a good loaf

Oops. I do believe I titled this blog A Baking Life, and yet I have said nothing on the subject of baking in general, let alone gluten-free baking.

So, we might as well begin with the hardest thing to master: gluten-free bread. I know, I know, bread, the most basic of foods, should not have to be the Holy Grail for celiacs and other gluten-free types. But it is. There are very few other baked goods that rely so heavily on gluten for their structure, and on wheat flour for their flavor. Want gluten-free cake? Cookies? Quick breads? Crackers? Pie? Even profiteroles? Done and done. I've got recipes for them all, and after years of baking gluten-free, don't even bat an eyelash when making up something new.

Except for bread, of course. Good, artisan bread can be so intimidating anyway. The yeast, the magic of fermentation, the dynamic of temperature and time - it takes years of study and practice to really master the art of bread, and that's with gluten! Take out that essential element, and I've felt lost for years. And deprived.

Back in my gluten-full days, I was the biggest bread eater around. A perfect snack was a plain bagel. I subsisted on baguettes when I was in Paris (crowned, of course, with Nutella). Hot dog buns, dinner rolls, English muffins, whole wheat bread, Wonder bread, I loved it all. Remember those pasty white rolls served with school lunch? I loved that everyone else eschewed them. More for me!

So going bread-free has been difficult, at best. Especially given the fact that most gluten-free breads on the market are a very poor substitute for the real thing. So I've gone without when my standards were too high to compromise, and accepted inferior taste and texture when I just had to have a sandwich, or wanted something bread-like to wrap around my burger.

Things haven't actually changed that much. Commercial products are getting better, but "better" in the gluten-free world is not the same as "better, period." And recipes for us bake-from-scratch-types can seem weird, to say the least, especially to one coming from a traditional baking background. (Ground pumpkin seeds? Soy milk? Lemon juice? Gelatine? Please!) It's an uphill battle, but at least the momentum of the ever-increasing legion of gluten-free bakers is pushing us up that hill faster.

HOWEVER, there are exceptions. Case in point: gluten-free crusty boule. Who ever thought a loaf of gluten-free bread would look like it came out of your neighborhood artisan bakery? And that it could taste so truthfully like bread? Honest, real, delicious bread? I didn't. Even when I was making it, I didn't think it would be anything special. And when I began to get my hopes up, Josh reminded me that I'm never pleased with my gluten-free bread-baking attempts. Which sent my hopes right back down where they belong.

Amazingly, (drum roll of the most exaltatory type, please) . . . I am happy to report that we were wrong! This bread looks good. It smells good. And believe it or not (and really, you'll have to make it yourself to fully believe it can happen), this bread tastes like bread. It is yeasty, flavorful, with a good crust and a flexible crumb. Really, I should have expected this, since anything Shauna has a hand in turns out delicious! And I'm thinking - although I haven't acted on it yet - that the recipe would be a good base to play around with. Sub in some gf oat flour for some of the sorghum. Or maybe some buckwheat. Throw in some seeds. I even wonder if you wouldn't need so many eggs if you increased the protein content of the flour mix. So much to try!

In the meantime, I think I'll go have another piece of toast . . .

Gluten-Free Crusty Boule - yields enough dough for at least 4 1-pound loaves
adapted from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day

2 cups brown rice flour
1 1/2 cups sorghum flour
3 cups tapioca starch
2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 Tbsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp xanthan gum
2 2/3 cups lukewarm water
4 large eggs, whisked together
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp honey
super-fine sweet rice flour, for dusting

Mixing & storing the dough:

Whisk together the flours, yeast, salt, and xanthan gum in a 5-quart container (I used my KitchenAid bowl).

Combine the oil, honey, and water; set aside.

Dump the eggs into the dry ingredients and stir while pouring in about 1/3 of the water mixture. Continue to stir while pouring in another 1/3 of the liquid. The dough will start to come together in a thick dough. Add the final 1/3 of liquid and stir until the dough is nice and smooth. Cover it loosely, and allow it to rest on the counter for about 2 hours. Place the dough in the refrigerator and store for up to 7 days.


On baking day, remove the dough from the refrigerator. The dough will be quite fluffy, and you want to try not to handle it too much. Use wet hands to remove a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece of dough and place it on a piece of parchment. The dough will be quite scraggly.

Use wet hands to smooth out the surface of the dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest on the counter about 90 minutes (75 minutes for a very warm kitchen).
Note: if you're baking on the same day you made the dough, without refrigerating it, 90 minutes is WAY too long to proof! Trust me, I'm speaking from experience here. Maybe half that, at the most.)

30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone on the lower rack.

The dough will not have grown much while proofing, but it should seem a little bit puffier. Give it a light dusting of sweet rice flour. Use a serrated knife to cut slashes in the dough.

Transfer the dough, on the parchment, to the baking stone. Place a pan (not glass) on the bottom of your oven, and pour 1 cup of hot water in it (this will create the steam that will give your bread such a nice crispy crust). Bake for 30 minutes, or until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.
(In my - very inefficient - oven, baking time is closer to 1 hour. Use your best judgment.)

Allow the bread to cool completely (the hardest part of the entire process!) before cutting or the center may seem gummy. Enjoy!

for the love of shrimp

I have eaten at a Red Lobster restaurant a grand total of once. Ever. It was years and years ago, and I don't remember much of it. I think we sat in a booth. My mother was there. And I ate shrimp scampi for the first time, and fell in love. Honestly? I don't remember much about the dish except that it was rich and garlicky. But shrimp and garlic were (still are) two of my favorite foods, and that simple marriage was a revelation to me. I have thought longingly about that dish ever since, but oddly never eaten or ordered it again. Until last night.

