I EAT WHEAT. Despite what I know about the detrimental effects of too much “white stuff,” I really can’t imagine ever giving up wheat. Ditto for the other two members of the nutritionist’s axis of evil, sugar and salt. Thankfully I don’t have to imagine it, not for the foreseeable future. My body has no problem digesting gluten, and no one in my family has celiac disease, or any food allergies at all. We do have aversions—my husband will not tolerate cinnamon; my son, cucumber; and I am not at all fond of mayonnaise—but we are hardly alone in this. Everyone balks at something. Not everyone is allergic.
If you’ve explored this blog at all, you’ve no doubt noticed that baking is big around here—and none of it is gluten free. Until now.
I have to confess that I would not have ventured into this territory (or not so soon) unless forced. I’ve been curious, yes, about how people with celiac manage to satisfy cravings for things like waffles or cupcakes or s’mores. But the curiosity was always akin to whatever it is that causes people to gawk at the site of a terrible accident. It was hardly the “let’s get in the kitchen and figure this out” kind of curiosity that drives many of my other projects. So, what was it that finally pulled me to the alternative baking section of the grocery store, looking for non-flour flours?
This month marks my first as a member of the Daring Bakers challenge group at The Daring Kitchen. And sure as Murphy’s Law, for my first time out of the gate, January’s two-part challenge (hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen) features a gluten-free recipe. Actually, our first set of marching orders was just to make graham crackers, or wafers, as Lauren calls them. Baking them with gluten-free flours was optional, but she sold me with the promise that “sometimes a restriction can make the end-product even more exciting.” Besides, what’s the point if not to push past your comfort zone a bit, right? That’s what a challenge is for.
I was lucky: one of the flours, the glutenous rice flour (also known as sweet rice flour), was already in my pantry. I’d been planning to use it to make dry mochi, since I spent the better part of last year eating outrageously delicious mochi at Radiance, a favorite tea shop and cafe here in NYC, and I wanted to try to replicate them. That project fell by the wayside once the holiday cookie blitz started, however, and the rice flour was still there in the back of my cupboard, so it would go toward the grahams. The rice flour is the one pictured in the full cup measure on the right in the photo above. The other two flours, tapioca and sorghum (to the left and middle, respectively) I purchased with a mixture of trepidation and pride at trying something new. This trinity of flours would hopefully result in a batch of lovely grahams, complete with a celiac’s stamp of approval. The adventure began.
The flours interested me: so finely textured, so light. The rice and tapioca ones were a very bright, natural white. The sorghum flour, nutty brown in color, eventually brought a sweet, herbal aroma (like molasses) to the baking. According to Bob’s Red Mill (the brand of sorghum flour I purchased), sorghum is the third leading cereal crop in the United States. Who knew? The back of the bag I bought has a recipe for sorghum scones, too: inspiration for using the leftover flour.
Of the mixing process, the first thing I’ll say is that since the recipe allows for mixing with a processor or by hand, and since I run a very low-tech kitchen, I was working up the dough by hand. Which was fine, but it meant really working it by hand: I am not sure that freezing the butter was either needed or desirable. Keeping it chilled, yes. But freezing it, if you’re not working with a processor and steel blade, makes for difficult cutting in. Maybe I prepped too far in advance, cubing the butter and putting it in the freezer the night before to make sure it was truly frozen. Was it ever. When I tried to blend the butter into the flour-sugar mixture with two table knives in a crosshatch manner, the way I do cold butter for pie crust: no dice. I had to get my hands in the bowl (nothing I’m opposed to, by any means) and start squeezing hard, pinching, softening the butter enough with my fingers to incorporate it properly and create the coarse meal required.
Oh, but then came the honey, milk, and vanilla—three of my favorite things; I am often heating them up together to drink instead of tea or coffee. This added to the flours made for a seductive scent. I was starting to get excited about this project, as promised.
