When I attended the Big Summer Potluck last summer, I took decorated cookies to share with everyone… But, as it turned out, not everyone could enjoy them. I hadn’t accounted for food allergies and sensitivities, and to some poeple in the group, my cookies were poison.
I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again. For me, food (baking, especially!) is a way to connect with others. Of course I enjoy the process of baking and few things make me happier than spending an afternoon with a piping bag full (well, about 1/2 full, but that’s another blog post) of royal icing in hand. However, if I have no one to share the fruits of my labor with, the experience ends up feeling rather empty to me. And, empty is how I felt last year when I realized that many of my new friends couldn’t even taste the cookies I had made for them because I hadn’t done my research.
So, for this year’s get together, I knew I had to do a better job of accommodating everyone… I wanted to make cookies that everyone could enjoy. I originally planned on making a few different batches of cookies – some gluten-free and some regular (for lack of a better word… gluten-full?). Imagine my surprise when I saw that the info for the Big Summer Potluck that indicated that all of the food for the event would be gluten-free. We were on the same wavelength! I had already stocked up on some gluten-free flours in anticipation of developing some gluten-free cookies, and knowing that BSP would be a gluten-free event was the final motivation I needed to start baking - gluten-free baking.
I can be stubborn at times (OK, a lot of the time). So, when it came to gluten-free baking, I chose to find my own way instead of relying on all of the amazing information already out there. It absolutely took me longer to struggle through developing my own mix of flours than it would have if I had just found a recipe on another site or from a cookbook. But, I wanted to learn for myself… And, I did.
Eight recipes, a lot of lousy cookies, some angry tweets, and a few choice four-letter words later, I had a cookie recipe that yielded cookies sturdy enough to decorate with royal icing (which can be a challenge with wheat flour and turned out to be an even greater challenge with gluten-free flours!) that actually tasted rather good. I knew it was acceptable when my hubby was snacking on the cookies and didn’t really notice that they were gluten-free.
The best part? My cookies were gluten-free, nut-free and potato-free… So, almost everyone at the event could enjoy them. Success!
A Few Tips for Gluten-Free Baking…
I chose to bake gluten-free cookies, and I had the luxury of taking my time to learn from my mistakes. I did it out of love for my friends, not out of necessity. Since there are so many out there who do have to learn to bake with gluten-free ingredients out of necessity, I thought I would share some of what I learned from my experience…
Cookies cannot be made with rice flour alone.
Take my word for it… You cannot make cookies (edible ones, at least) using only rice flour. It may seem as though you can just substitute a single gluten-free flour for the all purpose flour in your usual cookie recipes, but it doesn’t work. You will wind up with crumbly cookies with a less-than-desirable texture. You need something to hold things together, and using a mix of flours and starches will most likely yield a cookie (or any other baked good for that matter) with a better texture and flavor.
And, that’s the way the cookie crumbles…
Speaking of crumbling cookies, let’s talk about xanthan gum. Some people love it, and some people hate it. For me, it was the solution to my overly crumbly cookies. Using about 1/4 teaspoon per each cup of gluten-free flours is the right amount. If you don’t use enough, your cookies will still crumble. If you use too much, your cookies will have a funny aftertaste.
If you really can’t stand the xanthan gum, there are other options like guar gum. I haven’t had a chance to experiment with them yet, though.
Gluten can be a lot like raw chicken.
Ok, I suppose gluten really is nothing like raw chicken… Except for the fact that both can lead to a cross contamination nightmare in your kitchen, and both can make people very sick. I’m sure you wouldn’t leave a leaky package of raw chicken sitting on your counter top when you are mixing up a cake or rolling out a batch of cookies. When it comes to gluten-free baking, you have to be just as careful with the ingredients in your kitchen that contain gluten.
For me, thinking of gluten as though it were raw chicken helped to change my mindset a bit and avoid any cross contamination. Scrub your counter tops, avoid wooden surfaces, and keep things clean.
Be careful out there… Gluten is lurking everywhere!
If you think that flour is the only ingredient you have to worry about when it comes to making a recipe gluten-free, you’d be wrong. Many ingredients that should be gluten-free (vanilla extract, meringue powder and even sugar!) may actually contain gluten because they are not processed in a gluten-free facility or have additives that contain gluten. Read your labels carefully.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Believe me… If I am telling you to ask for help when it comes to gluten-free baking, there’s a good reason. There’s a whole new world of gluten-free flours and ingredients out there that are amazing to experiment with, but the experience can also be frustrating. It certainly was for me. I was cursing gluten-free baking for about two weeks! Then, I got smart. After about my 6th or 7th try at the cookies, I emailed my recipe to a good friend (Jeanne from Art of Gluten-Free Baking… She is one of the nicest people I know, and she rocks when it comes to GF baking!), and she was able to give me the guidance and encouragement I needed to finally figure it out. My only regret is not asking her sooner.