Saturday 27 August 2016

Join us at the Greensboro GFAF Event!

This is just a quick announcement about the GFAF Wellness Event in Greensboro, NC on Saturday, September 10th - that’s coming up fast! And I have some free tickets to give away! I will be giving a presentation entitled Recipe Remodeling: The Art and Science of Ingredient Substitution, in which I will explain how to keep the spirit and authenticity of your traditional recipes even when you need to change key ingredients like wheat, milk, and eggs. You will learn how to choose the right real-food ingredients to best fit your recipe, as well as some of the practical advantages these whole-food-based substitutes have over their conventional counterparts. 

I hope to see you there! For a chance to win tickets, leave a comment telling me an ingredient substitution you’d like to see featured on the blog!
Gluten-free (& vegan) bread, demonstrating some fantastically useful alternative ingredients
that are far more than just substitutes!

Wednesday 24 August 2016

La Pasta Madre: Italian GF sourdough starter experiment, Day 14

[I’ve been following instructions for the wild-fermented starter in A Tavola Senza Glutine - if you’re new to this series, see the first and second posts for introduction and more info about GF sourdoughs in general!]

When we last left off, I'd just given the starter its first refresh. As the book instructed, I continued to refresh the dough in the same manner every 1 ½ - 2 days, removing 50 g of the dough and replacing it with an equal total of fresh material (20 g rice flour, 10 g corn flour, and 10 g water). After a total of 5 refreshings in this way, the book said, the starter can be used for bread. 
Day 6...
Day 9...
Well, by the fourth refresh - a little more than a week in - the dough seemed pretty lifeless. A lievito madre is often more concentrated than the sourdough starters many of us are used to, and as such it’s generally used in quantities similar to fresh yeast - a spoonful, as opposed to sourdough bread recipes that use a few ounces of starter per loaf. So I knew that, like the similarly slow-growing yeast formulas found in old cookbooks, it wouldn’t be as active as my normal starters. But I expected more than this! There weren’t many bubbles visible and the increase in height in the jar was negligible. On the final refresh I also added in 5 g more honey, hoping the free sugars might spark some visible activity, but even that didn’t do much. I kept going only because the gradual changes in smell had hinted that something was still happening. 

Day 11...Not much going on here.
So finally, I tried it with one of the recipes in the book: the focaccia, as pictured on the cover, which you can see in the Day 1 post. didn’t work. The “dough” was a runny mess, it didn’t rise or develop much flavor, and the final product - far from the lovely springy-looking bread in the pictures - was a dense, tough cracker/pancake hybrid. 

I have some ideas about what might have gone wrong, and hopefully I’ll be able to fix it. For now, though, I put the starter in the fridge (note: the book did not instruct this, but at the stated 15 days between feeding of the mature pasta madre, I assume refrigeration is wise!) and will come back to it when I’m feeling patient enough to test a few things - I’ll keep you updated!

Monday 15 August 2016

La Pasta Madre: Italian GF sourdough starter experiment, Day 4

Per the book’s instructions, I left the jar alone for 3 days to do its thing. The mixture showed significant activity (as indicated by bubbles and rising height) within the first 48 hrs - this is typical of new starters. Despite looking like a very active dough, this initial burst of activity is a mix of a whole bunch of funky bacteria that will be largely replaced by other types as the starter matures. By 72 hrs the starter had begun to acquire a vaguely acetone-like smell, typically an indicator that the stuff living in it is getting very “hungry” and stressed (see below for further explanation). Nonetheless, as instructed, I removed just 20% (50 g) of the mixture, and replaced it with an equal amount of fresh material: 20 g rice flour, 10 g corn flour, and 20 g water.

As I stated on Day 1, I had some doubts about whether I was understanding this part of the recipe correctly. Often recipes for a new starter will instruct to discard 50% or more of the fermenting mixture, and replace it with (at least) as much new material. That's about the ratio I'm used to with my previous successful GF starters too.

