On Gluten-Free Bread

Hoy, ayer y mañana se comen caminando,
consumimos un día como una vaca ardiente,
nuestro ganado espera con sus días contados,

pero en tu corazón el tiempo echó su harina,
mi amor construyó un horno con barro de Temuco:
tú eres el pan de cada día para mi alma.
— Neruda, Love Sonnet LXXVII

I never thought I’d be bothered with the gluten-free thing, but, when someone close has a number of food-sensitivities and the request is made to try one’s hand at a gluten-free baguette for a small family dinner, suddenly one is excited by the new challenge.  So, with about two days’ notice, I had to draw on all my experience and knowledge of bread baking and at the same time temporarily forget a lot of what I knew and ignore my expectations and instincts.

The big challenge of gluten-free yeast bread baking is the fact that gluten is the almost-magical ingredient that makes real bread possible. Nothing in the world has quite the properties of that mix of proteins called “wheat gluten”.  Wheat gluten has unparalleled ability to form airtight, extremely elastic little bubbles. Even rye gluten is not a match for the gluten of wheat.  If you try making a loaf of 100% rye bread, look closely at the dough as it rises, particularly if brushed with oil.  You will see — perhaps even hear — bubbles escaping to the surface of the dough.  This is why 100% rye bread is inevitably more dense than a good wheat bread.

What can possibly be added to non-gluten bearing flours that will help form and hold bubbles with something approaching the satisfactory?  Eggs, particularly egg whites, are often recommended. But, did I mention food sensitivities? Living with a mild nut allergy, I’ll not dismiss the concerns of the truly food sensitive. (The fashion/fad food sensitive I will happily dismiss.)

So. No gluten. No eggs. What’s left?

Well there’s this interesting product that is derived from what amounts to bacterial snot. Xanthan gum is a polysacchride, basically a charbohydrate polymer that is secreted by the bacterium Zanthomonas campestris. The gum was discovered by Allene Jeanes and her team in the mid-20th century and approved for use in foods in the U.S. in 1968. It’s a relatively new and very versatile food additive manufactured in a simple process not unlike brewing beer or, indeed, bread making.  A vat of feedstock is inoculated with the bacteria, the concoction is allowed to ferment for a few days, and then a load of isopropyl alcohol is dumped into the vat (that’s the part that makes me smile at the “natural” label on my package of xanthan gum).  The alcohol makes the fresh snot solidify and sink to the bottom of the vat. The gum in rinsed, dried, and ground up for sale in expensive little packets at your local Green, Organic, Whole, Vegan, Gluten-Free Health food store.

Without the xanthan gum, my project could never have risen much above terribly disappointing hardtack. And if I didn’t talk much about the isopropyl alcohol bit, I might be able to get away with it.

I skimmed a few recipes online and read the back of my sack of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour — mostly chickpea flour so watch our for gas if you eat a lot of this bread. Then I laid out my basic recipe, based mainly on my own real baguette recipe.  I used a cup of Bob’s flour, quick rise yeast, salt, two teaspoons of xanthan gum, half a cup of water and a splash of lime juice because it was handier than lemon.  I was aiming for something like the texture of real bread dough, but the result was a little crumbly and not at all elastic.  After a bit of time to rest and maybe rise, I threw it into a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes and pulled out — a bread stick! It was dense but tender and chewy with good flavour, but not a baguette by any measure.

For the second attempt, I used the same proportions except for the water. I used a full cup of water and made what I would call a batter rather than a dough.  I oiled the top of the loaf and left it to rise. I could see bubbles popping through the oil.  When it was close to double in size, I gave it 20 minutes at 450 degrees and this time I had something approaching an actual baguette! And it tasted good!  It wasn’t really what I would call bread, but it was a quite satisfying product in itself.

Now I had to produce the presentation loaf, the one that would be the accompaniment to a family chili dinner. A little bit of tinkering with ingredients and process and the following recipe is what I have to call an almost complete gluten-free success (it wasn’t so good for garlic bread, I’m told):

My Gluten-Free Baguette

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
2 generous teaspoons xanthan gum
1 tablespoon fast-rising yeast
1 scant tablespoon baking powder
salt
1 cup water
a splash of vinegar
olive oil for coating the top of the loaf

Mix dry ingredients very well.
Mix water and vinegar.
Mix wet ingredients well into dry ingredients. The dough will be very wet, more like a batter, about the texture of a pound cake batter.

Spoon the batter into a parchment-lined baguette pan. Shape into a smooth loaf with the back of a wet spoon. Spread olive oil over top of loaf.

Let rise for half- to one hour until sort of doubled.

