or general g-free ineptitude.

Despite the crumbliness, I ate a few of the muffins, which had the signature nutty undertone of buckwheat. They could have used a bit more flavor (orange zest? cardamon?) or sweetener (just a smidge of brown sugar?). I miss the easy muffins of yore, but now I’m doubly determined to create a successful baked good sans gluten.

Forget the Easter Bunny and welcome the Easter Bread

It’s hard to believe that Easter is already here… and that it’s still in the 40s in North Carolina of all places. Every year it seems like March comes in like a lamb with a random warm spell and exits like a dying lion making a last-ditch effort for shivers. The upside of the enduring chill is that it’s the perfect excuse to fire up the oven.

Looks like a savory bread, tastes sweet like licorice

Looks like a savory bread, tastes sweet like licorice

Last year, I took third place in a bake-off at work and was rewarded with Beth Hensperger’s Bread Bible. Of the 300 recipes, it seems that a good ten percent of them are Easter breads; who knew the varieties ranged from the familiar Hot Cross Buns to Byzantine Easter bread and Kulich (Russian coffee cake)? Ultimately, I decided on the Italian Anise Easter Bread for reasons of heritage and simplicity– the directions for the kulich and accompanying paskha looked downright scary.

A fellow baker at Southern Season suggested I use anise oil instead of the pure anise extract that the recipe included. He did warn me to use it sparingly, but I added about three-to-four drops instead of the prescribed two. The result is an intense licorice flavor, which I love, but it’s also a buzz kill for folks who don’t hunt for the black jellybeans like I do. For those people, I recommend using one teeny-tiny drop of the anise oil. I also added a cup of golden raisins.

I think that like the panettone from Christmas, the leftovers of this eggy bread will find a second life in the form of French toast. Or just toast. With blueberry jam, mhmm.

Happy weekend to all!

It's similar to braiding sticky hair

It’s similar to braiding sticky hair

A little egg wash for glaze

A little egg wash for glaze

And the whole house smells of licorice

And the whole house smells of licorice

Earning my Girl Scout cookie badge

Between the layoff, moving back home (Hi Mom!) and job-hunting ad ridiculum, it has been a bumpy ride. I’ve avoided writing about that pesky stuff here because it’s no fun rehashing the negative, and I would like for my blog to be a positive place, not a pity party. 

When life throws lemons at you, throw some back and use the rest to make a lemon cake. To clear out downtrodden thoughts and get a fresh perspective, I love a good baking challenge — and boy did I get one this time.

It's not the Girl Scouts...

These cookies didn’t come from the troops

Named Left-Behinds as a riff on the iconic Girl Scouts Tagalongs (see also Fijis and Slim Mints), these little cookies were probably the most involved project I’ve ever undertaken. I spaced it over three days to keep the steps from becoming overwhelming, and all in all, it took about six hours. Tempering chocolate — something I had never done before — wasn’t as difficult or time-consuming as I thought it would be. An entirely different matter was dunking five dozen cookies, tapping out excess and keeping the chocolate warm all the while. That took an hour alone.

The result in a blind taste test? Tagalongs had more peanut butter and were sweeter with a crispy cookie base like a Kit Kat. My base was more like a sugar cookie. Rather than following CHOW’s recipe of mixing all-natural PB with confection sugar, I just grabbed a jar of Jiff.

Definitely a delicious treat, but it will be a while before I’m ready for chocolate tempering again.

Which is which?

Which is which?

Pairs perfectly with a glass of (almond) milk

Pairs perfectly with a glass of (almond) milk

Tart Tuesday should be a thing

Imagine combining a fleur de sel caramel truffle with a Twix bar in the shape of a mini pie. You would have Northside Social‘s Salted Chocolate-Caramel Tart.

The crust has that soft crunchiness you find in the cookie base of a candy bar. It’s filled with a caramel-chocolate mixture that’s neither solid nor liquid, just ooey-gooey richness. As a sweet ‘n’ salty lover, I wish it had had a bit more sea salt to counterbalance the lavish chocolate, but still the result was luscious and indulgent in the best possible way. Perhaps it’s high time I break out the mini tart baking set and start experimenting.

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Delicious yet rich tart for $4

Northside is one of my favorite cafes to hide in. Serving coffee, breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as beer and wine, it’s one of those  hybrid locales you enjoy visiting as much for a sociable weekend brunch as for a weeknight writing session (with a glass of Malbec, of course). Plus, when the weather is nice, you can snag a coveted outdoor seat under the shade of umbrellas.

