Category Archives: baking tips

Gluten-free bread, take 2

I’m teaching a course on bread in about a month’s time, and I have yet to develop a perfect gluten-free recipe to share with students. This one comes pretty close, though–particularly in comparison to my last effort, which was more scone-like in consistency than this batch, and inherited an unfortunate aftertaste from some bad millet flour.

This is freshly-mixed dough, before the rise. I've tossed the ball in a bit of olive oil to keep it from sticking. Next time, I'll shape the loaf from the start, so I don't disturb the structure post-rise.

This version gets its taste from a combination of sorghum, buckwheat, and almond flours.  The buckwheat is probably the most noticeable flour in this bread; it has a strong flavor that I like, but it can be swapped out for something else if it’s not to your taste. The almond flour provides moistness, and I believe the sorghum is responsible for the relatively light texture of the bread. It has a mild flavor, so it’s a good choice as a base flour for baked goods.

Here's the dough post-rise. It feels kind of spongy when you press on it. It does not rise much, especially not in comparison to normal bread, and will not rise much in the oven, either.

To create the spongy structure of the bread without gluten, I used a chia seed slurry (ground chia seeds, boiling water) and added in some psyllium husk for good measure (which I first read about here).  Both ground chia seeds and psyllium husks mimic gluten by creating gel-like strands when mixed with water; these strands reinforce the structure of the rising bread and give it a nice crumb, which can often be difficult to achieve with gluten-free flours.  You can also use a flax / linseed slurry if you prefer, and can supplement with xanthan gum as noted below.

Gluten-free buckwheat bread

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Gluten-free bread, Experiment 1

It looks edible, at least.  This is my first attempt at gluten-free bread, and the crumb has worked out pretty well. It’s light, airy, and not what I expected, texture-wise, for gluten-free bread.  The taste? Well… These rolls ended up with an incredibly bitter aftertaste.  We’ll just call this experiment #1 and leave it at that.

I did learn a few interesting things along the way, however, which I thought might be worth sharing.

Lesson #0: Gluten Free Girl’s gum-free version of gluten-free bread is an excellent recipe to start with. 

Some of the ingredients aren’t readily available here in Australia, so I am on my own in terms of the final combination of flours, etc, I use. I’m also hoping to make a vegan version of this bread. I have relied on the weight ratios, etc, she uses in this recipe as a starting point.  At least as far as texture goes, I’m on the right track.

Lesson #1: It is possible to make gluten-free bread without weird ingredients.

Yes, “weird” may be a fairly subjective term in this case, but I tend to think that chia seeds are pretty easy to get. I used freshly ground chia seeds in this experiment; when you mix them with boiling water and let the mix cool, you get a stretchy, almost putty-like paste. The chia seed “slurry,” as Gluten Free Girl (a.k.a. Shauna) calls it, looks like this:

You can apparently use flax/linseed or psyllium husk in place of the chia seeds, both of which I intend to try. These ingredients work because they are all pretty high in dietary fiber, some portion of which forms long chains of sugars that can be used to stabilize foams. Bread, as it turns out, is essentially a set foam, so anything that helps foams set properly could work in gluten-free bread.

Lesson #2: Gluten-free dough is really wet. 

It does not feel like normal dough. There is no window-pane test, you will not create a nice, taut ball of dough, and you should add as little flour as possible. In fact, I followed my usual rule for scones and avoided working this dough more than I had to. I think it paid off in the end, as the bread ended up fairly light considering the ingredients I used.

Lesson #3: This bread looks funny when it rises.

Yes, that’s two hours after the dough was mixed. It did rise a bit, but not a lot, and definitely looked nothing like normal bread dough.  I was able to shape it easily enough, at least.

Lesson #4: Too much buckwheat does not a tasty bread make, perhaps? Or I need to be more careful about where I get my flour.

I stuck to the same flour:starch weight ratios defined by Gluten Free Girl (weight ratios really are the key to making a good loaf of bread in any situation), but I changed the flours (to millet, buckwheat) and the starches (to potato, tapioca). I definitely used a lot more buckwheat than most recipes I’ve found.  At first, I thought this might have been it, but then I remembered the last buckwheat noodles I cooked. They didn’t taste bitter at all, and they were all buckwheat. Perhaps my millet flour was bad? If so, well… Bad news for the co-op, because that’s where I got it.  I’ll have to do a taste test and see what I find.  As for the next experiment, I’ll try a different set and proportion of flours, but stick to a similar technique. I think I will also add some olive oil next time, just to make it taste a bit richer.

The verdict?

I’ll spare you the recipe. This one simply isn’t ready for release yet.

Forgive the photos. Our apartment is dark, and as is typical for Sydney, the only place I could store a light-box for photos is in the bathroom.


