Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Favorite Gluten Free (or not) Brownies.

Guys, can we be really honest for a minute?

You need to make these brownies.

I mean, I guess if you don't really like delicious things that are so chocolatey and gooey they'll make you forget that just two minutes ago you totally effed up your taxes, you probably shouldn't make them.  But if you like delicious things, keep reading.

My brother and his awesome lady are coming over tomorrow for dinner.  Though they live ten blocks from us and we love them dearly, we've never had just the two of them over for dinner.  It's time and I'm excited to feed them.

When I used to get together dinner parties, it was an ordeal.  The house had to be deep cleaned.  An elaborate meal had to be planned, usually involving several days of cooking and bellies so full of rich food afterwards that brains turned off and folks had to be rolled down our porch steps and into their cars.  Sometimes that kind of dinner party can be fun.  But more and more I'm willing to let some of that to-do go in order to have people over more often.

That means the elaborate dinner parties are on vacation for awhile.  These days, I do pizza.  Pizza and brownies.  I realized awhile ago that people aren't coming to our house so I can impress them with how obsessive I am about menu planning or how clean I can get our house.  People (at least the people I hang out with) like to eat, but they're also pretty easy to please.  That's why I like them.

This weekend, we're doing gluten pizza with various toppings (I do have a gluten free pizza dough I like, but not quite enough to serve to gluten eating folks).  The dough is from this book and I can say confidently that it's the best home-made pizza dough I've ever had, and also the easiest to make.

Then we're having these brownies.

I wonder sometimes if more people make from-scratch brownies than I realize.  I kind of assume most people make them from a box (Incidentally, I will not turn down a from-the-box brownie, or any brownie for that matter.  I'm magnanimous that way.), but that could very well just be the way it was in my house growing up.  There was never a discussion of whether to do from-scratch or from-box; when we wanted to make brownies, we bought a mix.  Realizing how easy brownies are to make from scratch was a revelation to me, and realizing how much better they can be than boxed-brownies sealed the deal.

This is my go-to, fail safe brownie recipe; I've been making these for ten years and they satisfy my itch every single time.  This recipe makes a gooey, gooey, luscious, chocolatey, not-too-sweet bar.  I apologize in advance to lovers of chewy brownies--these may not be what you're looking for.  Nonetheless, I encourage you to give them a shot.  They did, after all, make me forget about my taxes in one bite.

Gluten Free Brownies

adapted from Rosie's cookie book

  • Preheat your oven to 300°.  Grease an 8x8" baking pan and line it with parchment paper.  You might be all, "parchment paper, whatever" so if you don't have it/want to use it, do as your heart tells you.  Then next time do what I tell you.  The parchment will make your life better, I promise.

1 c. unsalted butter
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate

  • Combine these in a small saucepan and place over low heat  until they're melted.  Watch that the mixture doesn't boil up or burn; it won't surprise you that I'm not particularly finicky about this, so you shouldn't be either.  Allow the mixture to cool for 10 or so minutes.

4 large eggs, room temperature (yes, the room temp thing is important.  If your eggs are straight out of the fridge, as mine almost always are, place them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes to take the chill off).
1.5 c. granulated sugar
  • Combine the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and beat the heck out of them with a hand mixer or a stand mixer for a good couple of minutes. You'll know this is ready when it becomes a beautiful, creamy, buttercup-yellow goo.  This step is important because it helps leaven the brownies and provide some structure, so don't get lazy with the beating.
  • Add 1 T. vanilla extract and 1/2 t. salt.  Beat for a couple of seconds to combine.
  • Add your cooled-ish chocolate mixture to your egg mixture and give it a quick whirl to incorporate.  Don't beat this for more than a couple of seconds.
150 g. gluten free flour (or 1 c. regular unbleached wheat flour)
  • Add the flour to your batter and beat briefly to combine, just until the streaks of flour disappear.  This is a great time to add any nuts or other additions you would like to use.
  • Pour the batter into your prepared pan, slide it into the oven and set your timer for 45 minutes.  I find this recipe varies a bit on how long they take to bake but they tend to be done somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes.  They key to fudgy brownies is under-baking them a bit.  You'll know they're ready when the center doesn't jiggle when you jiggle the pan but a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a nice thick coating of barely solid brownie batter.  I know that's not the greatest explanation, but you'll get the hang of it.
  • Remove the brownies from the oven and allow them to cool completely.  Ideally, let them sit out uncovered overnight to solidify.  However, if you're in a rush, they should be ready to eat two to three hours after taking them out, unless your method is to insert a spoon into a pan of hot brownies, in which case we should hang out more.
Enjoy!  xo

My Gluten Free Flour Mix

Let's keep this short and sweet.

I like to bake.  Keeping baked goods in the house that are delicious, appealing and easy to grab for a quick snack has been key to my being able to substantially reduce the gluten in my diet.  For the first several years that I played with reducing gluten, I'm pretty sure I thought the way to do it was to simply remove the breads, pastas, crackers, etc. I ate regularly, but this method crashed and burned; somehow feeling ravenous all the time made the achy joints, asthma and fuzzy brain seem not so bad.  Within a couple of days I'd find myself slathering peanut butter on a fat slice of home-made wheat bread, leading to a desperate dive back into the world of gluten and the health annoyances that came with it.

Learning to bake gluten free was a game changer.

First, I bought Gluten Free Baking Classics, which taught me that successful gluten free baking relies on understanding how different flours function and how they can be combined to mimic the texture of wheat flour.  In other words, substituting a cup of brown rice flour for a cup of wheat flour isn't going to get you the results you want.  It also taught me that beyond its role in providing structure to baked goods, wheat has a strong role in creating the flavor profile of most baked goods.  The author suggests increasing the amount of vanilla in recipes, which is a tip I apply to most of the recipes I convert.

