The Grand Experiment

Regular readers of this irregular blog will recall that in January 2013, Lathropworld went (mostly) gluten-free. A collection of non-specific, low-level maladies and feelings led to the decision, and we have been living the lifestyle pretty much ever since.

Sure, there have been occasions that have caused Jenni in particular to go off of her self-imposed dietary restrictions, but as I said, since it isn’t a medical necessity, and more a question of overall health and well-being, she can just take it with the understanding of how she’ll feel afterward.

I’ve been able to adapt pretty well on most things: less pasta is consumed, with more rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and even squash showing up in the equation. I’ve been able to make pretty tasty gluten-free alternatives to favorite dishes, like chicken parmesan, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, crab alfredo and even a lasagna.

But the difficulty has come in any form of baked good.

Cakes, muffins, pancakes, and bread have all been huge challenges. Because nothing hydrates quite like wheat flour.

We tried two gluten-free breads before discovering Udi’s. The first two were horrible. Udi’s is passable to the point where it is the gold standard. Even though it’s still not a very satisfying bread. But Jenni’s wonderfully committed to the diet and, in spite of the bread’s shortcomings, still has it every morning for breakfast, and occasional sandwiches during the week.

But when it comes to cooking, I’m always looking for something better if a food comes up short. Jenni loves her baked goods–especially sweet ones–and I’d love to find that one wonderful recipe that makes something that’s at least almost close to the real thing.

Last week, my copy of the long-awaited America’s Test Kitchen gluten-free cookbook arrived. In the course of an evening, I’d scanned it cover to cover, and started taking in their ideas, tips and tricks as to how to overcome the no-wheat baking problem.

A month of so ago, I bought an e-book written by a woman whose gluten-free blog (Gluten Free On a Shoestring) I follow online. And like ATK, she’s laid out a huge discussion of what ingredients and methods need to be used to achieve her results.

And here’s the biggest frustration: everyone who has written a book or blog about gluten-free baking has a different formula for making an alternative flour. In fact, the Gluten Free On a Shoestring woman actually has four or five different blends, depending on what you’re making.

One night last week, I made a lemon pound cake that actually wasn’t gritty, nearly melted in your mouth, and tasted fabulous. The ATK book must be on to something.

So I decided that I would move on to their soft sandwich bread recipe.

Bread has been the big killer for me. Up until this weekend, I’ve tried two boxed mixes and two recipes found online, and the bread has consistently failed to rise properly, has come out dry, gritty, really chewy, and in one case, was so horrible that I threw it out even before I had Jenni try a piece.

I’ve read different theories about gluten-free bread baking from so many different sources now that I’m skeptical of all of them until one actually proves itself in a loaf of bread. One blog claimed that since you don’t need to form gluten, you don’t need very much rising time at all–20 minutes of rising and a baking cycle later, and I had a really firm, ghostly white rectangular Frisbee. Another said you need to mix in the xanthan gum at a specific time so that it would provide the needed structure at just the right moment. That one rose but otherwise tasted so horrible I threw it out.

The box mixes brought me some hope, but in the end, they too failed to meet the expectations raised by the photo on the box or package.

Over the last couple of weeks, deciding that the ATK book and GFOAS (Gluten Free On a Shoestring) blog are probably the two best options at this point, I’ve been gathering the oddball ingredients needed to make their breads. Sure, there are the standards: white rice flour, brown rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch and flour, even oat flour. But then ATK calls on powdered psyllium husks, which are more a dietary supplement than baking ingredient.

You see, psyllium is commonly used as a fiber supplement, and apparently, their powdered husks can provide some pretty kick-ass structure to a collection of flours that otherwise have no structure. In addition, it offers the side effect of some startling regularity when eaten. But psyllium husks aren’t something commonly found at your run-of-the-mill grocery store. However, it is offered at The Vitamin Shoppe.

So imagine, if you will, Patrick and I walking into our neighborhood Vitamin Shoppe location on Friday afternoon. The two bulked-up gentlemen at the counter didn’t bother talking to me when I walked past them, and eventually, I found the “Helps you poop” section of their store, and picked up the $7 jar. At the counter, well-built guy number two informed me that I want to make sure to drink lots of water when using this, because, you know, that’s how it makes things move down there…And then I told him that I was going to use it in a recipe for baking gluten-free bread.

I don’t think he knew what to do with that.

A couple of other ingredients have necessitated purchasing foodstuffs online. One is a “modified tapioca starch,” which of course begs the question as to what exactly was modified. But the other is “isolated whey protein,” which also makes me wonder what the poor protein did to deserve being isolated from the rest of the kids.

All I know is that the modified tapioca starch is a “professional food-grade thickener,” presumably used when you’re making gravy for 5,000 and need to thicken it up quickly. I, on the other hand, need 16 grams of the stuff in one loaf’s worth of bread dough.

Isolated whey protein, for those keeping score at home, apparently is something used by body builders.

Honestly, as the bread decision is coming down to pooping more or having bigger muscles, I have no idea what to choose.

Friday night I made the ATK bread. It came out okay–not great, certainly, but it rose well, is reasonably soft, but still really dense and somewhat chewy. It does toast up fairly well, but between the oat flour and the powdered psyllium husk, it is far from a white sandwich bread–it’s a distinct shade of greyish tan.

Today, I mixed up the soft white sandwich bread as offered up by GFOAS. Outside of feeling like some sort of mad scientist when mixing up the 18 or so ingredients in the bread and the flour, she has oddly specific instructions about making the bread, including needing to let it sit in a proofing bucket in the fridge for at least 12 hours and no more than 3 days.

I’m planning on baking it tomorrow night or Tuesday night, depending on schedules. I’ll offer up a side-by-side comparison at that time.

Next stop: pizza crust. Wish me luck.

See you tomorrow.