Wednesday 29 June 2011

Buttermilk biscuits

When I think of "traditional" bread, my mind usually conjures up images of a glorious, crusty, slow-rising loaf - the sort of bread that's been the primary focus of Gluten-Free Boulangerie since the beginning, in other words. But what about other traditions? Sure, most people here in the US are quite familiar with French- or Italian-style bread, regardless of their heritage. Yet depending on the family or community, that may not be the one that holds a special place on the table - the particular bread that makes a meal seem complete. Anthropologists often refer to it as a "staple starch" - it varies by culture of course, but in so many cuisines there is a distinct bread or other starchy food that is always on the table.

That brings me to what you see on the table above. In a few weeks we'll be moving to the Southeast, and I was spending some time the other day trying to get a good idea of the gluten-free options that will be in the area. Suddenly it occurred to me that it had been years since I'd had a biscuit. No, not this kind of biscuit - I mean the kind that is fluffy and flaky, that's most delicious eaten warm and preferably slathered with butter. And as soon as that image crossed my mind, I was then very aware of just how long it had been; I hadn't had one since well before going gluten-free. And that, I decided, needed to change.

Despite the fact that they're leavened with baking powder, are quick to mix up, and bake in a matter of minutes, when you go back to the concept of the "staple starch," you can see these biscuits have far more in common with the aforementioned crusty bread than the recipe would suggest. Although, to really complete the picture, I'm told I will have to find a good recipe for cornbread!

Basic Buttermilk Biscuits - makes 12-16

100 g tapioca flour
60 g potato starch
40 g white rice flour
25 g sorghum flour
25 g garbanzo bean flour
20 g brown rice flour

2 tsp double-acting baking powder, divided
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 T (15 g) sugar
1 T psyllium husks
1/4 tsp Pomona's citrus pectin (see note on my Ingredients page)

1/4 cup cold butter, Spectrum organic shortening, or a combination (will be a total of ~148-156 g, depending on which kind of fat you use) PLUS 1 T melted butter for brushing

145 mL buttermilk (OR, mix 130 mL milk with 15 mL vinegar)

You will also need:
A large baking sheet, parchment paper, a spatula or wooden spoon, and extra tapioca flour for rolling

Pre-heat your oven to 260ºC/500ºF. If you are making your own "buttermilk," first mix the milk and vinegar as instructed and set it aside. Combine flours, psyllium, pectin, sugar, salt, baking soda, and one teaspoon of the baking powder in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and/or shortening using a pastry blender until it is in small chunks, and then use your fingers to lightly rub it in until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk and stir until you have a soft dough.

Place a sheet of parchment on the counter and dust it evenly with tapioca flour. Pat or roll out the dough on the floured paper. The dough will be very soft - flour your hands or rolling pin to prevent sticking. Now, to help make flaky layers: sprinkle about half of the remaining teaspoon of baking powder over the surface and lightly rub to spread it out. Once you've done that, fold the dough rectangle in half - it may help to lift up the edges of the parchment to fold it over. Dust the bare area on the paper with more tapioca flour, pat it into a rectangle again, and sprinkle over the remaining baking powder. Fold it in half just as before.

Now roll or pat the dough to a thickness of 3/4 inch (~2 cm). If you have a proper round biscuit cutter, by all means use it; do not, however, attempt to cut biscuits with something that is dull, such as a glass - your biscuits will not rise well. I used a sharp bench scraper, which is why the biscuits are square. Cut the dough into biscuits and space them out evenly. Slide the baking sheet under the parchment. Brush the tops of the biscuits with the melted butter, and bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Flour, eggs, butter: The ratio makes the recipe

Crisp buttery puffs, with a dusting of sugar
I was so excited when I found out about the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. As a chemistry major, applying ratios comes naturally; also, I'm always eager to bring science into the kitchen (because I'm a geek like that). Wait, don't leave! This science isn't complicated. In fact, using ratios actually makes baking easier.

