The best bread I ever baked was a ciabatta. It was about two years ago. A Peter Reinhart recipe, slow rise, very high hydration, very little tampering. The resulting bread was immensely flavourful. It had a chewy crumb with a somewhat creamy end to the flavour; big beautiful holes that every baker covets and golden caramelised crust. We gobbled it — all three loaves — in one sitting with a mango barley salad and with a little home-made pesto on the side. I still remember the joy of seeing the bread get wiped out by my sister and husband. A couple of months after that I discovered that my hands would start itching each time I was around flour and dairy.
I can cook everything from a biryani to a roast mallard and pretty well at that, but I have always been more interested in baking than cooking. I flipped my first pancake when I was six years old and baked my first cake at nine. As a UX designer, I would bake when I woke up and bake when I returned from work. Sometime back, just when everything was going right with my career, I went part-time to devote more time to baking. Obviously, it sounded foolhardy to some people. You won’t understand why baking is so intrinsic to my life unless you’ve been bewitched by it yourself. I’ve never tried to analyse it. But, I think, it’s because one can create magic out of simple flour and water that so captivates me. You are sustaining yourself by trapping the air that you breathe, and people have been doing it for centuries across cultures. When you mix the dough, fold it and activate the gluten, you see it acquiring a life of its own. It’s elastic, it fights you, and then the lump of dough just grows. There is no frippery with bread, form always follows function. Bread is chemistry, the science of life and a history of humanity.
I think I knew exactly what was happening to me, but I lived in denial, and I continued baking. On such occasions, my face twitched, I wheezed gloriously and my eyes blinked a 100 times a second. On some days it was so bad, it was funny, sometimes, less so. Earlier this year another test diagnosed me as allergic to yeast, and to a variety of other foods. I have sought a cure from everyone, from an iridologist to a practitioner of nerve-threading, but we — gluten, yeast and dairy — now share a complicated relationship. I love them, they do nasty things to me. The last thing I baked was biscotti, some 160 tins or 2000 pieces, for a friend. That was about four 18-hour days of shallow breathing and flaring allergies, and it took me two long weeks to recover. Since then, and it’s been a couple of months, I haven’t baked at all. I miss it. It’s no wonder that these days, I feel like a stranger to myself.
Over the last 15-odd months, I have been learning to relate to food differently, thinking of the role it plays in our lives, especially what it does to our bodies. Food is politics and culture, yes, but it is also molecular biology. Is modern, genetically modified wheat the primary cause of gluten intolerance? I think so. Is the problem limited to wheat? I have no doubt it isn’t. How can we escape the damage we have done to the environment that gives us our food? Will eating the food I ate while growing up and eating what my forefathers ate help me make peace with my immune system? If so, how far back do I go to make that peace? Does the answer lie in growing your own produce? Is sourdough bread the way forward for people like me? After all, since complex carbs are broken down into simple sugars and proteins into amino acids with this ages-old technique, it is easier for our bodies to digest it (I’m still hoping to return to my pet sourdough starter soon enough). Maybe, it is time I stopped obsessing over cakes, cinnamon rolls and tarts, which is essentially White Man’s food, and discovered food and bread that’s real and closer to our roots.
It’s going to be a long journey, and there will be many troughs, but, like fine dough, I hope to rise above it all.
DIY Gluten-free Flour
The first thing I learnt when I started gluten-free cooking and baking is to stop trying to imitate wheat-based products. Yes, one does get hit by the craving from time to time, but if you aim to turn one ingredient into another, you not only set yourself up for disappointment, but also lose the potential of what that ingredient can deliver. What one needs to do instead is to work towards understanding the various properties of the ingredient. What kind of texture and flavour do they impart? How much moisture and fat do they typically absorb? Do they tend to get gummy/elastic or mushy? Embracing each ingredient for what it brings to the table and learning its qualities is key to innovating with the ingredients you have and creating healthy yet delicious dishes that fill the void created by cutting out wheat.
The most common base proportion I work with is a 2:3 ratio, where 2 stands for the number of units of wholegrain flour (ragi, jowar, oats, bajra, brown rice, etc.) and 3 for the starchy flour (white rice, potato starch, ground tapioca or sabudana, arrowroot, cornflour) that you are using. I try and make sure that a good proportion of the starchy flours is made up of white rice and try to use a combination of other starches as well. The resulting flour is what I use when I want to substitute all purpose flour, but I play with it according to what I have, or what I want. Here’s a blend I’ve often used successfully to make pancakes, crepes and waffles.
2 cups Brown rice/Jowar flour
2 cups White rice flour
3/4 cup Potato starch
1/4 cup Corn flour/Finely ground sabudana
* To get a more high-fibre blend, I may change the proportion to favour the wholegrains. In fact, my favourite gluten-free solution is to replace aata with brown rice flour in rotis and parathas.
* Adding nut flours like almond flour can add more fibre and a fantastic nutty quality to the finished dish.
* Try adding gram-based flours like besan or mung bean flour (in small quanities to start with so you know what it does to the texture and flavour of your dish) to increase the protein in your flour.
* Adding 1/2 to 1 teaspoonful of ground flax seed or even isabgol can add a bit of that stretchy quality that gluten adds to wheat flour, enhancing texture and also adding healthy fibre to your recipe.
* Another way to reproduce some of the effect of gluten is to add small amounts of xanthan gum (made of wheat, so that’s tricky) or gaur gum to the flour mix.
* While using this blend to replace all purpose flour, it may help if you experiment with decreasing the fat in the recipe and adding a bit of resting time before using the batter or dough so it absorbs the fat and moisture properly.
* Increasing the amount of eggs you use (replacing some of the liquid in the dough/batter) may result in a better structure from the added protein
The author blogs at bombaychowparty.com