thinking about gluten and wheat

Friday, Nov 15th, 2013

I make a strong effort to keep one, if not two (or three!) gluten free desserts on the menu at blackbird.

Yes, it’s a hot topic these days, as our awareness of celiacs disease and the effects wheat and grains have on the human body grows. We in the kitchens are catching up, as those in our dining rooms are speaking up. While we are sensitive to protecting every guest that comes through our doors, it was not the solely dietary restrictions that led me to question the roll of wheat flour in my desserts.

My desire to “go gluten free” so to speak began with a conversation with my friend Shauna about 5 years ago. We were in her little island kitchen making pie crusts and generally goofing around. As she continued tell me stories, Shauna described baked goods she was creating that were not only on par with their wheat based counterparts, but dishes she thought surpassed the originals, like her streusel topped apple crisp.

I could see the thought coming towards me like a train on the tracks a mile away. As the whistle blew and the train grew neigh, the thought began to come into focus, until finally I was catching my balance as it flew by me rattling my ears and forever changing my thoughts on “gluten free”.

The thought that knocked me on my heels was this. Baking and pastry has never really thought beyond wheat flour because we never had to. This leaves us with an entire discipline in the pastry world bound to wheat. We were only using wheat in many places because there was no reason not to, thus we never really thought beyond it. It was there, it did a job, and we used it.

But with all the work we as a culinary community have accomplished, pushing the possibilities of texture forward and expanding the knowledge base each chef works with, surely at this point we can think beyond gluten.

Can we liberate the dessert from a dependance on wheat?

By no means do I wish to eliminate wheat flour from our world. It does some pretty amazing things. But sometimes, it just does a basic job that can be done by something else.

The very first thing I did was to reconsider exactly what wheat flour did, then think about other ingredients in my pantry that could do the same job. Working with Shauna helped me realize that wheat flour is basically a double action ingredient. It both adds bulk to desserts, and binds them. Thus I began looking through my pantry for two things rather than one. Things that added bulk, and things that could bind. Henceforth known simply as “bulkers” and “binders”

Once in the kitchen, we followed suit and like Shauna took a look at streusel, a component that is often scattered across a plated dessert for a lovely crispy texture. I gave the task of binding to cornstarch, and after that, it opened up the possibility of any flavor flour or meal we desired. Chestnut! Buckwheat! Corn! Kinako! Oat! Cocoa powder! Milk powder (thanks to Christina Tosi)! Burnt wheat!

I know, we were trying to get the wheat out, right? Well, we were trying to think beyond it. When wheat flour is roasted, it looses it’s ability to swell and bind. But it tastes amazing. So when you let it just act as the bulker and find another binder, you’re back in business.

The second place we eliminated wheat flour was from the cookie dough in cookie dough ice cream. If it’s not going to bake, it just needs to be bulky. So there is definitely no need for wheat flour. I took advice from Shauna again, she does seem to know a lot about cooking gluten free after all, and added teff flour. “Teff and Chocolate are best friends” she has said to me, time and time again. She ain’t lying.

And why stop there, if I can make the scoop of cookie dough ice cream without wheat flour, can I make the cone with something else as well? The answer came in the form of rice flour. It’s fine, bulky, and has the ability to become crisp just like wheat flour. The chocolate version is even better.

The most recent bakery staple we were able to push past wheat flour was a brownie. We had settled on using summer cherries to re-imagine a black forrest cherry cake as a brownie sundae; blackbird style. It seemed like a good time to ask why we were using wheat flour, and see what else we could do.

We settled on oat flour as the bulker, and tried it without an additional binder, hoping the eggs would provide enough structure. When our initial wheat free brownie tests were coming out of the oven, they were good. Very good. Lighter than fudge, but not much. However, they were missing my favorite part of the brownie, the chew. I am known to beat my wheat flour brownies for 2 minutes to encourage gluten formation, thus heightening the chewy quality in each square. When the wheat free brownies were missing just that I reached for mochi flour, ground from japanese sweet rice.

Mochi flour is used to create that beautiful chewy asian sweet dough that we would most commonly recognize wrapped around a little scoop of ice cream. Delicious!

Finally, instead of just asking if wheat flour belongs in a component, we also ask if the quality the wheat based component is providing in a dish can be given by something else entirely. Does dehydrated watermelon add some of the same qualities as a sponge cake? Can a compressed nut powder fill the roll of a cookie?

Tuilles once covered every plated dessert in the dining room, like an armada of tiny sailed ships. To create this effect,  a sweetened wheat flour batter was spread over a stencil, baked until golden, manipulated while warm, and left to cool and crisp into shape. Tuilles were not simply valued for their good looks. These thin cookies also offered a crispy textural addition to the desserts they were mounted on.

It’s been a while since I’ve made a classic wheat flour based tuille. Strike that. We used a classic honey tuille batter to make edible hay last year. (see, there’s always a place for the classics!) It’s been a while since I relied on a tuille to add a crisp textural quality to a dish. On our current menu alone, the role of the tuille is being played by many things; compressed asian pears, brown butter potato chips, puffed rice crisps, an ultratex based mint chip, and sheets of broken meringue.

Ok, so the tuille fell out of fashion before I began questioning it’s position on my plates for the wheat that held it together. So, yes, that was kind of an easy one.

So why don’t you give me one? Is there a wheat based component on one of your plates that could be given to a component without wheat? A cake, a crumble, a streusel, a cookie? What qualities does it bring the textural construct and who else can do that job? Is the flavor of wheat integral to the dish? Or can the flavor of the flour be changed with a little help from another binder?

Oat Flour Brownie