Gluten Free from Blackbird Bakery

I learned three years ago from a blood test that I have a gluten allergy. Unlike most, I was relieved with the diagnosis.

The idea of feeling healthy while finding pleasure in food trumped eating pastel-frosted cupcakes from my favorite New York City bakery. I quickly changed my diet, swapping out whole-wheat pasta for rice and potato-based spaghetti. I have never quite had the patience to give gluten-free baking a shot, associating it with too many ingredients and incomparable tastes. Karen Morgan, blogger and proprietor of Blackbird Bakery, proved me wrong this past Thursday during her Gluten-Free from Blackbird Bakery recreational course at ICE.

Morgan’s pastry baking class focused on French classics such as fruit tarts, macaroons, meringue cookies, crêpes, cream puffs, and genoise cake — most of which have some daunting pastry techniques. Before we preheated our ovens, Morgan briefed the class on the basics of gluten-free baking ingredients. With no cake flour in the kitchen, she explained the characteristics of glutinous rice (which despite its name does not contain gluten), tapioca, chestnut and sorghum flours in the recipes. She noted that tapioca flour is often marketed as tapioca starch.

Morgan also shared that she prefers guar gum to xanthan gum, which acts as a stabilizer, as it doesn’t contain corn syrup. First, we started making pâte sucrée, sweet pastry dough, the base for the tart tatin and orange frangipane tart. As we took the dough out of the mixers, Karen instructed, “don’t ever, EVER roll out a pastry dough with cornstarch. It will create an odd crust on the surface. Dust the work surface and the dough with tapioca flour, instead.” With tapioca flour on my hands and rolling pin, the smooth dough rolled out perfectly — looking exactly like a regular pie crust! It tasted pretty darn good too.

Next, we gave cookies a go, using family recipes Morgan’s grandmothers handed down. “My grandmas used to send me these maraschino-marzipan kisses and coconut date macaroons cookies in metal tins every year during the holidays. They always make great gifts.” While I’m not the biggest maraschino cherry fan, Morgan noted that the marzipan kisses are a real treat when you replace the cherry with some peanut butter. For the crêpes, we prepared two batters: a savory one made with chicken stock and a little vodka, and a sweet one prepared with milk and orange liqueur. After chilling for an hour, we cooked the batters in crepe pans. With help from an off-set spatula, the crepes flipped with ease — not a single one tore — and turned a light golden brown. The sweet crêpes were spread simply with a little Nutella, and the savory were popped into a hot oven once they were topped with some shredded Gruyere and ham, just until the cheese melted. For the cream puffs, we began by making pâte à choux, a light pastry dough used for profiteroles and éclairs.

Once out of the oven, I popped one in my mouth and was shocked, you could not tell it was gluten free! Both texture and taste were exactly the same as pâte à choux made with all-purpose flour. Once filled with a sweet whipped cream with apricot preserves, they made for a very elegant dessert. Our final recipe for the evening was a chestnut genoise, topped with a maple glacage, cut into heart shapes with a cookie cutter. The cake was sweet and spongy. I’m so impressed with Karen’s pastries that I’m going to roll my sleeves up and give gluten-free baking another try.

If you have a gluten allergy, like me, or just want to bake a treat for someone who does, take a look at Karen’s gorgeous cookbook, Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free and check out her baking class next time she makes a visit to ICE.

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