Why discard so much flour? To answer this question we need to look closely at what’s happening in a new starter. We begin with flour and water; these provide all the nutrients necessary for whatever kinds of bacteria and fungus are present to grow. At first, we have all kinds of things growing - the kinds we want for bread, which will produce good flavors and make the bread rise, but also plenty of things that make funky smells, molds, and perhaps even some things that (if allowed to grow in sufficient quantities) could make us sick. As these various organisms break down the starches, proteins, and other metabolic processes in order to grow and reproduce, the mixture grows more acidic. The increased acidity is crucial to the process of becoming sourdough - the organisms we don’t want can’t grow very well in the acidic environment, allowing the acid-tolerant bread bacteria and yeasts to thrive with less competition. However, this is far from the only chemical change: you also have other metabolic products of the fermentation process and the old cells that have died.
When these products build up in proportion to the fresh resources in the mixture, the bacteria and yeasts may go into “survival mode” - they start producing molecules that aren’t desirable for bread, and also in turn the altered chemical environment of the mixture negatively affects the diversity of the microbial community. So, when you remove some of the starter, you’re not just removing flour, water, and the stuff living in it - you’re removing dead stuff, undesirable chemicals, and other things that would get in the way of a robust sourdough community. Discarding and feeding the starter both controls this buildup and provides fresh resources at a ratio that allows the desirable organisms to take over. 

All that said, I have definitely found plenty of old and traditional examples of fermentation methods that seemingly go against this wisdom yet still produce bread. Some of those are also fairly dry/stiff mixtures like this one is, which may be significant. So, for now, I am continuing to give this recipe (and my translation skills) the benefit of the doubt. Check back in a few days to see the progress!

Raleigh GFAF Event recap!

This past weekend was the annual Raleigh GFAF Wellness Event - as always, it was full of good things to eat, people to meet, and lots of fun. But don't just take my word for it, let me show you:

Right, top to bottom: Grass-fed beef shawerma sandwich on GF pita; 
Salmon appetizer; Salad with GF pita croutons.
Left: GF cinnamon roll
The night before the event, the bloggers and speakers met for dinner at Fresh Levant Bistro, a 100% GF restaurant/bakery in Raleigh. As the name suggests, the menu is very much influenced by mediterranean cuisine and flavors. In addition to being conscious of food sensitivities, many of the ingredients are sustainably sourced - for instance, all of the beef and dairy used is grass-fed. All this is on top of the fact that everything I tried was delicious! I will definitely be back here as there are lots more things I want to try, especially their house-made savory flatbreads. I should mention their pastry case is filled with gorgeous treats too - I was too full for dessert after the dinner, but I just had to swing by the next day to get a cinnamon roll to take home with me!

On to the event itself! I know I've said it before, but it's so nice every once in a while to just taste whatever looks good, without having to make it myself or even ask questions. I know I'm pretty fortunate in this regard - although gluten isn't exactly easy to avoid in everyday situations, it is the only thing I have to be super careful about food-wise, so I get the privilege of experiencing carefree snacking at these events. People with additional allergies/sensitivities will still need to ask questions and be cautious, but I think there's still plenty for pretty much everyone here, whether it's food or connecting with other people and resources.

Some special NC products:
Top - Norm's Farms elderberry jams; Bull City Ciderworks
Middle - Bamboo Ladies bamboo pickles, made of guess what - yep, bamboo grown in the NC mountains, from a family recipe with some interesting history. Now there's something you don't see every day!
Bottom - Peggy Rose's pepper jellies and other condiments - the Habanero Ketchup is my favorite; Garnet Rose Soap Co handcrafted soaps
Local Raleigh & Durham bakeries:
Durham-based Cheenies cheese breads. These come ready to bake and, as you can see, can also be made into cute little sandwiches or even "waffled." 
JP's Pastries in Raleigh has now added bread along with their popular sweet treats. The strawberry frosting on this pretty pink cake was good enough to eat by the spoonful!
Baking mixes:
Ardenne Farms was sampling their baking mixes, including some very fluffy and soft pancakes.
Mina's offered a wide assortment of samples, all made from their regular flour blend and bread mix. The cranberry cake and the oatmeal raisin cookies, both made with the flour blend, were especially tasty.
A few more interesting things:
Top - assorted offerings from The Produce Box, a local-centric grocery delivery service
Middle - some grainless cookies from Our Paleo Family (L) using minimally processed ingredients, and flourless cookie from The Gluten- and Grain-Free Gourmet (R)
Bottom - Veggie Fries
Blogger bag, samples, etc:
Top - Goodies in my Blogger Team bag! Norm's Farms elderberry jam, a grainfree gingerbread cookie from Our Paleo Family, a nifty lunch bag from Cheenies, Glutino toaster pastries, some Wowbutter soy butter spread, Neat egg replacer made from chia and garbanzo beans, and a whole loaf of Udi's sandwich bread. Also, Itchy Pig, a children's story by Nicole Bruno Cox about a little pig with allergies.
Bottom right - The other tasty stuff I brought home! Various samples from many vendors, including Enjoy Life, Bakery on Main, Nature's Path, Kind, and others, plus some flavors of Milton's baked chips and a cake mix from Ardenne Farm. 
Bottom left - The full list of vendors, including food producers, support resources, and more.
A big thank you to all the vendors and sponsors! 

