Days of yore
While rifling though a stack of scrappy notes the other day, I came across a dog-eared piece of paper, all scribbles and question marks, a streak of wiped-away ingredients blurring some words.
It took me a while to decode it.
When I did, it brought back a rush of memories centered around conviviality and cake. The nostalgia I felt for getting myself into a mild state of panic over something as unthreatening as a cake was intense.
Ah for those halcyon days when popping ‘round a friend’s house was something we could do without the risk of passing ‘round a deadly virus.
Coffee morning challenge
I love to bake. I’m not pretending it always goes to plan but friends know I’m up for requests. They also know I’m up for a challenge.
So, a couple of years back, when my friend called to announce a charity coffee morning at her place, I said “Yes,” without waiting to hear details. As usual, I offered to bake.
That’s when the trouble started.
“Great!” she responded, “We need a gluten-free bake.” I told her that would be no problem. In my head I was planning almonds and polenta.
“No nuts though, we have guests with allergies.” OK. Scratch the almonds.
“We also need something for our dairy-free buddies,” she continued, “And who was it went vegan? One family decided only to do natural sugars, too. . .”
I know my friend. We met way back when we were teenagers. She was informing me of different needs, asking if I could help with anything, maybe make a couple of different free-from bakes. She wasn’t implying I should take on the lot, certainly not all at once.
So I take full responsibility for what happened next.
We all know for a standard cake you need wheat flour, eggs, butter and sugar. Raising agents make the process a whole lot simpler, too.
Each ingredient has its role. Butter brings mouthfeel and traps air for lightness. Sugar not only sweetens but its molecules bond to water and take part in myriad chemical reactions creating layers of flavour. Eggs are binders and form lovely bubbles to bake in lightness. Flour is structural and a great deal of that is due to the stretchy gluten proteins that expand on heating until they are baked into place. A raising agent creates bubbles of carbon-dioxide that expand and make the cake rise.
A coffee morning is about camaraderie and sharing. I didn’t want to turn up with a cake that only in small subset of people could eat. I was going to make one cake and anyone at the table could eat.
Rashly, I promised my friend a single inclusive cake.
Ingredients in lieu
Later that day, I found myself looking at my ingredients. With a sinking heart I realised I really couldn’t use any of the standard ones. OK, well, at least baking powder was still on the cards.
Wheat flour was the first to go. Fortunately, these days ready-mixed gluten-free flour is available in the shop. I’d been experimenting with one containing rice, potato, tapioca, maize and buckwheat flour. There was half a bag already in the cupboard. So far, so good.
However, that flour mix didn’t contain anything to replace the elasticity of gluten. My bakes thus far had turned out rather over-crumbly.
I’m not a huge fan of baking with Xanthan gum, which is a common stand-in in for eggs. I couldn’t get the proportions right. I needed more practice but that day was not the day to risk a stodgy mess.
Maybe, I thought to myself, I could run with fruit pulp. Lots of moisture, a little fibre to help the structure. Hmm, worth considering.
I wanted something sweet but fibrous so I mashed up a tin of pineapple chunks.
I admit this is the easy one. I do love the depth of flavour from butter but there are plenty of good replacements.
I’ve not had good experiences with solid vegetable fat alongside anything containing rice flour— I’m not a fan of the mouthfeel. Maybe it’s just me but I find it leaves a greasy after-note. So, I went for a vegan friendly — and therefore automatically dairy free — spread. Basically a set of blended vegetable oils.
A cake needs a sweetener for sure but I’d promised to keep away from traditional processed sugar.
Sugars undergo caramelisation when heated in a delicious browning reaction. Secondly, there’s the famous Maillard reaction, a different sort of browning occurring at high temperatures when sugars react with the components of proteins.
Sugar also keeps in moisture and makes cake texture more cakey and less rubbery. Without gluten you might imagine there’d be no problem with rubberiness from overmixing but using a fruit pulp instead of eggs meant I was adding rubbery risk right back in.
What to replace processed sugar with? I wouldn’t need too much as the pineapple pulp was already quite sweet.
Honey was out as I needed to keep the cake vegan. Maple syrup, maybe? It is available in UK supermarkets but it’s not always the best and I had no experience of how it plays with other flavours.
On the other hand, our local health food shop stocked xylitol. Extracted from birch sap, it’s very popular in Finland, birches being a very common tree there. My mother is Finnish so I’d come across it as a sugar substitute long before it started appearing in chewing gums and mouthwashes as a sweetener that actually helps prevent tooth decay.
Xylitol does not caramelise, however, so I’d have to rely on the natural sugars in the fruit pulp for that.
Measure, mix and bake
The pineapple cake recipe I used as a starting point went in the bin almost immediately. I guessed measures, weights and volumes. I spent furious minutes scribbling ratios, crossing them out and recalculating. I only remembered at the last minute to add a teaspoon and a half of baking powder for the rise.
The tin greased and ready, I poured in what I hoped was something akin to cake mixture. In it went for the bake, oven on at a standard 180C (350F).
I knelt at the oven door as if in prayer. I tell myself it was a practical stance, me as Frankenstein keeping a watchful eye on my monstrous concoction as it rose from its motley parts.
Wafts of cake aroma from the oven reassured me that the experiment had not been in vain.
It smelled deliciously pineappley and turned out of the tin without turning to crumbs (a definite risk for someone relatively inexperienced with gluten-free baking) or oozing out as a sludge (a risk, having guessed the moisture content).
I’m not really one for decoration. I like the taste of cake too much. Besides, my brain was too tired replacing each of the cake’s innards without trying to think of a suitable decoration strategy as well.
I wedged some dried pineapple slices in the top and mopped my brow, leaving a streak of gluten-free flour at my hairline.
The proof of the pudding
So how did it taste? The texture wasn’t quite perfect. It was a little springy and fell apart less delicately than you’d want. The general mouthfeel was good, however, with neither greasiness nor dryness. It was cakey and pineappley without being overly sweet.
Most importantly, everyone at the coffee morning could tuck in and try a piece.
For a cake promised in a fit of reckless idealism, it was pretty good.
Recipe for the cake-free cake
250g Gluten-free flour mix
200g Tin of pineapple, mashed, leaving a few chunks for texture
80g Dairy-free spread
1.5tsp Baking powder
- Preheat the oven to 180C (350F)
- Sieve the flour
- Whizz up everything together with a mixer
- Line a loaf tin and grease with some of the dairy-free spread
- Bake for about 25 minutes, depending on your oven
- Cool in tin and then turn out