You've probably seen a lot of hubbub over "gluten free" products recently and might be wondering - Is it a fad diet? Is gluten bad for you? What the heck is this gluten stuff anyway?
Gluten is "an extensive network of coiled proteins"* found in many grains including wheat, barley, and rye. It has a hand in many of the items you probably eat throughout the day - from your breakfast cereal, to a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner, and a beer (or two). So, if gluten is so important to so many foods, why does it have a bad rep? Unfortunately, as awesome as gluten is for making your bread rise, it can cause some pretty nasty damage to your body if you suffer from Celiac disease or its clinically-less-recognized-cousin gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition whereupon gluten causes the body to damage the villi in the lining of the small intestine, making it difficult or impossible for the body to absorb nutrients from food. The cause of the disease is unknown, and there is no cure, other than a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease doesn't have one single calling card, and can manifest in numerous symptoms, or none at all. Afflicted individuals may be underweight, overweight, have GI problems, a rash, thyroid issues, or simply just fatigue. A clinical diagnosis is made after a blood test (which tests for the presence certain antibodies, and is notoriously unreliable), an initial intestinal biopsy showing damage, and a second biopsy after a gluten-free diet is adopted to see if the intestine is repairing itself. Currently, many GPs in the United States are slow to suggest Celiac disease as a potential cause of a patient's problems, but awareness is steadily increasing. Don't be afraid to be your own health advocate and request a blood test for Celiac disease. Even if results are inconclusive or do not indicate the presence of Celiac disease, a gluten free diet may help alleviate your symptoms - try it for two weeks and see what happens.
So, with all of that medical business out of the way, I bring you my recipe for gluten free chocolate cupcakes. A friend of mine recently went gluten free, and as her birthday was approaching, I figured I'd test out my gluten free baking skills on some bday treats. But first, I had to delve into some baking science.
The role of gluten in baking is primarily to create a stong, but elastic, structure in the baked goods. Its most prominent role is in bread, where kneading helps to develop the strength of the gluten. In cupcakes, however, one wants to limit the development of the gluten, lest you end up with chocolate-flavored dinner rolls. Cake flour contains slightly less gluten than an all-purpose flour and substantially less than a bread flour; the high fat and sugar content further inhibits gluten development. But, removing gluten all together doesn't necessarily result in the best cake you've ever made.
The ingredients used to replace the flour in the recipe will make or break your cupcakes. I use Mr. Ritt's Gluten Free Flour Mix, which generally can be used 1:1 in place of glutinous flour.
The mix contains a proprietary blend of rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum. Rice flour is about 90% starch, whereas regular flour is about 70% starch. This is actually good for all cake baking, glutinous and not, as a cake's structure comes largely from starch, rather than the dispersed gluten. BUT, starch creates this structure by absorbing water (which later evaporates out of the cake leaving a network of holes). To compensate for the extra-starchiness of this gluten free flour, you must modify an all-purpose flour recipe to provide more moisture than specified, or your cupcakes may come out dry and lifeless.
A few more points:
(1) Be conscious of cross-contamination - thrououghly clean all work surfaces and utensils before embarking on a gluten free adventure; if you've dipped a measuring cup in flour and then into your sugar canister, open a new bag of sugar - otherwise your "happy birthday cupcakes" can turn into an evening of agony.
(2) The recipe is done by weight - why? Because that's how you should be baking. Buy a scale. You can thank me later.
(3) Not all chocolate, cocoa powder, sour cream, etc. is gluten free, so be sure to do your homework before shopping.
So, without further ado, the recipe:
Gluten Free Chocolate Cupcakes
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 12 cupcakes
8 tbsp unsalted butter
2 oz dark chocolate
1.5 oz cocoa powder (not dutch-processed)
3.75oz Mr. Ritt's Gluten Free Flour Mix
0.5 tsp baking soda
0.75 tsp baking powder
2 extra large eggs, room temperature
5.25 oz sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
5 oz sour cream
10 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
5 oz powdered sugar
2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
(1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees
(2) Melt butter, chocolate, and cocoa powder in a double boiler until smooth, set aside to cool
(3) In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder
(4) Whip eggs until frothy
(5) Add sugar, vanilla, and salt, whip on high for 30 seconds
(6) Add the cooled chocolate to the egg mixture until combined
(7) Mix in one third of the flour mixture
(8) Add the sour cream and mix to combine
(9) Add the remaining flour and mix until combined, scraping down the bowl edges with a spatula
(10) Place liners in each cup of a 12-cavity standard muffin tin
(11) Scoop batter into each liner as evenly as possible
(12) Bake for 18 minutes; tops should spring back when lightly pressed with your finger
(13) Allow to cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely
(14) Meanwhile, combine all frosting ingredients in a clean mixer bowl and whip until smooth. Adjust the sugar and salt to your taste preference.
(15) When completely cooled, frost each cupcake by placing a large dollop on top and spreading out to the edge, being careful not to pick up any crumbs along the way.
(16) Store covered at room temperature.
*Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (Scribner 2004). Many of the food facts in this post are taken from this book.
What was cooking this time last year? Two years ago?
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