It's shrimp season here in Maine, which, aside from the fact that it falls in the middle of winter, is a really lovely season. It's short and sweet (just like the shrimp themselves), and living as we do in a coastal fishing town, wriggling just-off-the-boat shrimp can be had for under a dollar a pound from trucks set up along roadsides. We buy pounds and pounds of them, thinking that if we freeze them we'll have enough to last a couple months, at least. Instead, if we're lucky, our stash barely gets us past the end of shrimping season. We just love them so!

Last night, I decided to make shrimp scampi. Mostly because the recipe was quick and called for very few ingredients, but also because I have been forever haunted by my memory of that long-ago first taste. It was so, so easy to make, and more than worth the initial hassle of de-heading and peeling 1 1/2 pounds of laden-with-eggs shrimp. (Hmm. All those eggs, washing down the drain. Has anyone tried some sort of shrimp-egg-caviar thing? Maybe next time . . . )

One of the best parts of the whole endeavor was the aroma that filled the house. Lots of garlic, slowly cooking in a big glug of olive oil, and then the sudden burst of oceany-goodness as the shrimp hit the pan and added their delicious juice. A couple minutes later, with a splash of fresh lemon juice and some parsley, dinner was done. And just as quickly, we devoured it all.

We ate the shrimp on their own, with slices of gluten-free boule to soak up the liquid. And, when the bread was gone, I'm not ashamed to say that fingers and spoons were utilized to get every last glistening drip out of the pan. It was that good. Intensely garlicky (I tend to add more garlic than called for) and rich, with the clean, high notes of brine and sweet shrimp finding just the right balance. I do believe it was A Perfect Dish. Thanks, Cook's Illustrated. And thanks even more so to the anonymous fisherman who caught these heavenly morsels two days ago. They rocked our world.

And finally, I have had a shrimp scampi experience truly worthy of my deepest longings.

Shrimp Scampi - this yielded enough for one adult and two small, shrimp-lovin' boys
adapted from The Best Recipe

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4+ garlic cloves, minced
1.5# Maine shrimp, de-headed, peeled and rinsed (or the shrimp of your choice)
2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
black pepper

Heat oil and garlic in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until garlic begins to sizzle. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until fragrant and pale gold, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp, increase heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp turn pink, about 2-3 minutes (or up to 7 minutes, for larger shrimp). Be careful not to overcook! Off heat, stir in parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.



Last night we had dinner, spur-of-the-moment, at Josh's restaurant. He called and said he needed me to come take some photos for a newspaper review that will be published soon. (Side note: what kind of an economy are we in when a newspaper can't use their own photographers get the images for their stories?) So, I packed up the boys and my camera gear and we headed in to Camden.

Our food was good, but not what I want to talk about. (We had hanger steak and polenta, per Kalen's request, in the back room so as not to disturb the real guests. Only slightly less hectic and messy than eating at home.)

As I was shooting, and later looking at the images I got and thinking about what I'd captured, I realized how much I love the inviting atmosphere of a busy restaurant, where everyone is enjoying the food, the company, and the evening. It's one of those times when eating dinner is no longer about physical sustenance, but is now an Event, one which stays with you long after the meal is gone.

The lighting is perfectly dimmed, cozy without being strain-your-eyes dim. There is music, audible but not too loud, and so perfectly chosen that you can't actually remember what you heard, just that it was right. There is much laughter and conversation. And of course, the meal. The sounds of good food heartily enjoyed. Cutlery chiming and scraping. Wine being poured. The dual clinking of ice cubes in a drink, rounded and smooth-sounding against each other, sharper and higher-pitched against the side of the glass. Everyday festivity.

Watching just such a scene unfold before me, I was envious that I wasn't on the other side of the lens (and sans children for the evening). But more than that, I felt so pleased to be able to witness it, and was truly happy for all the people for whom that experience was, at that moment, their life. Regardless of what else happened to them that day, their dinner experience last night was joyful.

Isn't that the whole point of a restaurant, anyway?

why food?

Certain events in my life recently have caused me to be doing a lot of legal research. Law forums, case studies, pages and pages of definitions, I've been going through them all. And finding everything completely fascinating and mentally invigorating. So why, I'm asking myself, has law never held my interest as a career choice? After all, I'm a natural debater (or fighter, as my family might put it), and strongly believe in standing up for what is right. My grandmother always said I should be a lawyer.

So why am I not one?

I think, after much personal analysis, that it's because I find law, while infinitely interesting (especially in the minutiae of exceptions, clauses, doctrines, etc. - oh lord, I'm a geek), to be primarily and fundamentally negative. There isn't any need for law if there is no dispute, no damaging behavior, no wrongs to be righted. Whatever side you're on, you are engaged in a debate over right and wrong. Which, obviously, society needs in order to function in a civilized manner.

However, I don't want to spend all my time thinking about it.

And besides, I'm obsessed with food. And not just eating it (although that makes up a goodly portion of my interest), but creating it, reading about it, talking about it, writing about it, researching it, advocating for it . . . all of it. I just love food.

I love how food is the intersection of everything else. Culture, history, politics, literature, art, biology, chemistry, agriculture, economics, health - from the global human condition right down to the individual, everything meets at food. Every other legitimate interest I have ever had can be looked at or expressed through food. Food is universal, yet also so segregatory. It is something everyone will experience, but no one will experience all that it can be. It plays a central role in our lives, yet is so often underestimated, ignored, degraded, and misused. But most of all, food is positive. It is celebratory, sustaining, thrilling, nourishing, sensual, and comforting. And where we let those qualities take us can be life-changing.

So. Let's talk about food.
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