This past Saturday morning, twelve lucky participants attended a (sold-out) three-hour cooking class at Berkshire Botanical Garden. The program was called Goodbye Gluten! Cooking with Alternative Grains and conducted by pastry chef Rachel Portnoy.
Along with her husband Franck Tessier, Rachel owns Chez Nous Bistro in Lee, Massachusetts, which offers farm-to-table fare and delicious desserts, most of them gluten free.
We also profiled Rachel and Franck in The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook.
The Botanical Garden’s educational center houses a wonderful teaching kitchen, with ample space for hands-on participation at the island and views of the grounds—and the lovely snowfall that day—from the many windows that line the spacious but cozy dining area.
Going Gluten Free
The goal of the program was to discover new grains, new methods, and new flavors by moving away from wheat, something Rachel has been exploring and experimenting with at Chez Nous over the past decade plus.
“Everything is either gluten free or can be,” she says, pointing out that the kitchen is not 100 percent wheat free. The only dessert that’s always available is the blondie sundae with sea salted caramel. “It’s too popular to ever take off.” (Just be sure to specify gluten free when ordering it.)
Rachel started offering gluten-free rolls soon after opening in 2005. Based on customer demand, she started developing gluten-free desserts in 2011 and after a year of experimenting, was confident enough to share the recipes on her blog—and to put them on her daily menu.
Instead of having two separate areas in the pastry kitchen (one for wheat and one for gluten free), she decided to go with mostly gluten-free options, eliminating wheat to just 10 percent. By now she has given up eating wheat except for the rare treat, even though she is not gluten sensitive.
But for her it’s not about deprivation, it’s about having the diversity of grains. “How boring is it to just use the same grain in all desserts! Why didn’t I think of this before? When you change it out, you get so many better flavors and more interesting results. At first, it was very frustrating as I was experimenting and then it became a passion for making my baking better by doing this.”
And unless you are celiac and cannot have wheat, she advises using the gluten-free flour blends sparingly. Those can be just as bad because they don’t have a lot of nutritional value.
Focus on Grains
Rachel brought a variety of gluten-free flours to the class, including buckwheat, brown rice, corn, oat, sweet rice, and teff flours along with cornmeal and gluten-free oats. (She says she could do a whole other class on baking with nut flours.)
She also chose recipes that highlight the different options in a variety of sweet and savory baked goods, including some French and American classics. Ever the restaurant pro, Rachel managed to get through the following from start to finish, with ample time for sampling and sharing.
Dried Cranberry & Chocolate Chip Cookies
Gluten-free oats add whole grain goodness to these cookies, which called for a gluten-free flour blend.
Corn Flour, Currant & Orange Tea Cakes
A combination of sweet rice flour and corn flour gives these cakes a light texture (a small amount of xanthan gum is added as a binder).
The dough is made with brown rice flour, white rice flour, oat flour, flaxseed meal, and cornmeal plus sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. It can be topped with dried herbs and/or spices. Rachel is a fan of za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, and pimentón (or smoked paprika).
Rachel was kind enough to share two of the class recipes here. She is a proponent of measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume, showing us how to calibrate the kitchen scale to zero before adding each new ingredient. “Just one bowl to clean! How easy is that?”
Chocolate Teff Cake
Teff is an ancient grain that’s most familiarly used to make Ethiopian flatbread, or injera. Here it replaces all-purpose flour in an airy gluten-free genoise.
3 tablespoons (45g) melted butter, plus more for pans
2 heaping tablespoons (30g) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (65g) teff flour
4 large eggs
2/3 cup (130g) sugar
4 teaspoons (2g) kosher salt
Chocolate Ganache (see below)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush the bottom of two 8-inch round cake pans with butter and line with parchment; do not grease the sides of the pan. Sift the cocoa powder and teff flour together into a medium bowl.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the eggs, sugar, and salt together until light and tripled in volume. Remove bowl from mixer and add the flour in two additions, lightly folding after each to combine. Then fold in the butter.
3. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake until puffed and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool completely before filling and frosting with the ganache. (Rachel likes to leave the sides uncoated but you can cover the entire cake if you prefer.)
You can make this well in advance and let it sit on the counter to cool and thicken slightly.
1 cup (240g) heavy cream
1 1/2 cups (265g) chopped dark chocolate
Pinch kosher salt
2 tablespoons (30g) rum or chocolate liqueur
Bring the cream to a boil, then pour over the chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl and stir until chocolate is melted. Add salt and rum or liqueur and stir until smooth and combined. Let cool completely.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Flatbread
1 cup (320g) gluten-free sourdough starter (see below)
2 cups (256g) gluten-free flour blend
2 tablespoons (14g) flax meal
1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons (9g) kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon (2g) active dry yeast
1/2 cup (120g) water
3 tablespoons (40g) olive oil, plus more for brushing
1 large egg
Assorted toppings, such as tomato sauce, fresh tomatoes, pitted olives, tapenade, seeds, dried herbs, and/or spices
1. Place the sourdough starter in the bowl of a stand mixer. In another bowl, whisk the flour blend, flax meal, sugar, salt, and yeast. Add the dry ingredients to the starter and mix on low speed until combined. Stir in the water, olive oil, and egg, then beat on high speed for 2 to 3 minutes or until thick. Let the dough rest for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Line three baking sheets with parchment and brush with oil. Stir the dough and portion onto the baking sheets in 4- to 5-inch ovals. Top as desired and bake for 5 minutes or until crisp.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter
The starter takes six days to activate but it will keep going for as long as you keep feeding it.
Buckwheat flour or brown rice flour
Sweet white rice flour
Day one: In a medium glass bowl or jar, whisk together 2 tablespoons (20g) buckwheat or brown rice flour, 2 tablespoons (20 grams) sweet rice flour, and 1/4 cup (60g) water. Cover with a damp tea towel and rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day two: In another medium glass bowl or jar, whisk 2 tablespoons (40g) of the mixture from day one (discard the leftovers) with 2 tablespoons (20g) buckwheat or brown rice flour, 2 tablespoons (20g) sweet rice flour, and 1/4 cup (60g) water until combined. Cover with a damp towel or loose-fitting lid and rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day three through day six or seven: Repeat the process from day two using the previous day’s starter until the mixture becomes puffy, has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma, and bubbles being or air pockets are visible under the surface. six to seven days. Your starter is now ready for use or storing in the refrigerator, covered.
The starter must be refreshed (or fed) at least every couple weeks.
Put 1/4 cup (80g) of the starter in a clean lidded jar (discard the leftovers, give it to a friend, or put it to use) and mix in 1/3 cup (80g) water. Add 3 tablespoons (30g) buckwheat or brown rice flour and 3 tablespoons (30g) sweet rice flour. Mix well until the flours are hydrated. Loosely lid the jar and wrap a rubber band around it at the height of the starter for a visual cue of how much the starter has grown over time.
Allow the starter to develop at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours or until it doubles in size before using.
After you measure out the amount needed for your recipe, refresh the starter in the same manner and store in the refrigerator. (Or just put the refreshed starter back in the refrigerator.)
It was so enlightening to make, bake, and eat gluten-free flatbreads, crackers, cookies, tea cakes, and genoise that were every bit as delicious as you’d want them to be, but without the wheat.
Good news: Given the response to this class (it was sold out well in advance), Rachel has agreed to teach another program on gluten-free baking in the fall. Requests from those in attendance were for gluten-free pie crusts, scones, and pasta. “That’s the beginning of what we’ll be doing, but I have other things I want to show too. There’ll be a bunch of good stuff,” Rachel says.
We look forward to revisiting Rachel and Franck at Chez Nous for a behind-the-scenes look at their farm-to-table restaurant.
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