If you read my baking roundup in December, you might have noted that I gushed briefly about Alice Medrich’s newest cookbook but promised a longer followup. Here it is, my review of her latest cookbook, Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours .
I’ve been a fan of Alice for a quite a while, and I’ll mention that she’s one of the most open and engaging authors I’ve met. Every time I’ve interviewed her for her latest cookbook, we end up having a great conversation about baking that leaves me inspired to get into the kitchen and bake something really delicious. I was really excited to hear her thoughts on this latest, very ambitious work.
Alice readily admitted that Flavor Flours was the biggest baking challenge she’s taken on. Although superficially it looked like she was writing a gluten free cookbook, once you dive in you realize she’s done something entirely different: exploring how to bake with a variety of non-wheat flours, most of which behave quite differently from all-purpose wheat flour. One of the biggest challenges in the gluten free arena is creating baked goods that can come close to the flavor and texture of their gluten-y originals. However, Alice said, “I’m the kind of person who, when someone says I can’t do something, I immediately want to do it.”
Alice approached the challenge of baking without wheat flour from a totally different perspective: instead of focusing on the wheat flour being taken out of a recipe and trying to find a non-wheat substitution, she chose to explore the vast variety of non-wheat flours as unique and worthy ingredients on their own. As she says, “My book focuses on what’s in the baked goods, instead of what’s not in them.”
This philosophy I think dovetails much more closely with the mindset of most bakers and pastry chefs. Pastry is all about understanding the magical chemistry between different ingredients when they are mixed and combined and then heated in the oven or on the stove. When people ask, “Can you use half the sugar that the recipe calls for?” or “Can you eliminate the eggs?” they’re essentially asking for a fundamental retooling of the recipe – a entirely different creation from the original.
Alice understood that instead of obsessively trying to find the perfect mix of flours that would most closely replicate the function of all-purpose flour in a recipe for cake, or cookies, or biscuits, what fit her inquisitive nature better was to create new recipes for cakes, cookies, and biscuits, using alternative flours. I told her that as a baker trained in classic pastry techniques, the idea of having to understand a totally new flour and how it interacts differently with eggs, dairy, and other ingredients, or how it behaves when mixed or heated, was quite intimidating. But trust Alice to have the courage and experience to master this challenge.
Going through the book, it’s evident that a lot of work and a deep understanding of baking science went into the recipes. Alice confesses that she probably had more failures in her test kitchen for this book than any other. She had a lucky start when the first thing she tested, sponge cake, came out wonderfully with the various non-wheat flours, leading her to think this project would be a simple exercise. However, various other baked goods proved much trickier to perfect. Alice and her collaborator Maya Klein had to experiment with different techniques and combinations to find success. Not only do the final recipes work, but they showcase the unique characteristics of the various flours.
Flavor Flours explores several different non-wheat flours that Alice selected based on their flavor appeal and general availability: rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, buckwheat flour, chestnut flour, teff, sorghum flour, and nut and coconut flours. The recipes are all simple classics: layer cakes, tarts, muffins, cookies, crackers, all doable by home bakers and, more importantly, feel like baking, not a science project where you’re combining a bunch of obscure flours and starches with gums and other binders. Just like her other cookbooks, Alice lets the flavors of her ingredients shine: teff adds deep cocoa notes to brownies, buckwheat lends a hint of honey to a quick bread, corn flour adds crunch to a tart crust. You realize why the book is named Flavor Flours: instead of wheat flour providing a neutral background, it’s become another tool in the flavor palette.
I made the chocolate chip cookies, mainly because I was looking for something I’ve made often so I’d have a good baseline reference, plus as it was the holidays I needed more cookies for my cookie plate! Alice mentioned this is a more traditional style gluten free recipe, one of the earlier ones she developed, that uses a blend of non-wheat flours and a bit of xanthan gum to replace the all-purpose flour. (Many of the other recipes in the book focus on just one flour, and don’t use xanthan gum). The oat and brown rice flours give a rich, butterscotch flavor and lovely texture to the cookies (think any oatmeal cookie you’ve ever made), and they have that perfect combo of crisp exteriors and soft, cakey interiors. They are almost easier to put together than my regular chocolate chip cookies, since they don’t even need a stand mixer – you can stir everything together in one big bowl. I can give the standard gluten free compliment – I can’t tell it’s gluten free! – but I’m also pleased by how using brown rice flour and oat flour has opened my palate to their nuances of flavor, how they can enrich the taste of a chocolate chip cookie. It makes me want to explore how some other baked goods I make would taste if I used a different flour.
Some of her personal favorites that Alice also recommended I try making also included the Dark and Spicy Pumpkin Bread, the Corn Flour Chiffon Cake, and the Rice Flour Pastry Cream. She’s particularly proud of the rice flour pastry cream, saying it might have become her go-to pastry cream – and in general she demurred when I asked if she preferred her “flavor flour” recipes to her old wheat flour versions.
For the queen of chocolate, I think she might have found her newest pet passion. It’s clear she’s only scratched the surface of working with non-wheat flours. She admitted that she has plenty more ideas for recipes with these flours that she’d like to try out, not to mention all the other flours that didn’t make it into the book. Flavor Flours truly is a revolutionary work – having been baking and collecting cookbooks for so long, I know it’s hard to come up with anything that’s totally original these days, but this is a fantastic work that should be an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stretch their baking horizons, anyone looking to bake without wheat flour – anyone interested in baking, really. Thanks again Alice, and I’m looking forward to seeing what new territory you’ll chart next!
- From Alice Medrich's Flavor Flours
- 1 1/4 cups (125 g) oat flour
- 1 cup (135 g) brown rice flour
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (65 g) potato starch
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 pound (225 g) unsalted butter, melted
- 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup (150 g) packed dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups (340 g) chocolate chips or chunks
- 1/2 cup (50 g) walnuts, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup (28 g) roasted cacao nibs
- Combine flours, potato starch, salt, baking soda, and xanthan gum in a medium bowl and mix thoroughly with a whisk.
- In a large bowl, mix the melted butter, sugars, and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs. Stir in the flour mixture. With a rubber spatula, mix the batter briskly for 45 seconds to activate the xanthan gum.
- Cover dough and refrigerate for 1-2 hours, or overnight for best flavor.
- When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line several baking sheet with foil, dull side up.
- Scoop 2 tablespoons of dough per cookie and place 2 inches apart on the prepared sheets. Bake cookies until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating from front to back and top to bottom halfway through.
- Cool on wire racks. Store in an airtight container for several days.