It’s odd, my baking skills are well developed. I don’t mean to brag, but my colleagues keep coming up with reasons why I should bring in cake to the office and my husband claims his colleagues wait all year for his birthday, because they know he’ll be bringing in my baked goods. I think everyone on this earth can do things very well with no huge effort, and for me it’s baking, cakes in particular. I inherited this trait from my paternal grandmother, who was the most amazing baker and cook. My maternal grandmother was a fantastic cook in her own right, I just spent a lot more time in the kitchen with my German Oma, in part because she was fortunate enough to be in my life for ten years longer than my Bolivian Abuelita. Everything out of both their kitchens was always perfect and delicious, but for some reason I don’t recall my maternal grandmother baking cakes all that much (we would make cheese filled empanadas instead), while Oma often made cakes.
Sometimes, she would get teased while she cut the cake. They would ask if she had in fact used sugar. They were playing at an incident from what I imagine must have been sometime in the 1960s. She invited her boss over for tea one afternoon. She spent all day baking three cakes and after she served them, she discovered that she had switched the salt with the sugar in her kitchen cupboard and now had three very pretty, very salty and pretty ruined cakes. She would smile and would shrug off anyone who was teasing her, but you could tell the incidernt still bothered her after all these years. I’m sure those three cakes were the only thing that ever left her kitchen in a less than perfect state – albeit only so on the inside.
I don’t recall Oma baking bread ever, but living in South Germany she did not have to. We had the best bakeries right around the corner, Swabia’s heart is made of bread (and food, lots of yummy and fatty food). My brother and I would be sent to a different store depending on whether we wanted a loaf of peasant’s bread with a crispy crust for dinner or soft pretzels, still warm from the oven. We would leave her apartment, a cloth bag in hand that contained her little black wallet with a bit of money, one she had just for the purpose of sending us shopping, as well as a hand-written list with other items such as butter or whatever else happened to be missing from her pantry. Once we had obtained the goods, my brother and I would skip down the street and back home, eagerly anticipating opening the Kinder surprise eggs that she had told us we could buy from the money in the wallet as a reward for running her errand and excitedly awaiting the slicing of the wide part of the pretzel. First, we would peel off all the large pieces of salt, except three of the small ones. Then, we would slice the wide part of the pretzel in two. Then, we would spread butter over the bottom and gently press the upper wide pretzel slie onto the buttered bottom. Then, we would proceed to cut off the upper, hard part of the pretzel, in a careful operation that would ensure to include all of the buttered sections. We would eat the buttered bottom of the pretzel and swoon. We then ate the remaining upper, hard part of the pretzel by breaking it into small pieces, dabbing each with a bit of butter before it made its way to our mouths. My brother and I loooooooooooooooooooved pretzels and we would have traded you our Kinder surprise eggs (chocolate AND surprise!) for them without the batting of an eyelash.
A few months before she passed, Oma gave me all her cookbooks. She gave me a tattered one that her mother saved from Luisenhof, where my greatgrandmother had worked during the war, which includes many recipes for all types of dishes, even sausages from scratch. It also contains instructions on how to slaughter and take out ducks, chickens and pigs. Yes, those chapters are wasted on me. Oma had lent out this particular book to a friend years ago, and even though she was already very frail and very sick and would die a few months later, she set all wheels in motions to get it back. Lo and behold, it arrived in the post and she was so happy and excited to be able to give it to me. You see, my grandmother understood very well the magic that is being alive as opposed the non-magic that it is to be dead. She went through a lot of grief early in her life, all due to the hardships that come with war. She lost her husband to the draft and the other politics of war that ensued thereafter. After he returned, she lost him again, this time for good. He died suddenly and unexpectedly and it took her decades to recover. Thinking about it, those are terrible things to suffer through before you turn thirty, so no wonder there was always a certain melancholly around her. It was always important to her to give to my brother and I (her only grandchildren) everything she could while she was still around to enjoy us enjoying it. She would shake her head at her neighbours, who would suffer great losses and save every penny. They would say to her “My children’s chins will fall to the floor, when they discover everything that I am leaving them”. She understood that while this is indeed a kind gesture, it is not one of which all parties benefit evenly.
I often look at her cookbooks and I find her handwriting on the margins, or small pieces of papers with notes or lists of recipes and the pages she would find them on, the same writing from those grocery lists, now decomposed and physically no longer existant, much like her. It makes me sad and happy both at the same time. And I do shed a tear or two whenever I bake from her recipes, particularly the christmas cookies. No matter where we lived on this planet, she would always send a big package our way in December. It always contained pretty tins, filled to the brim with an assortment of her cookies. Some of them I can even recreate to the t without having to change a thing: they are gluten-free!
