Photo By: Eve Hill-Agnus/Special to the Town Crier
A growing number of people live with celiac disease, wheat allergy or wheat intolerance and must adhere to a gluten-free diet that shuns wheat, barley and rye. Others go gluten-free as part of a push to be more mindful about what they eat.
Either way, eliminating wheat can leave you sifting through grains you’ve never used before, your pantry contents suddenly resembling the catalogs of ancient Mayan or Egyptian storehouses as you replace wheat with flour derived from other grains – quinoa, rice, amaranth, millet, rice, corn, sorghum, buckwheat or teff.
Experimenting with these lesser-used grains can be exciting, as each boasts its own distinctive flavor and texture. Venturing beyond the wheat frontier, you may encounter the exquisite crumbliness of shortbread made with quinoa or rice flour, the crunch of a cornmeal muffin or the smooth crumb and slight sweetness of a sorghum-flour scone.
My French roots make me nostalgic for the distinct flavor of galettes from Brittany, savory crepes made with buckwheat flour (which, despite the name, include no wheat or gluten). In fact, eschewing wheat can open the door to cuisines from cultures that for reasons tied to geography, topography, climate and economics historically have relied less on wheat.
For centuries, Italian peasants ground the ubiquitous, hardy chestnut into a flour that was far more accessible than the more expensive wheat. If you’ve ever eaten an Italian chocolate cake made with chestnut flour, you know that the warm, toasty flavor is utterly distinctive. The Ethiopian pancake, injera, made of teff flour, is their equivalent to bread and used to sop up delicious slow-simmered sauces of tomatoes, onions and smoked butter. Asian cuisines showcase rice in myriad forms. Perhaps you’ve tried fresh mochi, the chewy, dumpling-like Japanese snacks made with rice flour. Corn is king in South American cuisines used to make their tamales, tortillas, pozole and elote.
Moving beyond wheat also means abandoning its particular qualities of flavor and texture. Trying to reproduce classic comfort foods can be a little tricky. Cakes, cookies, bagels, fluffy sandwich bread – all these rely on properties particular to wheat gluten for their chewiness or moist, tender crumb.
For the gluten-free baker, it’s not as easy as substituting one type of flour for another. Each has its own profile. Too much brown-rice flour, and the texture will be brittle and dry – good for shortbread but not a cake; corn and buckwheat easily overpower other flavors; soy flour can turn bread into a dense protein brick.
To approximate the qualities of wheat, gluten-free baking often involves elaborate flour blends – one part rice flour, one part sorghum, etc. Some mixes include potato, soy or garbanzo-fava bean flour.
To help the gluten-free baker navigate this complex scene, many gluten-free cookbooks begin with a recipe for their own, basic, gluten-free flour mix (an Ur flour), which you can make in large batches and keep on hand. Pre-made, gluten-free baking mixes are also available from companies such as Bob’s Red Mill.
For an easier way to ease into gluten-free baking, try nuts. Nut flour is made from grinding nuts into fine flour.
The following grain-free pancake recipe is an easy way to re-create a familiar comfort food without the wheat ingredient. Made with grated apple and cinnamon, it’s a warming treat for a winter morning. The pancakes are delicious with peach jam or maple syrup. Or, for a truly decadent brunch, top them with whipped cream spiked with Calvados (apple brandy).
Grain-Free Apple Almond Pancakes
• 1 cup almond flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• Dash of nutmeg
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1/2 to 2/3 cup apple, peeled and grated
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 tablespoon oil
• 3 tablespoons milk or soymilk
Combine dry ingredients. In another bowl, combine wet ingredients. Pour wet into dry and mix until just combined.
Heat skillet on medium-to-high heat. Drop pancake batter onto heated skillet by spoonfuls and cook until edges begin to dry and pull away from pan.
Flip with spatula and cook approximately 1 minute more until cooked through.
Serve hot. Makes approximately 10 pancakes.
For a wheat- and dairy-free dessert, see our article on frangipane – an almond sweet made for two.