Filed under baking, baking tips, bread, buckwheat, gluten-free

Camping up the coast

Big Sur

Highway 1 unwinds slowly, precariously, across the state I once called home, inviting only the most daring (or deranged) into the rocky waters of its Northern shores. It’s been decades since I’ve been along this coast, and the first time I’m the one behind the wheel, and oh, it’s so much scarier when you’re the one in charge of navigating its mountainous terrain. But it was good to be home.

Yes, I climbed half dome, cables and all.

I had forgotten how raw the coast of Northern California looks in comparison to Connecticut’s gentle shores. Traversing the whole state is like going through a series of different worlds, as elevation, natural resources, latitude, and human interference transforms the land completely within the span of a few miles. If you’ve never seen it, book a ticket and go. Rent a car and take Highway 1, as long as you’re South of San Francisco. Above SF, you’re in for a bout of car sickness that never ends, as the roads get ever more precarious as you approach its intersection with 101. At the very least, plan to camp along the route; making it to Prairie Creek State Park near Orick from Fresno via SFO in one day was utter madness. Somewhere in there, go inland and check out Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. Yosemite (and the hike / climb up Half Dome) was probably the highlight of my trip, though the redwoods in Prairie Creek State Park managed to make us laugh.


But this is a food blog. I’m not going to go on and on about the trails we took and the places we went. I’ll spare you the experience of seeing an RV, complete with satellite dish, set up in the midst of one of the most gorgeous campgrounds I’ve had the privilege of staying in. I’ll even skip our encounter with the mountain lion (on the trail! Here!) Instead, I’ll tell you how I managed to keep us fed without resorting to bags of chips and MREs, and I’ll try to give you some pointers (so you can learn from my mistakes).


Before we get started, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. You will miss your oven. Starting a fire without a pilot light or even lighter fluid is not my forte — enough so that getting the fire going gradually became James’s job. We had matches, wood, and whatever we could find around our campsite for tinder: leaves, pine needles, chocolate bar wrappers, etc. So … good luck. And take a few cans of sterno along in case of emergencies (or for morning coffee, which could be considered an emergency depending on your morning disposition).
  2. Don’t plan anything too complicated. Roasted vegetables from roadside farm stands are awesome, and we ate a lot of them. Barring that, roasted vegetables of any kind are pretty damn good. Pair them with a high protein grain (quinoa) or any other protein / carb combination I describe below.
  3. You don’t need a cooler for anything I suggest here. Cheese and butter are fine without refrigeration for a couple of days, and I stuck to mostly vegetarian meals simply out of necessity. This new one checked bag policy is a bitch, but hey, the whole point of camping is to make do with what you have, right? (Ok, tell that to the souped up RV in the campsite next to you. Especially when they turn on their @#$%@#$ generator at 11 pm).
  4. A cast iron pan is a very good thing to bring along. My friend P, who joined us for the last leg of the trip, brought hers along for the trip, and it made dinner so much easier. That said, we did fine with foil and copious amounts of vegetable oil as well.
  5. You don’t need a full pantry. A few must haves for me were salt, flour, powdered milk, yeast, oil, baking soda, honey / agave nectar, coffee (and a coffee cone), s’mores ingredients, cheap wine or red wine vinegar (for flavoring vegetables as they roast), onions, potatoes, garlic — lots and lots of garlic, lemons, quinoa, trail mix, powdered chicken broth, and masa. Everything else was based on what looked best at wherever we happened to shop. Fresh fruit and veg, a bit of cheese, and a few cans of sardines (for protein! If you’re repulsed, pick up some canned beans instead) rounded out the campground pantry. Oh, and you don’t need all of this. We were gone for 2 weeks, so pick and choose as you like.
  6. Bring measuring spoons, or cook by proportions. Baking soda is the only thing to really worry about, but your food will still taste good if your teaspoon isn’t exactly a teaspoon.
  7. Don’t forget the tongs. Seriously. I did, and my fingers regretted it.


Ok, so here are the “recipes” and ideas for meals. I use quotes because I didn’t really measure anything on this trip. I also don’t have pictures of everything, just because it was usually late by the time dinner finished, and my camera is afraid of the dark. Oh, and the challah recipe is finally here, as promised. Scroll to the bottom if that’s all you’re interested in. Finally, I’ll have some recommendations for great places to eat (on a budget) San Francisco in my next post.

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Filed under baking, baking tips, bread, breakfast, camping, carrots, cheese, corn tortillas, lemon, main, milk, potatoes, quick bread, roasted vegetables, soup, stew, stories, vegetarian, wine

With these hands

Pain a l'ancienne

I’m the kind of girl who obsesses over bike tires and circuit diagrams — who revels in building something up from a complicated pile of misplaced parts. Broken nails? They’re pretty much a fact of life — evidence that these hands actually do something more than walk over a keyboard. My favorite part of every experiment is perhaps the most frustrating bit, where my fingers become contortionists, pulling wires from the tiniest places in order to make sure everything is just so. And I hate playing to helpless woman, which is why I decided to learn to fix my car, my bike, everything on wheels, myself.