If you couldn't make it to the Raleigh event, don't worry - there is another event in Greensboro NC coming up on September 10th! 

Friday 12 August 2016

La Pasta Madre: Italian GF sourdough starter experiment, Day 1

Sourdough or natural leaven is the natural fermentation of starchy material by a mixture of many types of wild yeasts and bacteria that are adapted to coexistence. This complex fermentation results in a diverse assortment of molecules contributing to the flavor, nutrition, and even the texture of bread differently than the single strain of yeast we buy at the store. The difference is even more pronounced in GF bread. Based on a wide body of research, I believe that the traits selected for store-bought yeast are simply not the best match for the properties of our GF flours; wild yeasts and associated bacteria are much better for turning these flours into bread - real bread, with only a few simple ingredients and no additives needed to compensate. In fact, one of the ways certain sourdough bacteria benefit bread texture and reduce staling is by producing a molecule that functions similarly to a gum! 

I recently acquired an Italian gluten-free book, A Tavola Senza Glutine, which was published by Slow Food Editore - between that fact and the amazing-looking pictures, I knew it had to be good! Unsurprisingly, all of the leavened breads use a natural sourdough starter, which I was eager to make. However, I found the method of making the starter quite surprising indeed. Let me explain:

Conventional sourdough starter methods usually advise refreshing (discarding a portion and feeding fresh flour) frequently, up to 2 or even 3 times a day until the microbial community is established, and this approach is often used in GF sourdough tutorials as well. Some recent artisan-bread experts feel the starter grows more robustly when fed/divided just once a day and at the other 12 hour intervals simply stirred to ensure enough oxygen for aerobic fermentation throughout the mixture. I’ve found this latter strategy to work well in the past with my own sweet-potato-based GF starters also. Certain traditional methods, on the other hand, involve a straight batch fermentation - nothing is discarded or divided, the flour-water mixture is just left alone until it balances itself out! It is more often done in situations where the entire batter is used (as opposed to maintaining a continuous starter for future batches) but I have also seen examples of long-lived starters created in this way. This last method is of course the least reliable and the success or failure of it seems highly dependent on temperature, ingredients, and multiple other conditions, because without intervention it is harder for the desirable bacteria and yeasts to gain a stronghold. (I personally have never gotten it to work right.) But the simplicity of it is intriguing - and tradition hints our ingredients’ natural course of fermentation may be suited to this approach, as seen in recipes for various Asian rice- and bean-based batters and Ethiopian teff flatbread as well as some of the traditional American methods of making potato yeast. 

