Thursday 17 December 2015

Cookie exchange! Part 1: Mixes and other shortcuts

A couple of weeks ago I was on the local radio (!) talking about GF baking, including some ways of building structure using the properties of GF flours without using gums - recipes that are built from the bottom up rather than viewed as making substitutions. That's the approach I most prefer to take on a number of levels. As a result, I hardly ever use baking mixes or premade flour blends. That said, I think substitute-type methods can come in handy sometimes, and the hectic nature of the holidays can be one of those times. 

Since I've ended up with several mixes in my pantry from various events and projects, I decided to see how I could use some of them to simplify holiday baking! Between traveling, having houseguests, going to events and parties, and everything else going on in these busy few weeks, the prospect of locating and measuring multiple flours and finding good recipes/tinkering with recipes to make them work is daunting. It's a time when even the most seasoned bakers may be wary of experimenting with new recipes, and even more so if you're relatively new to GF baking and unfamiliar with the characteristics of these ingredients!

So, there are a few shortcuts that can help here. One approach is to start with a mix and strategically embellish it to make it more festive - I have a couple of examples of this below. Another option is to find a flour blend that can be directly substituted in your familiar, trusted recipes originally based on wheat flour. I'll focus more on this further on in the post.      

These Chocolate Crinkle Cookies start with a chocolate cookie mix from Ardenne Farm, one of the "goodies" from the GFAF event a few months ago. I was intrigued by the simplicity of this mix - all it calls for to add is butter (or non-dairy equivalent) and 3 T water. I wanted to stay true to this uncomplicated formula while still achieving the chewiness that makes crinkle cookies so good - one very simple way to make cookies more chewy is to use some kind of syrup. 3 tablespoons of water adds up to 45 grams, so I simply substituted in 10 grams of sorghum syrup for the same amount of water. The only other change is to roll the balls of raw dough in powdered sugar until thoroughly coated. They also spread and crinkled more nicely when I tried chilling a sheet of the dough balls for about 20 minutes before baking. 
To make easy Chocolate Crinkle Cookies: Cream 1 stick (113 g) of butter (or equivalent) until fluffy. Beat in 10 g syrup (sorghum syrup, molasses, or other thick syrup). Add in the mix and 35 g of water. Mix just until it forms a dough - it will look like a collection of crumbs at first, but it should come together with continued mixing. If it still doesn’t come together after a minute, sprinkle in more water a few drops at a time. Form into balls and roll each ball in powdered sugar. Leave at least a couple of inches in between them, as they will spread. Chill for about 20 minutes. Bake at 350º F 12-14 minutes. Makes about 20-22 cookies.
Verdict: Nice and chewy inside, with crispy surface and good chocolate flavor. Well-liked by (non-GF) taste testers. Very simple and quick to make. Side note: this mix is also allergy friendly (egg-free and can easily be made dairy-free).

These Peanut Butter Blossoms use another mix I received from the GFAF event, a cookie mix from Our House. There's a variation for peanut butter cookies on the back of the box, which I modified slightly to get the right flavor and dough consistency for this classic (added a little milk and vanilla, and coated in sugar). Wait, shouldn't there should be a bag of Hershey's Kisses in this picture too? Yes, there should. But when I went to take the picture after making the cookies, I discovered the leftovers had been polished off by a certain someone the previous evening, and the evidence had already been disposed of. Just pretend they're there, I guess!
To make Peanut Butter Blossoms: Beat 240 g (about a cup) of creamy peanut butter and 113 g (1 stick) of soft unsalted butter until fluffy. Beat in 2 eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla, followed by the mix. Lastly, add 1-2 tablespoons of milk to form a soft dough - the exact amount you need will depend on the consistency of your peanut butter. Chill the dough for at least a few hours or overnight. Form chilled dough into balls about 1 tablespoon each in size, and roll each ball in granulated sugar. Arrange the balls on a baking sheet, squashing each one slightly, and leave a little space between them - they won’t spread very much. Bake at 350º F for about 16 minutes. Immediately press one chocolate kiss onto each cookie while still warm. The chocolate will soften and will stay soft even as the cookies cool completely, but will then firm up again within several hours (they taste best after this has happened). Makes about 48 cookies.
Verdict: I was worried at first that these were a little gritty, which is a common issue with stone-ground GF flours. But after I saw how quickly they disappeared when I brought a tray to a gathering of (non-GF) people where there was also plenty of other (non-GF) food to snack on, I'm not too concerned about it! They are pretty tasty, and stay soft for several days.