You see, when you have a solid ratio for a gluten-free recipe, you don't have to guess when the recipe calls for a flour you don't have/can't find/can't eat - simply substitute an equal weight of a comparable flour, and it will almost always work. (You must do this by weight; that is the only way to ensure you are keeping the same ratio.) There will of course be some differences when you are converting a "normal" recipe to gluten-free - after all, you then have a dough that depends on carbohydrates, rather than gluten proteins, for its properties. In most recipes, the structure is bound by an added carbohydrate, such as xanthan gum, flax meal, or psyllium. Sometimes, though, the flour itself already contains what you need. 

That's when your choice of flour can be vital for some recipes, because not all starch is the same. Pâte à choux is one of those recipes. Starch actually is made of two types of molecules: amylose, which is linear, and amylopectin, which is branched. Amylopectin is what you need for good pâte à choux. The starch in sweet rice (also called sticky rice) is all amylopectin. That's why it's sticky.

Can you see why the one on the right gives 
choux paste more structure? (via

Pâte à choux can be converted to gluten-free especially well because even when it's made with wheat flour it is dependent on starch, not gluten, for its structure. The process is unusual - you actually cook the flour in water and fat before forming the dough, which lets the starch strands, which are normally packed together, to swell and form a network. 

OK, you're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this about the science of choux paste and how great it is to bake using ratios, rather than just telling you how to make cream puffs.

Well, I wanted to make it clear that it doesn't have to be difficult before I told you these little cream puffs very nearly kicked my butt. Seriously, I almost gave up. I went through over a dozen eggs and nearly a pound of butter before I finally got the puffs you see in the picture (and those still aren't perfect). That was the fifth batch. But I'm not trying to scare you away. Honest.

See, the other great thing about ratios is that more than one ratio can get you to the same basic result - take a look at last month's rally to see how many different ratios can turn into scones! So, below I've included the link to everyone else's choux posts - that's 18 others to choose from. And there are all sorts of things you can make with choux paste besides cream puffs and éclairs; you can use the same base recipe (er, I mean ratio) to make crisp cheese breads called gougères, or even to make a certain kind of gnocchi. So find something that looks good to you. 
Larger balls of dough make soft, fluffy puffs.

In the spirit of purely exploring the ratio, I chose to make the most basic form of choux pastry, called chouquettes. They are small, simple unfilled pastries, often eaten as a mid-afternoon treat. My ratio of eggs:flour:water:fat was 4:3:3:2, which is rather different from any reference ratios, but it's what ended up working best to get something that would "puff" properly. 

OK, here's what to do. It involves math, but it's not hard, I promise: start by weighing your eggs - this is the variable which determines how much of the other ingredients to use. I used three eggs,  which weighed a total of 160g. Since my ratio is 4:3:3:2, dividing that by 4 gave me an amount of 1 part=40g. So, since 40 x 3 = 120, I needed 120g of flour and 120mL of water (1mL of water equals 1g) and since 40 x 2 = 80, I needed 80g of butter.

160:120:120:80 is the same as 4:3:3:2. See? I told you it wasn't hard. If your eggs are a different weight, simply go through the same process with your number.

For flour, I used 60% sweet rice flour (amylopectin, remember?), 20% tapioca flour, and 20% millet flour. (For 120g, that means 72g sweet rice, 24g tapioca, and 24 g millet.) I also added 1/4 tsp of Pomona's citrus pectin to the flour, for good measure.

Method {Note: have a look at the step-by-step photos at Simply Gluten-Free to see what each stage should look like.}
1) Your eggs need to be at room temperature - take them out of the refrigerator at least 1hr before you start baking. 
2) Preheat oven to 220ºC/425ºF and set aside a large baking sheet lined with parchment. Then crack the eggs into a small bowl and weigh them, and go through the procedure above to figure out how much flour, water, and butter you'll need. Weigh the flour into a large bowl. Weigh the butter and water in a medium-sized saucepan, and add 1 T(15g) of sugar and 1/2 tsp sea salt to the water. 
3) Heat the butter-water mixture until it is boiling steadily. Now dump in the flour all at once, turn down the heat to medium-low (so it doesn't burn to the pan) and stir forcefully and continuously with a stiff spatula for a minimum of two minutes. This is what will provide the dough's structure; you will see the dough getting stringy and it will become very thick. 
4) When it has come together in a smooth, firm ball, dump it back into your large bowl (or the bowl of a mixer, if you have one). If you are lucky enough to have a mixer, just start stirring with the paddle attachment; for the rest of us, continue firmly stirring with the spatula - really stretch out those starch strands, and try to re-incorporate any butter that may have separated - but don't let it cool down. It should still be hot, but make sure you can touch it before going any further.

