Saturday, June 24, 2006

For Ali: Gluten-Free Focaccia

A week or two ago, my good friend Ali asked a favor of me. You see, she's allergic to a lot of things, primarily gluten. No, she doesn't have celiac disease. But anything wheat-based is out. From what I understand, the biggest thing that people forced to go gluten free miss is bread, and I can't say I blame them. I used to be a baker, you know. I love the stuff. I'm a bit of a snob, too. I couldn't even tell you the last time I bought white bread. It's not the fact that white bread is almost completely devoid of any nutritional value, it's just plain boring. Unfortunately, Ali can't have any of my beloved whole-wheat or sourdough bread. What she wanted was a wheat-free bread that wasn't hard as a rock and dense as a brick.

So I started to do some research. See, baking is largely based on wheat flour, specifically because of its gluten content. As I understand it, there is nothing else in the world that contains gluten, or the necessary proteins to make gluten. So when one learns to bake gluten free, one must forget just about anything they know about baking and essentially start from scratch. I looked at several celiac websites, trying to get a few ideas. I even picked up a copy of The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread, as it seemed to be the best book my local bookstore has on gluten. As it turns out, if all you want to do is bake bread, this recipe collection doesn't seem to be bad. If you actually want to understand the physics behind gluten-free baking, it pretty well sucks.

In my research, I did discover a few tricks. You see, gluten is important in bread baking because as it develops, it becomes stretchy and elastic. When yeast is in the dough, it starts to feed on sugars and starches around it. As this happens it produces gas, which begins to expand into little air pockets. These air pockets are held together by the elasticity of the gluten, and so the bread rises, becoming light and fluffy. Without gluten, these air pockets have little to hold them together. But as it turns out, xanthan gum is powder that when it gets wet, it holds onto molecules around it, and acts as a somewhat elastic binder. This substance has been the saving grace of celiacs everywhere.

As I pondered a couple more ways to simulate gluten, I realized that gelatin is another binder, of sorts. It's certainly nowhere near as strong, but it could come in handy. I wasn't surprised when many of the gluten-free recipes that I came across included gelatin. Eventually I combined a few recipes together and came up with a version of focaccia that I thought might work.

Gluten-Free Focaccia #1

1 Tbsp yeast
2/4 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar
1 1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup amaranth flour
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1 1/2 tsp xanthan
1 tsp gelatin powder
1 tsp dry thyme
1 tsp dry marjoram
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp sea salt
2 eggs
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 400F. Mix together the yeast, water and sugar, and set aside. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Add the wet ingredients, plus the yeast mixture, and stir to form a sticky dough. Don't worry about overmixing, that's only a concern when gluten is present. Spread out on a cookie sheet, brush with more olive oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and Parmesan cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about half an hour. Remove the plastic wrap and bake in a 400F oven for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 5 to 10 minutes, before moving the bread from the baking sheet to a cooling rack.

Now, focaccia is my all-time favorite bread. I love it even more than ciabatta, and I was huge on ciabatta way before it got popular. This stuff... well, it won't be replacing wheat-based focaccia anytime soon. It may look exactly the same, but the texture is definitely different. Not in a bad way, but stuff different. It's light and fluffy, and perfect for sandwiches, or to just eat with oil and vinegar, or even by itself. Ali, I hope you like this one.

Update (6/28/2006): Ali liked it! She posted a tidbit on her blog about it.

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