I guess I like the visual and tactile feedback, which is how I learn. If I can’t draw a picture, or trace each step visually in my head, I don’t understand. Perhaps that’s why baking is so appealing to me. It’s funny — I shied away from it at first, preferring to relegate myself to cooking creative nothings because, really, I do enough precision work at my job. But I didn’t know what I was missing until I baked my first successful loaf, took it proudly from the oven, and felt how each step should feel, how each stage should look and smell.

Shaped loaves

These days, I find myself spending more and more time with dough on my hands, kneading away the troubles of deciding what exactly to do with my life after graduation next spring. Maybe we’ll go for the pipe dream, start that bakery in Australia, and forget about all those problem sets without regret. Or maybe not — who knows. As long as I get to work with my hands.

Before rising

This recipe is our weekly staple. It’s simple, and far more impressive than one would think from the straightforward recipe. And it’s the only bread I’ve made time and time again, because cutting into a homely-looking mini-baguette just after it’s finished cooling and spreading a bit of homemade butter across it’s creamy white crumb brings back every delicious loaf I had in Paris. No coincidence, really — Peter Reinhart developed this based on a Parisian baker’s recipe, which happened to win best baguette of the year not so long ago. If there’s any bread recipe I recommend for the home baker, it’s this one. So what, exactly, are you waiting for?

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Rosemary focaccia monster

Rosemary Foccacia Monster

If I were to tell you this recipe defies all reasonable expectations of proper baking technique, would you believe me? And would you still want to eat it, even with the reassurance that this is the best damn (funny-looking) focaccia I think I’ve ever had? Well, it IS the best damn focaccia I’ve had, despite the bubbles. It captures the best part of rosemary, encapsulates it in a light, chewy, pizza-like crust, and turns the humble sandwich into a fragrant, unearthly experience.

stretch and turn, stretch and turn

The secret? Oh, well I couldn’t possibly tell you, could I? I warned you it would ruin your appetite, if you’re the unadventurous sort. If you like sourdough, though, this recipe’s really not so frightening. And if you think about it, the technique (brought about by laziness and a fast-approaching committee presentation) makes perfect sense

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A baker’s lessons

Pane di Altamura

I should know better by now. Really, I should. Bread cannot be rushed, no matter how many projects you have going on, or how many people you’re having over that evening. Usually, the more impatient you are, the slower the rise happens to be. This is when you should throw the dough in the fridge and give up for the night. But me? I’m impatient — I think I’ve revealed this particular character flaw before — and here’s the evidence of what exactly this little quirk gets me (aside from burnt grilled cheese, which is another story).

Pane di Altamura

Not that this is a complete disaster. The bread tastes good, I can assure you of that much. But I know I could do better. The last batch? It was like our oven’s golden child. It was perfect, fluffy, gorgeous, tasty bread, which did exactly as it was told. This one’s a bit depressed, I’m afraid, and it’s all my fault.

Split on the bottom - not good!

But I think you can learn from my mistakes. Don’t make bread unless you have time for it. If the loaves haven’t finished their second rise, they’re not going to recover in the oven. Not really, anyway. And slash the loaves, for goodness sake! Then you won’t end up with craters the size of the Grand Canyon on the underside of your bread, as pictured above. Nor will you inhibit their rise in the oven. Yeah, that’s right — I was working against myself from multiple angles this week.

Altamura post shaping

But my mistakes are mine alone — I really should have known better. The recipe itself is golden. It shows off semolina’s true potential, I think, and is relatively easy if your house is warm enough (or if, of course, you have a bit more patience than I). And strangely enough, throwing a few cubes of this stuff in soup makes some of the most delicious dumplings I’ve had in a while. So if I were you? I’d go find some semolina flour and start mixing.

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Oatmeal struan

Oatmeal Struan

Flour, water, yeast, and salt. At first glance, bread doesn’t have much going for it. Four little ingredients, two of which are at best temperamental, and at worst, capable of rendering breakfast as tasteless as a brick-shaped cardboard cutout. But oh, if you learn how to coax the best out of this little quartet, you may find that nothing else is quite as satisfying as a freshly-baked loaf of bread…

Of course, the learning process isn’t exactly instantaneous. Nor is it easy to describe once making your favorite loaf becomes routine, as I recently realized when a friend asked me what all these steps were for. What’s the point of throwing around terms like soaker, biga, and all the rest, without even bothering to explain what they are exactly, and why anyone should bother with them in the first place?

And so, this is the first of several posts that will be aimed at trying to answer those very questions. For the first post, I’m going to start with a struan formula from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book, with gives me a perfect opportunity to discuss soakers, starters, and the inherent challenges involved in baking with whole grains. It’s a hearty, wholesome, and fairly simple recipe, and I think it’s a pretty good place to start if you’re just starting to play with whole grains. Continue reading


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