February 25, 2015

Caught between the past and the present: bannock


Have you watched the television series Outlander? For some people it was too slow-moving, but I found it mesmerizing. It was so gorgeously filmed that every scene made me feel like I was looking into a painting, and so steeped in history, and breathtaking scenery that I started believing my living room was hanging with moss, and I could almost hear horses coming down the hall. I loved the two main characters, Claire and Jamie, and the combination of realistic historic facts combined with the sci fi element of time-travel. I never intended to read the books on which the series is based until I read a short essay written by a friend who is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She classified Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books as "historical/adventure/sci-fi/romance," under the general category of escape fiction, and said that she was hooked on the series. She called the books a guilty pleasure, and the fact that she, a serious reader and writer, had read and loved them, motivated me to check them out.

I was curious to see what the books on which the series was based were like, so in December, I downloaded Outlander, the first title in the series, to my kindle app. I had no idea what I was in for. When I read the first book I was surprised at how closely the series followed it, and how engrossed I became with the lives of the characters. Seriously, I never expected to read more than volume one, if that much — the books are LONG (one of them was more than 1400 pages!) — and there are eight of them (so far). They are not my usual style of reading, but once I got started I fell right down the rabbit hole, and all I can say is I'm now on book eight. Yes, book eight. I read obsessively, crave whiskey, and my dreams now take place in the 18th century. If you think I'm kidding, I assure you I'm not — at least not about the obsessive reading or the dreams. (No, I haven't started drinking.)  The weirdest thing about the dreams is that they don't involve the characters from the books, but they do take place in the time period I'm reading about.


If you're not familiar with the books or show, they begin with a woman who accidentally time-travels through a set of mystical standing stones in the Scottish Highlands. She travels from 1945 to 200 years into the past. It's a time-travel, historical fiction, romance (with a lot of sex) novel with a particularly intelligent, feisty, liberated, beautiful female heroine and an equally appealing (to put it mildly) male protagonist. The action is non-stop so there's never a good place to pause reading, which is why I hardly ever do. Consequently I have a long list of things to accomplish once I get through book eight.

Probably, had I been living in 18th century rural Scotland, I wouldn't have been a vegan or vegetarian — it would have been hard since country folk depended on wild game and home-raised animals for so much of their diet. I feel really lucky that I live in a time and place where I can choose what I eat. One of the non-animal foods I kept reading about with interest, though, was the bannock, which is a Scottish biscuit type of bread, often made with oats as well as wheat. The characters in the book were eating them day and night — pulling hot bannocks from the hearth and spreading them with jam and butter so often that I finally reached a point where I had to have a bannock. Had to, even though I had no idea what a bannock was beyond some sort of bread. Since I'm here in the 21st century, I googled bannock and came up with a lot of similar recipes, but because I can't seem to eat wheat without a lot of digestive distress, I needed a gluten-free recipe. I couldn't find one I liked, so I've made my own, based on the wheaty ones. And I used my nice, 21st century oven, rather than an open fire.


Before reading Outlander, I'd never had a traditional bannock or even heard of one, so I have no way of knowing whether mine tasted authentic or not, but it was wonderful. I ate it hot from the oven and it had the texture of fresh baked bread, with biscuity overtones. It was also very easy to make. I left a piece out over night and it was dry and nasty the next day, so it's probably best to consume the bannock fresh, or wrap it well to keep it soft. I made one large bannock, but you could make smaller ones and bake them a shorter time.

The first bannock I made I cut into pieces, but the next one we just pulled apart into delicious chunks — much more authentic, I think. Pull yours apart, aye? I made my bannock in 30 minutes, start to finish.

Don't you want to just rip off a piece and take a bite?

Bannocks (gluten-free version) - one 6-inch bannock
(Updated with flax to be slightly lighter.)
  • 1 cup gf flour (I used Bob's Red Mill)*
  • 1/2 cup oat flour (plus more as needed) (gluten-free if needed)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons flax meal
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon water
  • oil for the pan
  1. Oil an 8-inch cast iron griddle with the oil
  2. Place the gf flour, oat flour, baking powder, salt, flax in a bowl and whisk until combined.
  3. Add vinegar to measuring cup, then fill to 1/2 cup mark with water. 
  4. Add liquid to dry and beat with a spoon until a very soft dough is formed.
  5. Add additional oat flour, a tablespoon at a time, if needed, to form a workable dough. Then use your fingers to gingerly work the oat flour into the dough until it's pliable. You will probably need to add additional oat flour to get a soft but easily handled dough. It will only take a few minutes to accomplish this.
  6. Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper or a lightly floured wood board and pat into a round approximately 6-inches in diameter. If desired, you can also make two or three smaller rounds instead of just one.
  7. Heat an 8-inch cast iron griddle until a few drops of water sprinkled on the surface dance and evaporate. Add the oil and heat until hot but not smoking. Carefully place the bannock(s) on the griddle and place in the hot oven.
  8. Bake for 10 minutes, then flip the bannock over and bake about five minutes longer or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped. (Smaller bannocks will take less time.)
  9. Enjoy either plain or with vegan butter and jam. Or, split and use for a burger bun!