So I was very interested (albeit a little nervous) to try the starter method in A Tavola Senza Glutine, which seems to strike a nice balance between the high-turnover and the hands-off approach: the starter is left alone for 2-3 days at a time, and at each interval, 20% of the mixture is discarded and replaced with fresh flour and water to maintain a constant quantity. Simple and unfussy, right? addition to the low-maintenance schedule, this is a much lower discard ratio than with a typical sourdough starter recipe. So much lower, in fact, that I began to question whether I was reading the recipe correctly, and if it in fact might be the other way around. The word used, sostituitelo, means replace - does this mean replace as in “swap out” or could it mean replace in the sense of “return / put back with”? Am I supposed to add the fresh flour to the original jar (unusual ratio, but seemed to be what was instructed) or the removed portion? Had it been the reverse - removing a small portion to combine with fresh flour and discarding the rest, then also discarding and replacing half of the mixture at each subsequent feeding - this procedure would be far more typical, though less economical. To clarify, I went looking for some other instances of the same wording in other types of recipes where the intended procedure is more obvious, and it seems pretty clear that the usage of “replace” here does indeed mean the fresh flour is to be added to the main mixture, not combined with the small removed portion. (If you’re wondering why this difference matters so much, don’t worry - I will explain further about the role of discarding during the establishing phase in the Day 4 update.)
Regardless, that wasn’t the only odd thing about this starter recipe. It is also a lower hydration percentage - it starts out at just 60% hydration (not including the small amount of honey to get things going). The subsequent feedings/waterings add liquid at 67% of the flour weight, meaning the starter does become a little less dry with each discard, but even 67% remains a much lower hydration than the starters I’m most familiar with. 

But! In spite of all these doubts, I still want to try it the way it's (I think?) written. I know, I should have asked someone about the confusing wording, and I will feel very silly if I misunderstood the procedure. At the very least, it will be interesting, right? Let’s see what happens!

FIRST, some notes on what you’ll need: 

Rice - I might be overthinking this, but I figure I ought to at least bring it up in case it turns out to be relevant: The rice varieties grown in Italy are mostly medium-short-grain japonica varieties (think risotto), some of which are available made into flour. However, I can’t figure out if the regular rice flour available in Italy is made from one of these or from a more common rice type, as most do not specify. Likewise, most rice flour sold in the US does not specify the rice variety, but I’d guess it’s mostly made from medium-long grain types - a different amylose/amylopectin ratio than shorter grains. Anyway, I’m working under the assumption that standard rice flour here is similar enough to the standard rice flour there to suit the purposes of this experiment. Let’s hope I’m right!

Corn - Italian corn meals/flours can be divided into 3 categories: bramata (coarse, like for polenta), fioretto (fine, like US stone-ground corn flour), and finally fumetto (superfine and consisting only of the softer endosperm, or inner part of the corn kernel). This last grade is what the book calls for, but it isn’t really a thing in the US, so I had to do the best I could with my finest sieve and hope the tiny bits of harder outer layer remaining wouldn’t be too disruptive. 

Water - Please do NOT use tap water - the chlorine compounds and other things in municipal tap water will interfere with the growth of the more fragile members of the sourdough microbial community. Use spring water, or filtered water may be OK if your water filter is very very efficient.

Honey - I suspect the recipe specifies acacia honey for only a few particular reasons. For one, it has a higher fructose content than many other honeys, meaning it won’t crystallize and, being fairly thin, will dissolve evenly in the mixture. The other reason is that it has a very bright unintrusive flavor - it is a light, cleanly sweet spring honey, without the waxy, earthy, or tangy notes found in some other varietals or wildflower blends. 
With these criteria in mind I was all set to use another kind of honey I already had. But combined with the already unusual nature of this formula, I decided at the last minute to err on the side of caution, worried that there is something special about acacia that I wasn’t aware of. (Perhaps it may be particularly conducive to yeast fermentation, considering its popularity among mead producers?) If it doesn’t work right, I didn’t want to be stuck wondering if it was because I used the wrong honey. Besides, I was already having to change one thing with the cornmeal - changing two things just wouldn’t be scientific, after all. 

Jar - OK, it’s not exactly an ingredient, but it’s definitely necessary and I want to bring up one point: The book recommends covering the jar with a cloth, which is indeed the traditional way. However, newer science indicates that contrary to popular (and traditional) belief, the vast majority of the characteristic yeasts and bacteria in a sourdough starter come not from the surrounding air, but are already present on the surface of the grains. So, I just use a loose-fitting lid because it’s less cumbersome. You shouldn’t have an airtight seal, and you may still want to use a cloth if you are having issues with condensation in the jar, but really, any cover that keeps out the fruit flies and such should be fine. 