Bake 20 minutes in a pre-heated 450 degree oven. Spritz water onto the loaf in the oven every few minutes.

If you love bread but have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, there is definitely hope, as long as you don’t have a problem with bacteria being doused in isopropyl alcohol so that bacterial snot solidifies and is collected for your bread. You’re already cooking the life out of yeast cells. Can it be so bad that millions of bacteria died for your baguette?

On Bread

Like bread-making, any mugwump can do it.

— Elizabeth David, “Pleasing Cheeses,” Nova, October 1965.

Real conversation:

“You make bread?”

“Yeah”

“You got a bread machine?”

“No.”

“Then how do you make bread?”

“?”

I’ve baked bread as long as I can remember, first with my mother’s guidence and for at least four decades now on my own. Through high school I kept a sourdough starter alive, baking five small.loaves every Sunday as the centrepieces of the next week’s school lunches. Some might argue that I find baking bread to be one of the simplest of kitchen things because of this stupid long experience making the stuff. I would argue, however, that I feel this way because it truly is absolutely dead simple to bake a more than decent loaf of bread with little experience and less effort.

The other day I made a couple of loaves. No kneading. About three minutes of hands on effort. Lots of free time to do other tasks in and out of the house while ostensibly making bread.
Here it is:

Stir together

2 cups of bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
a bit of salt
a spoonful of “instant”yeast

Stir in 13 ounces of water

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and go away for the day or go have a good night’s sleep.

Whenever you get around to it, give it another quick stir.

After an hour or two, divide the lump roughly in half and quickly shape the two bits into elongated lumps on well-floured boards. Cover with plastic wrap. Go away for an hour or two.

Put a couple of heavy cast-iron lidded casseroles or pots or something into the oven and crank it to 450°F. There’s only one in the picture because my sister-in-law had my other one.

A while after the oven and the pots get hot, take the plastic wrap off the loaves, pull the pots out of the oven, take the lids off, sprinkle flour into them, flop the loaves into the pots, put on the lids and shove the lot back into the oven.

After thirty minutes or so, take the lids off and let the bread brown for five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, take the pots out of the oven, lift each loaf out of its pot, scrape the flour off their undersides, and put them on a rack to cool, if you can wait to taste your newly baked bread!

That’s it. Bread the easy, old-fashioned, no machine way. I’ve even baked this bread in a fire pit in my back yard (the cooking time was under ten minutes).
To be honest, I don’t know why there’s any sort of market for bread machines.

My Mazel Tov Cocktail

It’s pretty hard to be alive and not be aware in some sense of the U.S. Election. And for anyone who spends a bit of time on social media it would be difficult to be unaware of Donald Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes’ televised “Mazel Tov Cocktail” slip of the tongue  Of course, the twitterverse exploded with fulmination and amusement and, eventually, recipes.  Last night CBC Radio’s As It Happens even got involved.

Well, I can play that game, too.

After some moments of historical thought, consideration of current events south of the Medicine Line, and ruminations on flavour, I’ve come up with my own Mazel Tov Cocktail along with justifications for each ingredient.

Mazel Tov Cocktail

1 ounce Manischewitz kosher wine, obviously

1 ounce Finlandia vodka (I wanted Koskenkorva but it doesn’t seem to be available in Alberta)

1 ounce orange juice

1/2 ounce Wild Turkey Bourbon

A healthy dash of orange bitter(nes)s

Shake well in an iced cocktail shaker.

Serve in tiny glass bottles with an outrageous weave of orange zest and a small sprig of rue.

An outrageous weave of orange zest and a sprig of rue

Manischewitz Concord grape wine is awful, sweet stuff on it’s own, but a necessary accompaniment for any Mazel Tov toast.

The improvised incendiary device known as the Molotov Cocktail was given its name by Finish soldiers during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. It seems only appropriate to give Finland a nod in my Mazel Tov Cocktail. Koskenkorva would be even better.

The orange juice provides a necessary citrus balance to the grapey sweetness of the Manischewitz. It also is a cheap shot at a certain presidential candidate’s epidermal pigment challenge.

The Wild Turkey Bourbon? Wild. Turkey. cf. above mentioned candidate. And his supporters.

And I don’t think either the bitters or their orangeness need explanation.

I think you see where I’m going with the garnish.

The ingredients, with a lovely Canadian sunset

Good luck with your election, neighbours, and Mazel Tov, America!

