When I lived in the old house on Lincoln Avenue, I used to bake cakes or scones after a really good date. I don’t know exactly what possessed me the first time, or what ultimately turned it into a tradition of sorts. But certainly, a good date is a legitimate reason to bring sweet baked goodness into the house.
Have you ever heard the song, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake?” My mom and I used to sing it all the time.
Baking is a newer adventure for me. Like, I only recently came to understand the importance of mixing dry ingredients and wet ones separately. And going gluten-free about three years ago meant that any minor baking competence I had developed up until that point was rendered almost entirely moot. But all of a sudden, I wanted to make things myself that I had never bothered to attempt when gluten was an option: pizza crust (I’d buy frozen), pie crust (pre-made graham cracker shells), bread (artisan bakery down the street). I wanted to prove (to myself?) that it was possible to continue to enjoy foods that were so conveniently available in my former life, and that they could be even better and cheaper if I made them myself.
And then I realized that you have to use a bunch of different flours I never even knew existed in order to approximate the behavior of wheat flour. Sweet rice flour? Which is different than white rice flour? Potato starch? Tapioca flour? WTF? I turned to Bob’s Red Mill’s Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Flour. That worked for a while–and I think it’s essential to those just embarking on the gluten-free adventure–until I got tired of the garbanzo beany aftertaste and gathered up enough courage to throw $40 worth of flours in my shopping cart (!!). Those all sat in my freezer until I actually decided to turn my brain on before preheating the oven: with a little knowledge of the properties of wheat flour, and a meager understanding of the composition of these other gluten-free flours, I might actually understand why I’m using brown rice and potato starch and tapioca flours rather than, say, cornstarch and soy flour. Geez. The driving force behind flour selection for a particular baked good? Protein, protein bonding, conformational changes.
Biochemists know it. Students in cell biology classes know it. My carnivorous fiance knows it. It’s all about the protein.
See, that’s what gluten is–two nefarious insoluble proteins, gliadin and glutenin. And the way you treat gluten in dough form provides different results–flaky but cohesive pie crust, airy crumb of a french loaf, chewy substance of a cookie. For gluten-free baking, we’ve gotta improvise in the protein department. Have you ever made a regular pie crust with anything more than all-purpose flour, ice water, and butter? No. You don’t need to. Because when the flour and water are mixed, the gluten proteins in the flour change conformation to trap water molecules and result in a dense but elastic lattice structure and, hence, a cohesive crust. Overkneading this crust will result in a harder, less elastic texture because the more you knead, the more bonding you have between the gluten proteins. Try, then, a combination of rice flour, ice water, and butter. And watch the crust completely fall apart when you do little more than blow on it. Why? Practically no proteins to create that elastic lattice.
I made a pie last night for the first time. The crust recipe called for, along with dry ingredients and butter, an egg and a tablespoon of vinegar. What’s that about? I had to understand before I embarked on the recipe. I’m not a visual/kinetic/auditory learner–I need to understand why the hell I’m doing something or I’ll never learn how (or obey). I turned to my new favorite book, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. I snapped up a copy of the 1984 edition at Powell’s for $26 and now I think I might understand.
The egg provides the protein missing from our gluten-free flours (in this case, white rice flour, tapioca starch, and corn starch). Egg white proteins coagulate into filaments when heated and provide that lattice structure that normal flours inherently contain. The proteins in the egg whites also are notorious for foaming–or as Harold explains, forming a “relatively stable mass of bubbles”–when exposed to air by whipping. The fatty yolk, on the other hand, interferes with this process. So we’re using a whole egg to prevent rampant foaming (we’re going for pie crust, not souffle). When heated, the egg proteins coagulate (hello rubbery scrambled eggs); adding vinegar reduces the pH of the egg and therefore lowers the reactivity (or bond-happiness) of the egg proteins, allowing them to disperse evenly enough throughout the dry ingredients and shortening and provide the protein structure of the crust.
Holy crap. I am so sorry I just did that to you.
Here. Look at some pie.
I really wished organic chemistry and biochemistry could have been taught in the context of the kitchen.
Anyway, I made this crust. I’ve tried a few gluten-free pie crusts and have been disappointed each time–the crusts were too crumbly, too dense and chewy, funny-flavored. Not this puppy!! It became a strawberry rhubarb pie, made with fruit from last weekend’s farmers market run. Just in time to celebrate the job offer I received yesterday. Now, I live, bake, and WORK in Portland! Hooray!
Victory Pie Crust, adapted from The Gluten-Free Gourmet by Bette Hagman
1 cup white rice flour
3/4 cup tapioca flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1-1/2 tsp xanthan gum
3/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
3/4 cup butter* (I’m in LOVE with Tillamook Creamery’s sweet cream unsalted butter, if you’re in the Pacific Northwest or lucky enough to find it)
1 egg, beaten
1 Tbsp white vinegar
2-3 Tbsp ice water
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Grate the butter into the dry ingredients and incorporate it with a spatula or whisk. Mix the beaten egg, vinegar, and 2 Tbsp ice water together in a bowl or mug. Mix these wet ingredients into the flour-butter mixture little by little–a third at a time or so. If the pastry is not yet holding together as a dough, add more ice water incrementally (I think I ended up using about 3-1/2 Tbsp total).
Form the dough into two balls and place in a bowl, covered, in the fridge. Let the dough cool for about 30 minutes (15 min in my case, because I can’t follow the rules). Roll the dough out between two pieces of parchment paper and use as indicated by your pie recipe of choice. You could also stick the dough disks in the fridge or freezer for later, but make sure to let them temper on the counter for a while (30 min if coming out of the fridge, longer if coming out of the freezer) before handling them as they will be a bit fragile when cold. You should get 2 9″ crusts. Note that they won’t brown the same way that our old wheat crusts would.
*Note: Put sticks of butter in the freezer. Many recipes tell you to “cut in the shortening,” asking you to use a ridiculous pastry cutter or fork and knife to chunk up the butter into pea-sized bits, a task that has made many a 50’s housewife turn to amphetamines. Well, since you’re really smart, all you have to do is take the butter out of the freezer and grate it on the biggest holes of a box grater. And cry tears of sweet sweet joy.