5) When you can touch it - but it is still quite hot - add one egg and immediately stir to incorporate it completely. You can use an electric beater for this, or do it by hand if you have that kind of endurance. Now, if you've used an electric beater, you'll notice that the dough looks kind of lumpy or curdled. You need to stir it with the spatula to smooth out those lumps - otherwise you will have globs of starch suspended in egg, and that's great if you're making tapioca pudding, but not if you want choux paste. Stir firmly - really churn it - until the dough is smooth. Repeat this process with the other two eggs.
6) Now churn firmly by hand for a few more minutes, stirring it in large circles to keep stretching the dough. When it's a smooth paste, it's ready! It works best if you form the puffs from a piping bag, rather than just putting spoonfuls on the baking sheet. Don't be intimidated by piping - you're not decorating a fancy cake here; if you can squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you can pipe choux paste. If you want crisp, dry puffs, make them slightly bigger than a large egg yolk; for softer, fluffier puffs, make them almost twice that size. Sprinkle sugar or icing sugar on them if desired. Bake at 220ºC/425ºF for the first 10mins, then turn it down to 190ºC/375ºF and bake for another 12-15mins. (For crisper puffs, use the tip of a knife to poke a small hole in the bottom of each one after taking them out of the oven - this allows trapped steam to escape.)

As an aside - if you go through all of this and they don't look like cream puffs, it's OK. They're still yummy. And if your batter is too runny and won't hold its shape, you can bake them in muffin papers or even use the batter for pancakes!

I still have a lot to learn about choux paste, but five batches was more than enough for now - I still have to make a birthday cake. Although maybe with all these puffs, I should have planned for a croquembouche!  ;)

This month's Rally was hosted by Erin of The Sensitive Epicure. Here are the links to everyone's creations - go have a look!
Amie of The Healthy Apple | Pate Choux with Creamy Macadamia Icing
Britt of GF in the City |    Pâte à Choux
Caleigh of Gluten Free[k] | Savoury Paris-Brest
Caneel of Mama Me Gluten Free | Key Lime Cream Puffs
Charissa of Zest Bakery | Choux Shine: Koshi-an Filled Cream Puffs
Claire of Gluten Freedom |  Chocolate Eclairs
Erin of the Sensitive Epicure | Gougères filled with Herbed Goat Cheese Mousse
Gretchen of kumquat | Cheddar Gougères with Dates and Pine Nuts | A Danish Puff
Irvin of Eat The Love |  White Cheddar Fennel Gougères stuffed with Porcini & Shallot Goat Cheese
Jenn of Jenn Cuisine | Gruyère & Herbed Gougères
Lisa of Gluten Free Canteen | Cracked Pepper & Cheese Gougères
Meredith of Gluten Free Betty | Gluten Free Churros
Mary Fran of Frannycakes | Marillenknodel with ginger and cardamom sugar & chai cream puffs
Meaghan of The Wicked Good Vegan | Cardamom and Rose Water Cream Puffs (with Rad Whip!)   
Pete & Kelli of No Gluten, No Problem | Almond Choux Florentines
Rachel of The Crispy Cook | Cream Puffs Filled with Coffee Cream
Robyn of Chocswirl | Gruyere & Parmesan Gougeres with Sage & Thyme   
Sea of Book of Yum | Rose Vanilla Cream Puffs and Vanilla Eclairs
Silvana of Silvana's Kitchen | Gluten-Free Spinach Gnocchi Parm
T.R.of No One Likes Crumbley Cookies | Beignets
Tara of A Baking Life | Parmesan & Black Pepper Gougères | Frangipane Puffs