A glass actually works better

Thoughts on Charity Auctions

Recently I’ve involved myself in two charity auctions. I had the winning bids for three items in an online fundraiser for Northern Light Theatre, and I have donated a painting for an online auction organized by Edmonton artist Jay Bigam as a fundraiser for the Red Cross’ relief efforts for Fort McMurray.  These two online fundraising auctions got me thinking about a decision I made sometime ago: I make it my policy to not donate my art to charity auctions unless there is a minimum reserved bid. I made this decision after I learned that one of my paintings was sold at charity auction for less than the cost of the frame.  I found this to not only be personally insulting, but alsi insulting and disrespectful to the organization trying to raise money for its good works.

In the case of the Northern Light Theatre fundraiser, I went online to check it out because I’ve been a fan of the Company since its early days a generation ago.  I saw fifty dollar gift cards had been donated by three restaurants I’d be happy to feed my hunger at — The Blue Plate Diner, downtown, Under The High Wheel and The Next Act, both in my neighbourhood (Old Strathcona). I checked out what the bids were at.

Five Dollars.

All three of them had been offered five miserly dollars. Some schmuck had said (three times) “Fifty dollars of your food and drink is worth five bucks to me! And your theatre company? The same Five bucks!”

Screw that noise!

I bid fifty bucks each of them because Northern Light Theatre is worth at least hundred and fifty bucks to me and those restaurants deserve proper respect for supporting live theatre in our city.

In the case of the ongoing artists’ fundraiser for Fort Mac evacuees Jay was adamant from the outset that there would be artist-set minimum reserved bids. Once Jay and the Red Cross worked out the mechanics, and even though I’d already donated to the Red Cross’ Fort Mac fund, I without hesitation offered my Sunflower:
image

We’ll see how it goes when bargain-hunting vultures are shut out.

Something else that really bugs me about all this is that crowd-funding campaigns have fundamentally the same model as charity auctions but with inflated reserved bids. Give ten bucks you get a doohickey worth a nickle. Give a hundred and you get a wotzit worth five.

And bragging rights.

Sad, but, since crowd-funding seems to be so much more attractive than charity, maybe charities should give up the charity auction idea and sacrifice a few percent on the kickstarter altar.

But, I’m going to claim my bragging rights:

I gave a hundred and fifty bucks to Northern Light Theatre to help keep Edmonton the insanely vibrant live-theatre place it is and I gave proper respect to three generous restaurants who help make Edmonton the crazy foody city it is.

Next time you see a charity auction, show some respect: bid the value or even more (t’s a fundraiser, not a firesale).

And then brag about it. You’ve earned the right.

So, I went to a restaurant . . .

So I went to a restaurant in Edmonton some time ago.  It is a virally popular restaurant that I won’t name.  I’m just not sure what to do with my experience, which is so totally at odds with what seems to be the overwhelming consensus of the #yegfood cognoscenti.

I went at lunch on a rare day I had time on my own. The place was packed. I placed my order – too go – and struggled to find a place to sit and wait.  I ordered what is essentially a sandwich of an ethnic variety.  It arrived in a styrofoam clamshell with a lidded plastic cup of sauce in due course.  All that quite comfortable.

But, the service was indifferent.  I don’t mean that the service was unremarkable – I mean the service exuded indifference.  There seemed to be no concern about the experience of an individual customer – there was another right behind in the line up.  Even at Taco Bell there’s a superficial effort to smile and say “Hi!”

And the food.  My sandwich was virtually inedible.  It wasn’t that it tasted bad or off – it was physically almost inedible because of the bread, which was a flavourless thing with the texture of an excessively crumbly cake. It could not be held without falling to pieces back into the stryofoam clamshell, onto my shirt and pants, and into the streets of Edmonton.  The soggy bits of meat were also without flavour, which is remarkable as the restaurant represented itself as serving a national cuisine noted for being highly flavoured.  Perhaps the cup of watery sauce would have added flavour, but the crumbly bread would have become a strange gruel in my hands at a single touch of whatever that liquid was.

It’s been a long time, more than a year, maybe two, since I went that one time to that restaurant.  People still rave about it.  I sometimes think about giving it another chance, but, to be honest, I gag a little at the thought.  Why should I give it another chance? There are lots of other places in Edmonton to get “authentic” (and physically edible) examples of that national cuisine.  If I were to go back, would I not be just submitting to peer pressure and contagious fashion, like a 70s teenager hating “Saturday Night” on first listen but running out to buy cropped tartan slacks and The Bay City Rollers the next day?  How many of us as adults continue to follow the crowd to the latest fashion, whatever our honest opinion would be if we considered the thing?  How many of us support local uncritically and thereby support mediocrity?  I fear too many do.