Now that I am car-less and living in the city, I don’t make it out to Clarendon as often as I would like, but after my trip last night, I’m motivated to try harder. Although weeknight happy hour ends at your typical DC bar time of 7 p.m., Northside serves up an incentive to stay late: free (tip, please) leftover baked goods. I took home a savory muffin of Pecorino cheese, sun-tomatoes and roasted arugula. Now I just have to see if I can wait until dinnertime to scarf it down.

Holiday breakfast: Italian toast

It’s hard to believe another Christmas has come and gone, but chances are you’ve got plenty of leftover cookies, pies, ice cream, peppermint bark and cake. While my mother and I are ready to give away most of these treats, there is one goodie we’re still hoarding: panettone.

A popular holiday gift among Italian families, this traditional sweet bread is filled with citron and raisins. Despite being half Italian, my mom was never a fan of panettone, until she tried turning it into French toast.

Unwrap the muffin-like bread and slice from the bottom up, rather than cutting it like a pie. Dredge the slices in egg wash and set on a frying pan greased in butter. Let both sides cook until slightly browned. Top with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or a sparing amount pure maple syrup — you may find it sweet enough alone.

While you’ll find boxes of panettone in stores such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, the selection can be stale. Gourmet grocery stores and Italian specialty markets are a better option. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Fresh Market’s own take on panettone, which is made in Italy but tasted fresh and moist.

Merry Day-After!

DIY holiday baked goods

Retailers everywhere be darned: The spirit of the season is about giving but not necessarily goodies you get from a store. For, as the Grinch learned, Christmas is about so much more.

Thanks to a resurgence of quirky novelty items and crafting, DIY options are an excellent way to personalize your gifts and save some money. As an amateur baker, I plan to focus my efforts on all things edible. If you’re thinking of doing the same, here are some tips to help guide you. Please comment if you have any nifty tricks to share.

Now, to the oven!

  1. Skill Level: If you don’t know the difference between a spatula and a strainer, it’s probably best to avoid complicated confections like croissants, macarons and basically anything French. In college I started giving fudge as holiday treats since at the time, I didn’t know the first thing about baking. This classic recipe from Ghiradelli is an easy crowd pleaser (think less sweet and more chocolatey than your usual fudge). Folks with a few notches on their apron belts can go for more involved treats like yule logs and gingerbread cookies.

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    Made-from-scratch croissants are a good option for experienced bakers with plenty of time…and butter

  2. Equipment: Candies such as pralines and peanut brittle may sound wonderfully compact and appealing… if you have a candy thermometer. Take it from someone who has scraped hardened caramel off a linoleum floor and just days ago burnt a cookie base because she thought a cheap metal pan would substitute for a two-inch baking dish: Proper tools can make all the difference. Sometimes tricks can work. For the fudge, interval microwaving or a high-quality Pyrex bowl nested in a pot of water on a stove can substitute for a double broiler. In other cases, it’s best to choose recipes that don’t call for pastry torches. Unless that’s just how you roll.
  3. Ingredients: Should your finances be tight, selecting baking projects that call for saffron threads, almond flour or essence of lavender is a bad idea. Bakers and eaters have gotten along just fine with eggs, butter, flour and milk for centuries, and unless your recipients have special diets, so can you.
  4. Destination: Thumbprint cookies and rum balls are delicious for in-person gifts, but not for your cousin in Idaho, who will almost certainly receive a mess of jelly and melted chocolate. Quick breads, jars of homemade jams, cream-free cookies and biscotti (like these I’m fixing for my grandmother) are excellent options for going the distance.

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    Chocolate-based treats like bourbon balls are simple and delicious — just don’t mail them

Buttermilk Plum Cake before bidding adieu to dairy

After a couple of busy months spent traveling, hosting friends, and indulging a bit too much, I’m putting myself on a month-long dairy fast. But first, let’s talk plum cake.

Few desserts conjure equal parts comfort and intrigue. Unlike a torte, macaroon, or flan, the name immediately puts you at ease (even if like me, you initially have no idea what it is). I came across this recipe last summer when bloggess extrordinaire Heidi Swason (of 101 Cookbooks)was promoting her new book. Even before reading the list of ingredients, I became enamored with the word, scribbling it down in absentminded reverie. I am pleased to report that end result is as cozy and as unique as its namesake.

The cake boiled over a bit, so I would recommend putting a pan underneath the pie/tart pan to avoid nuked spillage (and setting your fire alarm off). I subbed dark brown sugar for the raw cane sugar and neglected to add the sprinkling of sugar on top, but thankfully the sweetness and flavor turned out just right. Plumy.

* Note: For dishes that call for less buttermilk (think 1/4 to 1/2 cup), I’ve done a little trick wherein you add some vinegar to regular milk to produce a similar acidity. The taste might be slightly different, but this sort of substitution should lend itself well to this recipe, too.

Tastes like summer

The plums in the pie go round and round

Gooey goodness