The starter, day 1: 100 g rice flour, 50 g fine corn flour, 180 g water, 1 tablespoon (~16 g) acacia honey
Combine in jar and set aside in a cool place for 3 days. The book specifies 18º C (about 65º F) - it’s nowhere near that cold in my house at this time of year, so I put it near the AC vent and hope it averages out! (By the way, the quantities above are half of the recipe as written in the book, because this quantity seemed more manageable. If you want to do it exactly as written, double all the measurements above.)

Check back on Day 4 - that’s Monday - to see what happens next!

Saturday 6 August 2016

Pastuccia (Italian polenta pie)

The nature of my research means I end up studying a lot of cookbooks from a purely academic perspective - I read far more recipes than I could ever possibly cook, and the ones I do select to prepare are carefully chosen for their research value. But occasionally a book I initially intended to use merely for investigative purposes ends up going above and beyond its usefulness as an academic reference and earns a spot as a treasured resource in my kitchen as well. (This means I have to get my own copy to keep, so I can quit monopolizing the library’s one!) 

La Cucina (originally published in Italian as La Cucina del Bel Paese), if you’re not familiar with it, is essentially a giant community cookbook comprising the entirety of Italy. It represents the culmination of 50 years of research by the Accademia italiana della cucina, started in 1953 to record and preserve Italy’s regional culinary heritage. A fantastic project! But because the recipes were collected from regular people rather than developed by a test kitchen, some of the instructions are a little sparse - and because it’s been translated and adapted for an English-speaking audience, some words also become less specific. In the recipe I wanted to make, it wasn’t clear to me what type of sausage should be used, or even how thickly or thinly the dough should be spread, so I turned to the internet hoping to find some clarification.

Well, after comparing the variety of recipes available online, it appears that this dish - like pretty much everything that is baked in a casserole, come to think of it! - is the kind of food where you use what you’ve got. So what makes it a pastuccia? The common defining elements seem to be cornmeal, pork (usually a combination of sausage and pancetta), almost always egg yolks in the dough, and usually some raisins too. The proportions, procedure, and other specifics are open to much freedom of interpretation. To answer my initial question, it turns out some recipes use fresh sausage, some use dry, and many use something in between. What’s more, some versions are essentially a giant savory corn-cake, mixed with cold water to form a crackled, crumbly dough; others are rich casseroles which require first cooking a soft polenta. Oh, and the additions may be mixed into the dough or distributed mostly on the bottom and top. Most versions go in the oven, but a few apparently are cooked entirely on the stove. And so on...As I said, it’s pretty flexible.

In the spirit of this variability, writing it out as a recipe seems a bit stuffy - instead, I’m just going to tell you what I did. You can do the same, or you can change things depending on your tastes and what you have available. 

How I made the pastuccia:
(These measurements are for a small pastuccia - most recipes use at least double the amounts I’ve given here, so scale it as you see fit. It was so delicious, I wish I’d made a larger one!)
First, I took about ¼ lb of raw local pork sausage and browned it in a cast-iron skillet, then added 70 grams of minced semi-dry andouille sausage (I didn’t have any pancetta/guanciale, so I improvised - I know it’s very different, but it worked anyway!) and cooked it until the bits were nice and crispy. Meanwhile, I put about a cup (140 g) of cornmeal in a bowl along with a pinch of salt - this was mostly Arrowhead Mills’ organic cornmeal, but I also used a little of Anson Mills’ heirloom Italian polenta integrale for the flavor - and stirred in 120 g (½ cup) very hot water to form a stiff dough. Next, I mixed in 40 g (¼ cup) of golden raisins (I had previously soaked these in water for a few minutes to plump them up), followed by one raw egg yolk, which made the dough quite soft and sticky. 

At this point I removed about half of the sausage mixture from the cast iron pan, pressed the dough into the hot pan with the remaining sausage and cooked it a moment to brown the bottom, then scattered the reserved sausage mixture over the top of the dough. Then I put the whole thing into the oven (preheated to 200º C/395º F) and baked it until it was golden and cooked through - this took about half an hour I think, or maybe a little less. 
Cut it into wedges to serve as part of a main course or as an appetizer. These types of cornmeal cakes are traditionally frequently paired with cooked green vegetables. Leftovers (if you have any!) can be reheated in the oven or enjoyed cold.
P.S. Don't forget, the Raleigh GFAF Event is in one week! See here for the details, and go to this post to win free tickets!