Now, on to the Sugar Cookies, and the subject of "cup-for-cup" or "1-for-1" flour blends...
For a blend to be considered a direct substitute for all-purpose flour in a range of recipes, it should usually have three major attributes:
  1. Neutral flavor
  2. Neutral texture (i.e. not gritty, not noticeably gummy or pasty)
  3. Absorption of water and fat similar to that of wheat flour, and consistent across a wide range of formula types and hydration ratios

This last point is probably where we run into the most problems, and in fact, I believe there is no flour blend that is truly an all-purpose direct substitute in this respect. It would be more accurate to call these blends multi-purpose - - using them in place of the same amount of wheat flour may work in a variety of batters and doughs, but sheerly because of the differences in chemistry and structure, there is no GF blend that will provide all of the properties of wheat. Some of these blends may work well in a variety of recipes for stiff doughs (cookies, etc.) but not perform so nicely when substituted in batter recipes like muffins or pancakes; for others, the opposite may be true. Some may be an approximate substitute - you can eventually get it to work in a wide range of recipes, but you'll almost always need to tweak each recipe in one way or another. And even if a mix works great in batters and doughs alike, yeast breads will always require another approach entirely. 

Because of all these complications, I haven't really focused on 1-to-1 blends in several years - I find it's actually easier and makes more sense to me overall to just completely rebuild a recipe/formula. But again, this kind of holiday baking is a case where it may be important to stay as true to your particular traditional recipe as possible, and so a 1-to-1 blend may be useful.     

I happened to have in my pantry one such blend, which was given to me by someone who had used it for a different project. A sugar cookie recipe seemed like the perfect test, because it brings the flour's flavor and texture to the forefront and also plainly shows whether the dough is easy to work with. I chose a recipe that used a fairly ordinary formula and appeared to give consistently good results for bakers using wheat flour

This Bob's Red Mill flour is labeled as a "1-to-1" blend. But wait - is it 1-for-1 by weight, or by cup? Or both? According to the side of the package of the BRM flour, ¼ cup weighs 37 g. That seemed a good bit heavier than AP flour. Not surprising, considering the density of sweet rice flour, which is the first ingredient in the BRM blend - but still an important question. Sure enough, the internet told me a cup of AP flour weighs about 125 g. In a recipe that calls for 3 cups of flour, substituting by weight would mean using 375 g, compared to a whopping 444 g if I went according to volume. That’s a huge difference in the consistency of the dough! Hmm…

A bit of googling indicated that most people were using it cup-for-cup, not weight. Still, I decided to start with scant measurements to be safe - you can always add more flour, but you can’t take it out! A very scant 3 cups, by my measurement, turned out to be ~400 g. If I were going to make this recipe again, I think that I would be still more conservative (perhaps 380-390 g) - the cookies turned out a little dry, with a slightly powdery/floury mouthfeel. This is not uncommon in blends combining xanthan gum and a high proportion of starches. That said, there is no grittiness nor any off-flavors, and the dough was very easy to work with after chilling overnight. So, while it might not be a true cup-for-cup substitute, I do think this flour blend could be useful in a wide variety of “regular” cookie recipes if you just remember to go easy on the amount of flour used.

Coming up soon: Part 2, in which I will show you how to make some traditional Christmas cookies from scratch, using simple ingredients, with no gum or other additives!

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