*If you're not gluten-free, just use wheat flour instead of GF flour mix.

February 04, 2015

Variations on chocolate chip cookie pie (GF) (And some thoughts on GF baking.)


We recently celebrated the second birthday of our little grandson, and as is usually the case at family events, I made a cake. I think I became the family cakemaker because no one else wants to make vegan cakes or gluten-free cakes, but I don't mind. Making cakes is kind of fun. My first plan was to make a two-layer chocolate cake, but I got sidetracked, and decided to make a family favorite instead — chocolate chip cookie pie. For some reason, this seems to be my family's favorite cake even though it contains an ingredient that I don't generally consider a cake ingredient — cannelini beans. Because it was a birthday cake, I added a chocolate frosting, but it's the same old cookie pie underneath. The pie-cake has a particularly appealing texture, a sweet chocolatey richness — and it really doesn't need frosting. Everyone seems to like it, and except for one time when I forgot to cool the beans and melted all the chocolate chips, it's never failed me.


I first wrote about the cake here. but I'm going to reprint the recipe so you don't have to go back and look it up if you don't want to. It's a gluten-free cake but you can make it with wheat flour if you want. Just substitute wheat flour for the sorghum flour and tapioca flour. I wish I could include the frosting recipe, made from a 70% Theo chocolate bar, but I didn't write down the exact proportions so it will have to wait for another time. If you scroll down the page you'll find my newest variation of the recipe, baked in a 9-inch square pan. I think it's my new favorite cake. After the recipe section, I'll share a few thoughts about gluten-free baking.


Gluten-free chocolate chip cookie pie 
(based on a recipe by Chocolate-Covered Katie)
(check labels to make sure you are using gluten-free ingredients, if you intend the cake to be gluten-free.)

Oil a 10-inch spring form pan fitted with a round of parchment paper on the bottom. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.
  • 1-1/2 cups of cooked, cooled and well-drained cannelini beans (or one can, rinsed and well-drained)
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or mild vinegar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt (your preference)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup evaporated cane juice or organic sugar
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (I used Bob's Red Mill)
  • 1/3 cup sorghum flour (or your favorite GF flour)
  • 1/3 cup (GF) oat flour
  • 1/3 cup tapioca flour or arrowroot powder
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups vegan chocolate chips (the larger amount is excessive but fun)
  1. Blend the beans, applesauce, oil, vanilla and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth.
  2. Place the baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, almond flour, sorghum flour, oat flour, and tapioca flour in a large bowl. Whisk the dry ingredients together until all  lumps are removed and the flours are combined.
  3. Scrape the wet ingredients into the dry and beat until completely combined (or at least one minute). Strictly speaking, you don't have to use an electric mixer. You can add the dry ingredients to the processor, mix them in, then stir in the chocolate chips as directed. Using a mixer seems to give GF baked goods a better rise.
  4. Stir in about 3/4 of the chocolate chips.
  5. Spread the batter (it will be fairly stiff) into the greased pan and smooth the top. Add the remaining chips and press in gently.
  6. Bake in a pre-heated 350˚ oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out sort of dry. The edges of the cake will be drier than the center, which will stay a bit moist.
  7. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes before removing from the pan. If you haven't used a spring-form pan with parchment paper on the bottom, good luck. 
After the cake has cooled about 20 minutes, place a plate over the top, flip it over, peel off the paper, place a serving plate over the cake and flip the cake right side up. It works much better than trying to remove the cake from the pan bottom.
When you slice the cake, use a very sharp knife and slice straight down — NO SAWING. Trust me. 


Playing around with the cookie pie recipe, I've changed the ingredients a bit to create a very appealing square cake that's a bit less sweet, and more cake-like than the cookie pie.

