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Alice Medrich's Celebration of Gluten-Free Flours

Alice Medrich's Celebration of Gluten-Free Flours

A chat with pastry chef and teacher Alice Medrich: known as 'the queen of chocolate', she's just won a James Beard Awards with a gluten free baking cookbook.

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Alice Medrich, the reigning queen of chocolate, isn’t about to give up pain au chocolat. But her most recent cookbook is a step off the well beaten path of traditional baking. Flavor Flours is completely gluten free. The multi-James Beard Award-winning cooking book author, pastry chef and teacher, however, is not on the anti-wheat bandwagon. The point of Flavor Flours, she says, was not just to create gluten free recipes for celiacs or people who can’t digest wheat. Instead, it was about highlighting the unique characteristics of non-wheat flours — the sweetness of chestnut flour and the butterscotch side of oats. “The whole idea was to celebrate these flours – the tastes and the textures that they bring to the table instead of asking them to be wheat,” she says. “I just don’t like the idea that we’re always trying to make these other flours into the substitution for wheat instead of a whole new kind of cake.”

With the challenge set, she and co-author Maya Klein combined their pastry skills and examined corn flour, rice flour, buckwheat, sorghum, oat, teff, chestnut and coconut flour one by one. “We wanted to see what we could do with them that was different from other people were doing,” she says. “We love the problem-solving part of it and the figuring out.”

The result? Light chiffon cakes, cream-filled roulades, crunchy butter lemon tarts and moist, American chocolate fudge cake.

Everybody knows what oatmeal tastes like. But when you go from oatmeal to a really fine flour, you taste aspects of the flavor that you might not have noticed when you were eating your bowl of oatmeal. A really light, plain sponge cake made out of oat flour has toffee-caramel notes. The cake is so good that it may not need any frosting.

One of Medrich’s biggest surprises while developing the book was chiffon cakes. “My early interest in traditional chiffon cake was almost nil. But when you use these flours that have these other flavors, suddenly it’s a very interesting cake. The corn flour chiffon cake is better than any chiffon cake I’ve eaten and it has this beautiful taste of corn and golden colour. It’s a whole other animal.”

But what about the stereotype that gluten free desserts are all heavy and dense? Medrich scoffs at the idea. Teff makes great sponge cakes, brownies, fruit and nut loaves and genoise that’s “possibly better than a normal chocolate genoise,” she says. Her buckwheat sour cream soufflés with honey have the earthiness of kasha and soba noodles without the bitterness. “And there’s a fallen chestnut torte in the new book, which is probably somewhat similar to the one in my Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts — a little bit gooey and soft and rich and chocolatey.” Her secrets for fluffiness are to rely on eggs and to properly hydrate the flours. If whole grains aren’t sufficiently hydrated, they don’t fully bake and end up tasting mushy or gritty, she says. “Hydration is important in a lot of baking, even with wheat.” In Flavor Flours, Medrich’s recipes call for resting the batter or adding enough liquid in the first place and a long enough baking time to fully cook the cake, cookie or tart.

Medrich also scoffs at the gluten free flour blend. And she’s not a fan of guar and xanthan gums. As a pastry chef and a baker, she knew that recipes also get their structure from eggs. “Like with sponge cakes, I knew that there might be enough structure just in the recipe alone to be able to make a cake with a gluten free flour without the [xanthan or guar] gum,” she says. “So I tried it and I was right.”

The techniques for gluten free baking had sort of bcome codified before anybody explored different ways of doing things. If you look up the recipe for gluten free chiffon cake, you’re going to find a recipe that has nine or ten ingredients and xanthan or guar gum. So people aren’t questioning what’s being handed down as how you bake gluten free. And I think it’s bcause a lot of the people who created gluten free baking were never bakers or pastry chefs in the first place.

The other trick for success, she says, is not to mess with the recipes in the book. “Figure out what you like or don’t like about it and substitute or experiment from there. Because if you go in and do all these substitutions off the bat, you’ll never know what they recipe was supposed to be in the first place.”

But by following her instructions, even the most discerning dessert-lover will be satisfied, she says. “The idea was if you were baking in a situation where there was somebody who couldn’t eat gluten, you should never have to be apologetic or make a second cake to feed the people who eat wheat. In other words, the recipes taste good enough that everybody will be pleased.”

Five Questions with Alice Medrich, the Queen of Chocolate

Are you as passionate about chocolate as when you wrote your first book Cocolat 25 years ago?

What’s your favourite type of chocolate?
There are so many good chocolates now that I don’t feel married to one these days. I’m doing a lot of classes lately with Guittard chocolate, which is the oldest remaining family-owned chocolate company in California. They’re introducing a new line of retail bars.

If you were stranded on a desert island and you could have one chocolate dessert, what would it be?
I’d like to have a little stash of chocolate bars to nibble on. I’ve been baking at home for so long lately and so intensely I don’t think about anything that’s out there. I just ate a couple things at the b. Patisserie in San Francisco the other day that knocked my socks off. [Belinda Leong] makes this banana chocolate croissant that’s gooey inside and warm and flaky on the outside. That’s unbelievably good.

What’s next for you?
I’m doing a lot of teaching this year, partly because Im so passionate about the Flavor Flours and getting the word out. There’s a cooking school down toward Los Angeles where I’m doing a four-day bootcamp of hands-on instruction with these non-wheat flours and that will probably get repeated from time to time. I’m going to be at the Northwest chocolate festival in Seattle in October. Not sure what my next publishing project is. If I do another book it’s likely we might use some of these same flours and maybe some new ones and do some more savoury stuff. There are a lot of non-grain flours, too — cricket flour and apple flour, which are kind of interesting to me.

What should gluten free people do when they want a croissant?
I haven’t cracked that one yet. Another area that I’d like Maya and I to look at is the sort of yeast and laminated doughs and things like that. I think that’d be really fun. I’d like to do a Flavor Flour croissant that tastes like the flour in a really good croissant and has all that flakiness. That would be fantastic and wonderfully challenging.

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