I made a few of the recipes included in that book and they were good (the chocolate chip cookies in particular) but I missed my old recipes and I didn't love the texture of the xantham gum used as a binder in most of the gluten free recipes.

Discovering Gluten Free Girl several years ago convinced me that gluten-free is doable.  I can't say it enough: if you're trying to go gluten-free or you know you need to for health reasons or even if you have a dear friend coming over for dinner who can't do gluten, read Shauna and Danny's site.  They give you real food in real life, and they remind you that eating and sharing food is a gift you can have even if you can't have wheat.

The Aherns teach you to make your own flour mix.  Those expensive tiny bags of pre-mixed gluten free flour that may or may not contain another ingredient your body doesn't like?  Don't bother with them.  Making your own flour mix is ridiculously easy and gives you the opportunity to use flours you like.  Most grocery stores now carry at least a few gluten free flours but if you don't have access to some of these at your local store, Bob's Red Mill is a great source.

After all of that, are you ready for meaty part?

Gluten Free Flour Mix
50% (by weight) starch
50% (by weight) whole grain gluten free flour

Because I like to keep it simple, most often I'll dump in a bag of potato starch (or whatever starch I'm using), which tends to be about 770 grams, hit "tare," then dump in about 770 grams of whole grain flours.  Then I get out my whisk and stir it together until it looks uniform before transferring to a container then to the baking cabinet to be used as needed.  In my mix, I most often use some mixture of potato starch with oat, millet and sorghum flour because they are usually the least expensive flours available, but use what appeals to you.

To Use
150 grams of flour mix per cup of flour called for in a recipe.

So the recipe calls for 2.5 cups of flour?  Use 375 grams of your flour mix.  I'll note here that Gluten Free Girl recommends 140 grams per cup but I've found 150 grams to work better in my recipes; she lives at sea level with high humidity, I live in the high desert.  70% of baking is paying attention to what your batter is telling you so don't be afraid to tweak the amount until you find something that gives you the results you want.

Baking by weight might sound like a pain in the tuchus but it's what allows you to reliably substitute your flour mix into your favorite recipes and once you get the hang of it, it's just as easy as baking by volume.  Please let me know if this works for you!  I'm always so curious to hear others' experiences with gluten free baking.

p.s. The gums?  I don't use them and I don't miss them.  They do help hold gluten free baked goods together but they also lend a gummy texture and are a nightmare to clean up (they turn to sticky slime when wet).  If I'm concerned about my baked goods holding together, I dump in a couple of tablespoons of ground flax, mix the batter for a minute or so to activate the binding of the flax and call it good.  With this kind of slap-dashery, it's a wonder anything turns out for me, but somehow it usually seems to work.  xo

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentines

I'm not usually much of one for Valentines Day, but this year H shocked me by proposing we go for breakfast, so we had coffee and an almond croissant and then went about our days.  It was perfect and simple and made me remember we should really do this sort of thing more often, both with each other and with others we love.

Then I had a crappy rest of the day and required not only a sweaty yoga class but also two vodka cocktails and a face plant into a giant bowl of cheesy pasta to bring me back to my happy place.  Just keeping it real.  Even having a date for Valentines doesn't make life perfect.

That said, I hope your day went swell, not because it's February 14 but because every one of your days would be swell if it were up to me.  xo

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Be Stressed About What You Are Stressed About

Are you good at this?

One of my most detrimental faults is my tendency to get frazzled.

Generally, I think of myself as a good stress manager.  I do my self-care, practice yoga, practice reframing thoughts, focus on my breath, compartmentalize, etc.  But I have a tipping point, and after that point, all hell breaks loose.  Suddenly, instead of just being stressed about the stressor, all the little mundane things that usually don't phase me suddenly turn into little ugly gnomes holding knitting needles, poking me from all sides.  The dirty dishes I can usually ignore aggravate me, the person sauntering at .25 mph through the crosswalk as I drive to work aggravates me, H interrupting my studying to give me a hug aggravates me.

But you know and I know that those little things aren't what it's about.

In the realm of clinical work on eating disorders, one school of thought is that those who develop eating disorders feel they cannot control certain elements in their lives, so they spend their energy controlling food.  Rather than fix the initial problem, this approach compounds it, creating even more work, more stress and more unhappiness, but it's so compelling an approach because it tricks the individual into thinking he or she is in control, even though the initial problem remains.  I bet, if we took some time to examine ourselves, most of us do something similar in some arena of our lives.

What I've noticed in myself is that when I feel I'm under an uncontrollable stress (i.e. school), instead of accepting and working through that stress, I generalize the stress to other areas of my life that do feel controllable.  For instance, if I scream at school, nobody will hear me, but if I snap at H, I create palpable impact.  It is not a helpful impact, it does not make me feel better and it does not lessen my stress, but I maintain this pattern because in the moment, it feels easier and more accessible than putting in the time and energy to deal with what's really stressing me out.  The stress needs an outlet, and every time it will take the path of least resistance unless we direct it elsewhere.

Stress isn't inherently unhealthy; eustress (the good kind) helps us get stuff accomplished.  But my worry is that when we live under a great deal of negative stress, it starts to erode the good parts of our lives, not because this is inherently what stress does, but rather because we don't confine the source of the stress to its proper boundaries; we allow it to flood.  We bring it into the parts of our lives that feed us, and in so doing we poison them, in the process starving ourselves and making it ever harder to manage the inevitable stress we all experience.

So give your stress a box to live in.  Trust that the contents of the box will be there when you need them, but for the most part, you can function just fine without.  And when you're stressed about school, work, or the myriad other wildcards that test us, remember to work even harder to love the people who love you, and don't take it out on the dishes.