I have noticed some polarity in my baking orders. I either make things I've made a million times (e.g., carrot cake), or make things I have never made (e.g., pie or angel food cake). Last week's order was no exception to this trend: my coworker Jackie commissioned gluten-free cupcakes.
My only baking experience with gluten-free previously involved pre-made mixes, or just making recipes that did not require flour, such as flourless chocolate cake or no-bake cookies. The pre-made mixes were okay. The chocolate chip cookies were fine due to the exorbitant amount of butter required, and the brownies were alright when incorporated as a layer in a torte, with any flavor or texture defects offset by rich chocolate frosting and decadent peanut butter filling. Otherwise, I figured from-scratch gluten-free would be better, but I was uncertain how to make a viable flour substitute, as I had heard it was not just one ingredient but rather a mixture of various flours and starches.
After doing some research, I found that most flour substitute mix recipes trended toward the same ingredients: a combination of brown rice flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, and xanthum gum. This gave me a little more confidence, but I was still worried about the texture. Consultations with Jackie revealed that her mom preferred more classic cakes flavors, like vanilla, chocolate, etc. - i.e., no bacon sprinkles. As one of my greatest baking character faults is my inability to appreciate the simplest flavors, I became a little nervous. The simpler the cake flavor, the more the texture and other factors affected by flour could show through - no hiding behind my creative flavor combinations. In the end, we settled on banana cake with cream cheese frosting, as I figured the moist banana cake would be more forgiving than a vanilla or chocolate cake. Plus, in a blog post I had seen my exact bomb banana cake recipe subbed with the gluten-free flour mix, so it seemed safe to just swap that in for flour without having to alter any other ingredients.
I headed to Whole Foods to get my ingredients. Who knew there were so many kinds of flours? I started to feel a little lost again as I looked at the wall of flours. I looked at a pre-made flour mix, Pamela's, that my celiac friend Sarah had recommended, but decided against it in the end, as it contained a few more ingredients than the flour/starch mix I needed. In the end, I settled for King Arthur gluten-free flour mix, which contained only the brown rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca flour. This seemed more cost-efficient than buying a separate bag of each of those flours, until the gluten-free orders start pouring in. I also bought a bag of xanthum gum and added just a tsp of that to the flour mix. Voilà, homemade flour substitute!
The cupcakes were painless. I even added a little extra touch for texture contrast: toasted chopped walnuts on top. Luckily there were a couple extras, so I could try one. I took a bite and felt a wave of relief: I could honestly not tell the difference from my regular banana cake. One large victory for gluten-free baking! And, one for my confidence: that I can successfully accommodate the food-allergy populations, which is a huge trend in bakeries' services these days. Jackie confirmed that her mom LOVED the cupcakes. Bring on the gluten-free orders - I'm ready for you!