Eating on a gluten-free diet makes fresh bread has become a rare commodity unless you make it yourself. I’ve been eating pre-baked or frozen bread and buns for months now and I’ve been salivating over the fresh breads posted on gluten-free blogs and in the celiac forums I frequent. I realized that if I wanted to indulge in this pleasure, too, I would have to get over myself and my fear of baking bread. I would simply have to learn from others, like I once did from Oma and that I would have to accept less than stellar results, if even just for a while until I had mastered this field of baking, too.
I keep hearing that baking bread requires patience, and that baking gluten-free bread requires this quality even moreso. It also requires technique, so I didn’t dare taking on this endeavor without a lot of reading.
I decided to make a mix between a “juicy” bread and the crispy crust no-knead bread. The results were spectacular, for a first time gluten-free bread. We delved in and ate more than we should have. But that is how fresh bread is supposed to be, no? Warm, soft with a cracking exterior, luscious and enticing, light in taste, leaving a heavy impression on the palate. I still have a lot to learn, but I am on my way full spead.
Ingredients for one large loaf:
300g gluten-free flour mix (I used Schaer’s Bread Mix, because this is what I happened to have at home)
150g teff flour
½ cube of fresh yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
50g quinoa cooked and drained
50g canihua cooked and drained
1 tablespoon chia seeds (you can omit these or replace with flax or peeled hemp seeds)
450 ml water (warm)
150g Zucchini, grated
1,5 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon of a mix of guar and xanthan gums and carob and arrowroot flour (or just any one of them will suffice)
½ cup pumpkin seeds (peeled)
40g butter (melted)
1 handful pumpkin seeds (to decorate the loaf)
In a small bowl, dilute the half cube of fresh yeast and the sugar in a couple of tablespoons of warm water (I used a bit of water that I had just boiled and mixed with colder water until the temperature felt right). Add a couple of tablespoons of flour and let sit for five to ten minutes.
In another (large) bowl mix all the other ingredients and add the yeast-mix. Knead for about ten minutes. The dough should be somewhat firm, and not too liquid. If it is too liquid, add a bit more flour. Hold a towel under the faucet, and wait until it is entirely wet. Drain excess water and place damp cloth over the bowl. Let the dough rise for four hours. The dough will double in size. All recipes called for room temperature, but since it’s getting cold her and my initial spot for the dough to rise in the sun was soon useless on account of the sun disappearing, I turned on my oven to the lowest temperature possible (50 °C) for two to three minutes and let the dough (still covered in the damp cloth) rise in there.
Meanwhile, let water into your bathtub and cover both the bottom and the lid of your terracotta pot (Römertopf) in it, so that they may soak up the water in preparation for later. If you do not have one, then you cannot make this recipe. I’m kidding! I hear you can simply use a regular glass or ceramic oven dish (or a pizza stone) instead. But there is no need to let those soak in water (except maybe the pizza stone, I don’t know, I don’t own one. Should I?).
On a clean counter, spread some extra gluten-free flour mix and gently pull out your dough. Knead it just a little bit and form into a loaf, covering all sides thoroughly with flour. Take a new (dry) cloth and wrap the loaf with it. Place the wrapped loaf into an oven dish or other adequate bowl and let sit for another two to three hours (I put mine in the oven again).
Take the loaf out of its cloth wrap and place into the bottom of the terracotta pot.
Heat your oven to the highest possible temperature (this was 275 °C for me – don’t use the air circulation function, as this will dry out gluten-free baked goods). In a bowl that you place into your microwave (be careful, or it might go “boom!” and splatter all the butter all over the place if you let it heat for too long) or in a pot and let it. Spread the melted butter generously over the entire top of the loaf with a brush and then sprinkle the pumpkin seeds over the buttered loaf.
Place the cover of the terracotta pot on your cover and bake in the oven for thirty to forty minutes.
Set your cute kitchen timer and stare at it nervously as it blankly stares back at you while you anxiously wait for your bread to bake and wonder: will this work? Or will it be a gluten-free mess?
Mid-way through I also added an oven-proof container with water, ensuring that sufficient humidity envelops my bread – this is important for baking gluten-free bread. Uncover terracotta pot and bake until the crust is golden brown, maybe ten to fifteen minutes longer. Turn down the heat to 250 °C for this part – depending on your oven. Before removing the bread from the oven, check with a fork or a chopstick whether the loaf has been cooked inside, too.