Friday, July 9, 2010

Treading in Gluten Free Waters

I have really enjoyed my vegan experimentation. I've learned far more than I truly expected. I went into this project thinking that I would do my best to make yummy desserts taste the same as their dairy and egg counterparts, but I feel that my eyes have been opened to a whole new way of thinking and eating. Greg and I, with extremely rare exception, now live in a vegan household, including our cleaning and beauty products. I've seen how different people approach veganism, most recently through people who eat raw. It has shaped how I think about food, my relationship with food, and how I want what I eat to reflect my personal morals.

Something I have been realizing throughout the course of this experiment, though, is that I severely overlooked another reason why people often pursue veganism: allergens and sensitivities. Fortunately, I am very lucky because I don't have allergy concerns. When I go to the doctor and I am asked what allergies I have, I can smile triumphantly and say none. When spring rolls around, I run outside without thinking twice. And, I think most illustrative, I proudly own three dogs, all of whom cuddle in on top of Greg and me in bed every night, and I've never had an itchy eye.

That said, I have had wonderful questions and suggestions for posts from people who do suffer these sensitivities, and I am feeling more and more not only that I should pursue more recipes that are more inclusive, but that I want to as well. I think the most natural place to start is with gluten free foods.

More and more recently, I've noticed news reports of a rise in diagnosis of gluten intolerances and Celiac disease. I would be misleading if I claimed I could speak intelligently about this subject, so I will leave that to the National Institute of Health and the Celiac Disease Foundation. Even for those who don't necessarily have a medical issue with gluten, though, staying away from gluten has become an increasingly growing phenomenon because, although it is a rich source of protein, it is very hard for the body to digest. I certainly do not have an issue with gluten, but I've learned through repeated attempts that I cannot eat seitan because it hurts to eat; it feels heavy in my stomach, I feel bloated, and it is just painful to digest. When I heard that sometimes people can be sensitive to gluten in varying amounts, I put two and two together and realized that eating seitan is just not in the cards for me.

I understand philosophically and certainly medically why people stay away from gluten, and I can certainly support that. The trick for a baker, though, is finding good replacements. Unlike dairy and egg products, which after some finagling can be swapped out undetected, flours with gluten are not so easy. Gluten plays a critical role in baking because it literally creates connecting fibers that hold the baked good together and that give the final product its density and mouthfeel. Just removing gluten won't work for that reason.

I have learned this the hard way; I attempted to make my first gluten free swap when I was making lemon thyme squares. I'd always had great success with it with all-purpose flour, and since the recipe is mostly filling with a tiny bit of crust, I tried a gluten free flour. What I ended up with was a mess that, although it tasted good, was more like a pudding with random crusty bits in it.

That all said, I certainly want to keep experimenting with various gluten free flours so I can come up with recipes to reach out to readers of mine that may have felt neglected in the past. I am learning a great deal, including the different kinds of flours, their tastes, and the kind of structures they create, and I am trying to put together different recipes that build on the strengths of these flours while still tasting good. Just like the lemon thyme squares, I'm sure I will have massive failures, which I will talk about here. I also hope to share some successes, and as always, I will pass those recipes along.

One of those successes is for Banana Chocolate Chip Bread. This recipe is a variation of Alicia Silverstone's recipe for Pumpkin Bread; I played around with her recipe because I had a ton of bananas and I really wanted the sweetness of chocolate without adding too much. I also got to try a new flour that is gluten free: chickpea flour (also called garbanzo flour, or sometimes chickpea and fava bean flour). One of chickpea flour's best assets is its neutral flavor. You can add it to recipes and know it won't muck with the flavor. There's also a decent amount of protein since the flour source is a bean. The drawback? Chickpea flour offers very little in the way of structure; recipes stay very moist, which can be good, but also extremely troublesome for more sensitive products like cookies and pies that need to stand up on their own. I tried chickpea flour in this bread recipe because I hoped by creating one large final product that could easily be cut when cooled, the bread would be less likely to fall apart. And fortunately, I was right! This was officially my first successful gluten free conversion, and I hope there's more to come.

PS: Some of the recipes on the blog are already gluten free, simply because they don't have flour in them. I will do my best to go back over posts and add the gluten free label for easy searching.

Banana Bread
Yields one loaf

2-3 bananas (kind of whatever I'm trying to get rid of!)
1 c. granulated or raw sugar
1 Tbsp. ground flaxseeds beaten with 3 Tbsp. water
1/2 c. soy milk
6 Tbsp. unsweetened applesauce
1/2 -1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. chickpea or chickpea/fava bean flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
6 Tbsp. chocolate chips (optional if you desire, but perish the thought!)

1) Combine bananas, sugar, flaxseed-water mixture, soy milk, applesauce, and vanilla extract until creamy and blended.
2) Add in soda, powder, and cinnamon; on low speed, gradually add the flour until all of it is incorporated and just mixed in.
3) If desired, stir in chocolate chips.
4) Spray or grease a loaf pan and fill pan with batter. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour. It will be ready when a knife comes out clean in the center and/or the top springs back when you press it.
5) Cool in pan for a few minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on cooling rack.

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