Walking around and observing the Gluten and Allergen Expo last month at the Schaumburg Convention center, I came away with much food for thought. This rapidly expanding area in the culinary world surprised me by offering diverse assortments of foods targeted specifically for gluten and other allergens.
Amid the growing crowd on Sunday afternoon I took opportunities to listen and ask lots of questions. The Expo attracted families, with children and teenagers in tow, looking for palate pleasing foods that met their strict dietary guidelines.
For sweets, brownies and flourless cake desserts seemed to be popular items offered by baking vendors. When I asked people what dessert they miss most due to their gluten-free diet, a common theme became clear: simple sheet cake, chocolate would be ok, but less sweet. A recipe with easy to find ingredients fit for birthday cakes and parties.
They had me at wanting to bake their kids' birthday cakes again. A simple request and yet judging from how many parents asked me about this, not an easy execution. In culinary school our first lessons centered on taming gluten's power in baked goods. Over time bakers become accustomed to gluten in recipes and taking this power out of the equation creates a new set of challenges.
Gluten is a protein in wheat and the secret behind great breads and desserts. Add liquid to wheat flour; stir or knead well and dough becomes stretchy with gluten strands resulting in chewy bread. Add sugar, fat and stir less; voila, the batter holds enough gluten to bake structure into a soft textured cake.
Vendors at the Expo selling gluten-free cake or brownie desserts use an all-purpose baking flour blend from these ingredients: rice or tapioca flours, potato starch and surprisingly garbanzo and fava bean flour. The search was on for a vendor who offered a gluten-free all-purpose flour blend readily available to home bakers.
I found two varieties widely available in suburban grocery stores. Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free all- purpose flour blend (sold at Jewel, Whole Foods and Pete's markets) contains garbanzo and fava bean flour. This mixture boosts the protein content to match wheat all-purpose flour and brings additional fiber to the recipe.
Trader Joe's also offers gluten-free all-purpose flour blending rice flours as the star ingredient with tapioca and potato starch as supporting players. Comparing the two gluten-free flours per quarter-cup, Trader Joe's variety contains one-third as much protein as Bob's Red Mill, and has no additional fiber.
The instructions from Bob's Red Mill gave me an important secret to successful gluten-free baking: the batter needs to be very liquid and may need vinegar. This tip led me to use my vegan chocolate cake as a test base. The recipe lists hot coffee and vinegar as key leavening ingredients. Could a vegan cake also be gluten-free without compromising the taste and texture?
In baking trials I substituted the same amount of gluten-free flour for all-purpose in the vegan chocolate cake recipe and chose not to add gums or other additives to tenderize the texture. Overwhelmingly, Bob's Red Mill all-purpose gluten-free flour baked a higher cake with little sinking in the middle, a syndrome common with gluten-free recipes. Due to its lower protein content, Trader Joe's gluten-free blend baked darker, denser and resulted in a lower profiled cake.
Follow my instructions carefully and don't be alarmed by the very fluid batter. Avoid over baking as this will dry out the cake's texture.
Keeping with the vegan theme I offer a dairy-free chocolate frosting that's easy on the sugar. Plain or flavored buttercreams would work well for this gluten-free cake.
Take back that family tradition of home baked birthday cakes with my gluten-free and vegan cake recipe. I plan to share more Look for more gluten-free recipes in upcoming columns.
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.