So, I went to an Edmonton restaurant that everybody raves about, and frankly, I hated everything about it.  It was a starkly naked emperor surrounded by a sycophantic hoard of loyal fans of the imperial threads.  Why would I want to give such an imperial birthday suit another chance?

Has anybody else had an experience like this? Have you tried the restaurant that everyone hails as the greatest thing since the discovery of bacon, only to find that there’s better and more “authentic” cuisine of its type at the 7-11 or the freezer section of the supermarket?

Why not share that experience in the comments section?

 

 

 

Ever since I was little . . .

Every since I was little I figured a human being would want to strive for a certain level of cultural literacy. And, by “culture” I mean “the things that people do and think about. Their tools, games, work and works, their understandings and misunderstandings.”

I figured a person would want to have a certain level of mathematical literacy (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.), a good understanding of science and the method of science, and a bit of a knowledge of at least a second language. I figured a person would want to have some understanding of the major world religions, of the remarkable fact that there are as many religions as there are believers, that there are more sects of Islam and Christianity and . . . than there are preachers on street corners in all the world.

I’ve figured that a person would want to have a pretty good familiarity with the great literary works of their language and some familiarity with the great works of other traditions. I figured a person would want to be able to at least plunk out a tune on a musical instrument, compose a sonnet, draw a picture, even if they produce pretty crappy art. I figured people would want to know a little about the history of Art.

I figured a person would want to have enough knowledge of the popular sports in their community that they could watch with understanding even if they never actually played the game.  I thought they’d want to know a few good jokes and maybe a card trick or two.

I figured a person would want to have a fairly good understanding of the workings of their country’s political system, would want to be able to manage money competently, do minor household repairs, grow food in a garden, understand the use of basic hand tools (knife, axe, hammer, saw, etc.). A grown-up would want to be able to sew on a button. As technology has “advanced” in my lifetime, I’ve figured people would want to keep up to some extent.

A grown up would want to be able to prepare a meal for guests, prepare their culture’s staple food (bake bread [without a machine], I guess, in my case).

And I’ve always sort of figured that grown ups would always want to learn new skills, find out new things about the universe and the people around them. Explore! Grow! Build!

But sometimes I look around at humanity, at the pride so many take in their ignorance, at the anti-intellectualism, at the mysterious and peculiar devotion to magical thinking, and particularly when some elected official holds up a snowball as a demonstration that the climate isn’t changing or blathers on twitter about evolution just being a theory and I think —

“They’re all nothing more than a bunch of monkeys throwing poop around.”

Then, I pause. And I look up at they sky and–

The Sky is Filled with Ships!

image

The sky of our Science Fiction world is filled with the robots that some of those monkeys built to explore. And I look around at the monkeys I know, in my neighbourhood, my city, my country, and all over my planet and I start to feel like maybe some of these monkeys are pretty impressive little monkeys doing exactly all that exploring, growing and building I always figured they all would want to be doing.

I wish all the other ones would want it, too.

Note: the initial version of this rant, which I posted to Facebook, read “should” in each place in which it now reads “would want to”. As I thought about it, I realized that I never really had a prescriptive feeling about this subject. Rather, I always had an expectation that people simply would desire to learn and grow, and as I grew older I was perplexed that some — many — people seemed to have no such desire.  I grew up in a world that I understood had moved beyond superstition. When I was a kid, Science was flying us to the Moon. Then, a few years later when I was about fifteen a schoolmate told me that she “didn’t believe in dinosaurs because they’re not in the Bible”. Of course, I thought she was joking. When I realized the truth, that she actually somehow didn’t “believe in” Reality, I was horrified. Much later l’esprit de l’escalier suggested I should have asked “What about trains? Do you believe in trains? They’re not in the Bible.” Since that day, I’ve never stopped being horrified.

I hope I live to a ripe old age . . .

I hope I live to a ripe old age for one big reason.  I want to be sitting in my rocker on my umpteenth birthday as some young journalist asks me: “To what do you attribute your longevity?”

I will smile, because I’ve prepared my answer.

Here’s why I’ve lived so long – I’ll say –

Obstetrical hand-washing.
Childhood vaccination.
Public sanitation.
Clean municipal drinking water.
Public health.
Antibiotics.
My own family’s medical history.
Adult vaccination.
Electrification and urban street lighting.
Food security provided by modern agriculture.
Food security provided by modern pest control.
Disease prevention provided by modern pest control.
Food inspection.
Central heating and the reduction of home coal and wood burning.
Urban living.
A lack of large predators in North America.
Sheer luck in not being called to military service.
Adequate roughage in my diet.

And.

Not dying for some other reason at a younger age.