You've Got Gluten-Free Questions? Erin McKenna's Got Answers
|Photo: Tara Donne|
Baking without using wheat
flour—the base ingredient in everything from chocolate chip cookies to red velvet cake—sounds like something out of a hybrid reality show called Survivor: The Bakery Challenge. Still, the Center for
Celiac Research at the University of Maryland says 6 percent of the population is now
following a gluten-free diet, avoiding wheat. That means there are a lot of
people roaming the aisles of health food stores wondering what the difference
is between garbanzo and fava bean flour and rice flour, and what exactly is xanthan gum? Erin McKenna, who founded the
gluten-free, vegan bakeshop BabyCakes NYC, which now has an outpost in Los Angeles, just published her second book, BabyCakes Covers the
Classics (Clarkson Potter). Although she had her share of disasters when she was first learning how to make muffins and pies sans all-purpose flour, she's since perfected honey buns, thin mints and German chocolate cake, which makes her just the person to answer a few of our questions.
Read the instructions (even the
ones in the beginning of the book, before the recipes) all the way through
before you buy the items you need and get to work. This is standard protocol
for all cooking, but especially important in gluten-free. Recipes often use ingredients
such as refined coconut oil and potato starch, and important information about
how to measure them (e.g., coconut oil must be melted first) is often in the
All gluten-free flours have
their strengths—and weaknesses. McKenna likes garbanzo and fava bean flour for
banana bread, cupcakes and cakes that she wants to have a "nice rise" and
fluffiness to them. Rice flour, on the other hand, would make a cake grainy and
dense—but it's perfect for brownies.
Just add water. McKenna's trick
for batters that seem too thick (and you know you've crossed into that
territory when it's hard to stir, or a wooden spoon stands up straight when
stuck into the mixture): Just add a little bit of hot water, a teaspoon or so
at a time. The heat will loosen up any stiffness.
Measure xanthan gum precisely.
This is one step where you don't want to eyeball it, McKenna says, because even
a little too much xanthan gum (a carbohydrate that adds volume) than a
recipe calls for will ruin a cake's texture, making it too chewy.