Chocolate chip square cake

Oil a 9-inch square dish fitted with parchment paper on the bottom. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.
  • 2 tablespoons ground flax seed plus 5 tablespoons cold water
  • 1-1/2 cups of cooked, cooled and well-drained cannelini beans (or one can, rinsed and well-drained)
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or mild vinegar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt (your preference)
  • 3/4 cup evaporated cane juice or organic sugar
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (I used Honeyville Blanched Almond Flour, but sometimes I use Bob's Red Mill)
  • 1/4 cup millet flour
  • 1/2 cup (GF) oat flour
  • 1/4 cup or arrowroot powder or tapioca flour( also known as tapioca starch)
  • 1 cup vegan chocolate chips (the larger amount is excessive but fun)
  1. Place the flax meal in a small dish or measuring cup and add the water. Allow it to sit for five minutes, or until needed for the recipe.
  2. Blend the beans, applesauce, oil, vanilla and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth.
  3. Place the baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, almond flour, millet flour, oat flour, and tapioca flour in a large bowl. Whisk the dry ingredients together until all  lumps are removed and the flours are combined.
  4. Whip the flax meal with a fork until it is gluey, then add to the dry ingredients.
  5. Scrape the wet ingredients into the dry and beat until completely combined (or at least one minute) with an electric hand mixer. Strictly speaking, you don't have to use an electric mixer. You can add the dry ingredients to the processor, mix them in, then stir in the chocolate chips as directed. Using a mixer seems to give GF baked goods a better rise.
  6. Stir in about 3/4 of the chocolate chips.
  7. Spread the batter (it will be fairly stiff) into the greased pan and smooth the top. Add the remaining chips and press in gently.
  8. Bake in a pre-heated 350˚ oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out dry.
  9. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes before removing from the pan.
After the cake has cooled about 20 minutes, place a plate over the top, flip it over, peel off the paper, place a serving plate over the cake and flip the cake right side up.

Serving tip: I really like making square cakes but I never seemed to have the right plate on which to serve them. My plates either had too high a lip, were the wrong size, or were an oval shape and I had to awkwardly squeeze the cut pieces on. I wanted a flat square that I could just turn the cake onto, and cut it in place. If you have a Crate and Barrel near you, they have a set of dinnerware called, "Cyd" with a dinner plate that is the exact right size for a 9-inch square cake or brownies, and it's only $5.95. You can buy just one.


Some thoughts about gluten-free cake baking
I'm not a baking expert by any means, but I have learned a lot about baking gluten-free, and I have some ideas I'd like to share. First I'd like to say that I want my cakes to look good, taste good and not taste gluten-free, but I like all my recipes, even dessert, to contribute to rather than take away from, good health. When I first started baking GF, I followed all the rules about using xanthan gum and starches in the flour mix. I soon discovered that xanthan gum didn't sit well in my stomach, and starches are really just empty calories. The high proportion of starches commonly flound in GF baked goods can have a negative effect on health and weight.

I quickly found that adding flax meal like I used to use for wheat-based cakes and muffins, worked as well as xanthan gum, if I used two tablespoons instead of one. That was easy. Then I started thinking about the proportions of starch to flour, and what was really necessary for good results. I had to ask myself what definition I was using for "good results". When using whole grain flours without gluten (like sorghum, millet, rice, etc.) the addition of starch is necessary; without starch GF baked goods would be heavy and gluey. But some of the flour mixes I was using had as much as 50% starch or as little as 1/3 starch. What was I trying to accomplish? Was I after the Wonder Bread of cake? Even when I ate gluten, I wasn't drawn to lighter than air versions of baked goods. Before I was vegan or vegetarian, I was a 'health nut', so to speak. I ate a whole foods diet, and that included whole grain baked goods — I needed to get a grip, and figure out the flour/starch ratios. I wasn't trying to reproduce the Standard American Diet white cake, after all. In the square cake above, I've used 1-1/4 cups of flour to 1/4 cup of starch, and the texture was just as I like it. The amount of sugar still seems high to me, especially in light of the chocolate chips, but most people seem to prefer sweet cakes. Sometimes I use Bob's Red Mill GF baking mix and substitute 1/3 to 1/2 cup of GF flour like almond or oat for an equal amount of Bob's mix to reduce the starch ratio — almond flour and oat flour seem to produce the best cakes for me. It always seems to work fine.

I'm only talking about cakes, muffins, cookies, pancakes and waffles — yeast bread is entirely different, and I've barely tried to bake bread. I've successfully make pizza crust using a high-starch and xanthan gum recipe, but haven't tried many other recipes, and haven't tried changing flour/starch ratios. I used to bake great sourdough and whole grain breads, but GF breads scare me. I'd like to have one good bread recipe for the rare occasion when I'm really missing bread. Any suggestions?

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