Week Twenty-One: Gluten-Free Breads
The first time I ever heard of celiac disease, my hairdresser was telling me about a young relative of hers who had just been diagnosed. “What do you mean, he’s allergic to wheat?” I asked, incredulous. “What in the world does he eat?” My younger mind, less exposed to the myriad wonders of the culinary world, could hardly imagine a world without sandwiches or cereal. I pictured the life ahead for this pitiable boy - a world without biscuits, hamburger buns, or chocolate chip cookies – and I saw only darkness and gloom.
These days, as I’ve expanded my culinary reperatoire and palate, I can imagine living a life without wheat – I’m just glad I don’t have to! I think I would cry if I actually had to bid adieu to bread forevermore. But I know that many, many others have had to do just that in their lives, so I’m devoting this week to gluten-free breads, for all you celiacs out there!
Just so we’re all clear, celiac disease is not a wheat allergy, which has its own distinct set of symptoms. Celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disease, which is triggered by a reaction to gliadin, one of the proteins in wheat that forms gluten. It prevents the body from absorbing important nutrients, leading to aenemia, weakness, weight loss, and other unpleasant symptoms. The only treatment available now is a life-long avoidance of gluten in the diet. And you’d be surprised where you can find gluten: not only in bread or other wheat-based baked goods, but in innocuous-seeming items like soy sauce, instant coffee, sausages, and white pepper, among many others. Even some toothpastes and lipsticks are off limits!
Because humans have a natural affinity for the familiar, there’s hundreds of products and thousands of gluten-free “bread” recipes out there, for those celiacs that just can’t give up bread. (I understand; I’d be baking like crazy to try to find something close to wheat bread.) And sadly, most of those recipes and products are dry, tasteless, glue-y, and just plain gross.
I know, because I just tried my hand at gluten-free breadsticks. This recipe was hailed as “the best gluten-free bread evar, omg” in the article accompanying it. And it sucked. Real bad. At this point in my cooking life, I think I know from baking; but this threw me for a loop. I thought the batter looked a bit thin while I was mixing it, a point at which I would normally just toss in another handful of flour. But, oh no!, this cannot contain any flour! Should I throw in a tablespoon of rice flour? What about more tapoica? What could I add that wouldn’t disrupt the balance of flavor? In the end, I added nothing; and in the end, I wasn’t able to pipe the “breadsticks” so much as give them a controlled pour.
I poured out as many “breadsticks” as I could, and put the rest in a little ramekin, which I let rise a bit (around 45 minutes), mainly to see what would happen. Turns out the flat little langues de chat breadsticks baked into crispy-outside, chewy-inside cracker type things, reminiscent of Japanese rice crackers. Not bad, but certainly not breadsticks. Meanwhile, the ramekin-baked (let’s say) muffin turned into a gummy, airy thing. It was like bread and marshmallows joined forces. Not inedible, but I wouldn’t call it good, and I definitely wouldn’t call it “bread”. I’m giving you the recipe as I made it, but I say proceed at your own risk.
What I’m getting at is that gluten-free bread is really hard, you guys! If you have a celiac in your family or circle of friends, I think the most amazing thing you could do would be to bake a good bread for them. I imagine the effort would not go unnoticed, and would likely be hugely appreciated! I have a goal this week, and it’s to provide you with some gluten-free recipes that won’t seem like a consolation prize, or a “Great Job!” trophy, but that you’ll want to make even if you’re a wheat addict (like me).
Maybe you can’t eat that artisan loaf, but I’m going to try my darndest to give you celiacs something better than these god-awful breadsticks.
Herbed Gluten-Free Breadsticks
Adapted from Joseph Pace, via The NY Times
3/4 cup white rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour (starch)
1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk powder
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup warm sparkling water or club soda (115º to 130º F)
Nonstick spray or olive oil, for greasing baking sheet and breadsticks
Flaky salt, such as kosher, or fleur de sel
1. Preheat oven to 425º F. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the rice flour, tapioca starch, dry milk powder, xanthan gum, gelatin, salt, sugar, and thyme. Whisk in the yeast. Add the warm sparkling water, olive oil, and vinegar. Using the paddle attachment, mix at medium-low speed until incorporated. Increase speed to high, and beat for 6 minutes. Dough should be very soft and not pull off sides of bowl; if necessary, add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough does not resist beaters.
2. Liberally spray or oil a baking sheet, or line with parchment. Transfer dough to a large pastry bag fitted with a plain round 1/2 -inch tip. Pipe 12 breadsticks about 8 inches long, leaving about 2 inches in between. Spray or brush tops with oil, and salt generously.
3. Bake at 425º F for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm.
1. I think you could safely remove 2 tablespoons of sparkling water from the measurement, but use your judgement. Apparently, different brands of rice flour will absorb liquid at different rates. I used Bob’s Red Mill, and ended up with pancake batter.
2. Tapioca flour (aka: tapioca starch) and xanthan gum can be found at health food or specialty food stores. I found both at Whole Foods.
3. I used sparkling water, in hopes that it would lend an airier texture. It didn’t, so feel free to use still water.