Thursday, October 21, 2010

Never Mind

Recently, coworker of mine got married, and a bunch of us brought in goodies in celebration. One person (who is allergic to wheat), brought in gluten-free pumpkin blondies.

I asked her for the recipe, and she said that it was just a mix that she added pumpkin to -- because it was too much of a hassle to make gluten-free flour herself. When I asked why, she said it was because there needed to be a whole bunch of different flours that needed to be mixed together. Otherwise it wouldn't taste like wheat.

Which got me thinking: Why does it need to taste like wheat? Granted, wheat has certain properties that provide a finished baked good with a certain flavor and texture, but so do other grains. And those other grains might create a totally different flavor or texture that is favorable to that of wheat. Corn has one flavor and texture. Rye has another. Wheat has a third. None of them are "better" than the other -- they're just different. They taste differently, they feel different in your mouth, and they provide different nutrients.

I have an angora sweater in my closet. It is one of the softest, warmest sweaters I have ever owned. I absolutely loved making it, I love the way it feels against my skin, and it has an unbelievable halo of fluff that adds to its beauty. But angora has other properties besides being soft and warm and fluffy. It sheds like there's no tomorrow, it's not very elastic, and even though I've always hand washed it, there are areas of the sweater that have begun to self-felt -- just from the friction of everyday where. I knew this would end up happening when I knit the sweater, because THAT'S THE NATURE OF ANGORA. My wool sweaters do not do that. But wool is not nearly as soft or as warm as angora. And it usually doesn't create a halo when it's knit up either.

My angora sweater does not have the same properties as my wool ones. That's because angora is a completely different fiber, and therefore creates a completely different fabric than wool. But I knew when I began knitting the sweater that it would turn out different from my other sweaters -- that it would shed, that it would self-felt, and that it would not be very elastic. That's just the way angora is, and when I knit with it, I accept those properties and try to find the right pattern that will accomodate them. And it doesn't mean that I have to go around combining it with a whole slew of other fibers, just so it will feel, act, and look just like wool.

Grain is like that. So corn doesn't have gluten, and tends to create a totally different meal than wheat. That doesn't mean that it doesn't taste good, or that it is unacceptable to bake with, or that it can't be used by itself. When I bake with cornmeal, I understand that it is different than flour -- that it has different properties, and will therefore create a baked good that tastes different than if I use wheat. Which is why, when I use cornmeal, I look for recipes that will take advantage of those properties.

In the beginning of her book No Sheep for You, Amy Singer says, "Though these fibers are novel, there's nothing novelty about them. They're seriously yummy and worth getting to know and knit. No fiber will ever duplicate everything wool does naturally. Scientists have spent more than a hundred years trying, and the best they've done so far is...acrylic? Never mind. I've got a book full of gorgeous fiber to share with you, and none of it squeaks. NSFY is not about us against them. It's about having great stuff for everyone to knit with."

So why can't we do the same with grains?


Kelly said...

Well, you certainly can do the same thing with grains. My mother-in-law has Celiac disease, so I've gotten to create and sample plenty of gluten-free food over the last few years. The thing is, most people don't want to entirely give up pretzels, or non-corn bread, or cake, or pie crust, or the myriad other foods that we take for granted. The angora sweater is great, but would you really want to never, ever wear something with some elasticity again? I think it's more like that.

Marcie said...

Hey, I know who that coworker is with the gluten allergy. ;)

Corn, rice, etc. flours tend to be a lot drier than wheat, so you either have to add lots of eggs and/or butter, which adds calories and fat, or have lots of some beverage on hand. I don't think adding water alone in the recipe helps. So sure, you get different textures and flavors by using something other than wheat, but you also sacrifice moistness and the ability of your baked goods to not crumble when you simply look at them.

Kate said...

I think the main problem is that people expect the same recipes and for the gluten free items to taste the same.

Due to the different natures of varioius flours, you would need to use (or develop) specific recipes for each type of flour.

Even with wheat, there are different flours and a recipe that would work with pastry flour would not work with bread flour and, if you made it with regular old AP, it would be different.

But, if you'd like to experiment more, I'm game.