Here’s the way the rest of the baking went:
The dough was really, really sticky. You want to have a lot of extra rice flour on hand. Thankfully, I’d seen some warnings about this in the Daring Bakers’ discussion forum.
When rolling out the dough (did I mention it was very sticky? I did?), you want to use parchment paper or a Silpat.
I decided to cut the crackers with lovely, fluted edges, and to make them rectangular rather than square. So far so good . . .
. . . except that there was no way of transferring individual crackers onto a baking sheet: much too sticky. Good thing I’d rolled on the parchment and could just slide the whole thing over.
Popped in the oven, the aroma was enticing at first, but less so as the wafers continued to bake—or, wait—was that the smell of my grahams burning? It was.
Warning: watch them in your oven very carefully. Mine were burning at 18 minutes.
The other thing that distressed me was that because I couldn’t separate the wafers prior to baking, the fluting was ruined—indeed, the fact that they were pre-cut at all got lost in the end result. To say that they didn’t break apart cleanly would be a drastic understatement. Happily, I was going to be using crumbs for phase two of the challenge: Nanaimo Bars.
Of course, everyone wants to know about the taste: can gluten-free grahams compare to the “real” thing? It’s an unfair comparison, and I’m really not the person to answer that question. I mean, someone who eats wheat, and all the usual baked goods that go with it, will have a hard time avoiding the impression of “settling for” a gluten-free counterpart. But why do we have to compare? It’s a disservice. There are, I’ve come to agree with Lauren, interesting recipes coming out of the gluten-free world. Celiac Teen and Gluten-Free Girl (see sidebar links for that site, or click here for GFG’s version of gluten-free grahams, which also appeared this month) are but two blogs that raise the bar on this kind of baking.
These grahams are good. And if you prefer less of the cloying sweetness in “real” grahams and more of a deep, natural taste, you might even prefer these—especially if you don’t burn them! My son, to whom I did not mention that the grahams were gluten-free, ate them happily; we both agreed they’re great dunked in milk.
So thank you, Lauren, for pushing me out of my wheaten comfort zone and getting me to give gluten-free baking a try. I’ll certainly be doing some more of it, if only to use up the collection of unusual flours that now reside in my pantry.
Gluten-Free Graham Wafers
Yield: 3-4 dozen grahams
1 cup (138 g) (4.9 ounces) sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)
3/4 cup (100 g) (3.5 ounces) tapioca starch/flour
1/2 cup (65 g) (2.3 ounces) sorghum flour
1 cup (200 g) (7.1 ounces) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda
3/4 teaspoon (4 mL ) kosher salt
7 tablespoons (100 g) (3 ½ ounces) unsalted butter (cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen)
1/3 cup (80 mL) honey, mild-flavoured such as clover
5 tablespoons (75 mL) whole milk
2 tablespoons (30 mL) pure vanilla extract
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flours, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal. If making by hand, combine aforementioned dry ingredients with a whisk, then cut in butter until you have a coarse meal. No chunks of butter should be visible.
In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the honey, milk and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.
Turn the dough onto a surface well-floured with sweet rice flour and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.
Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of sweet rice flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be quite sticky, so flour as necessary. Cut into 4 by 4 inch squares. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place wafers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.
Adjust the rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more sweet rice flour and roll out the dough to get a couple more wafers.
Prick the wafers with toothpick or fork, not all the way through, in two or more rows.
Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Might take less, and the starting location of each sheet may determine its required time. The ones that started on the bottom browned faster.
The graham wafers may be kept in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
If making the graham crackers with wheat, replace the gluten-free flours (tapioca starch, sweet rice flour, and sorghum flour) with 2-1/2 cups plus 2 tbsp of all-purpose wheat flour, or wheat pastry flour. Watch the wheat-based graham wafers very closely in the oven, as they bake faster than the gluten-free ones, sometimes only 12 minutes.
The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and www.nanaimo.ca. [Follow this link to my version of the Nanaimos: Kona Coffee Nanaimo Bars]