Last week I spent two very exciting days attending a gluten free baking course at Leiths School of Food &Wine! I’ve was diagnosed coeliac nearly 4 years ago, and although I’ve never allowed it to stop me from baking, I’ve never had any kind of training or professional advice about the best ways of creating gluten free dishes and foods and so decided it was high time I did.
I wanted to learn some special techniques for some of the more complicated/advanced aspects of gluten free baking, rather than just a general beginners gluten free cookery course, which would probably have covered things like cakes and biscuits, which I feel I have mastered pretty well on my own. Instead I selected two individual day courses to combine for a more in depth knowledge of some of the most problematic foods to create when baking gluten free. Day 1 was Gluten Free Bread and Day 2 was Gluten Free Pastry.
The bread course was great fun. We were a fairly small group of only 7 students, meaning we all got to work around the one big table, chat and get to know each other. Being a gluten free course everyone there was either coeliac or had a wheat intolerance. It was so nice to be in a group of people and feel ‘normal’ while we all chatted about our favourite recipes and restaurants and the little bug-bears we have about gluten free. We were 6 girls and 1 male, who along with the female cast of teacher and 2 female assistants was a little outnumbered. David was lovely though and reminded me a bit of Howard from the previous series of Great British Bake Off.
What I enjoyed the most was how hands on it was. Our teacher over both days was a lovely lady called Adriana, a past Leiths student, who started specializing in gluten free after her daughter was diagnosed coeliac. Adriana would show us a recipe, describing the techniques to use and the reasons behind why certain ingredients were used. We were then let loose to create the same recipe ourselves.
First up was gluten free focaccia. When baking gluten free bread you need a sough that it is a lot wetter and softer than regular bread dough. It’s more like a thick paste and you can’t knead it as you would for wheat bread. This is because the wheat flour (and gluten) is replaced with a range of starches and gums that absorb a lot more water, and it needs to be wet enough to allow these starches to become hydrated and rise without being too heavy and dense.
The focaccia recipe also used some ground almonds as one of the ingredients that I thought at first was a little odd, but Adriana explained that this was to help improve the breads protein content. This wasn’t done for health reasons, but for structure. Gluten is the protein found in wheat and so if this is removed, they the structure that makes up the texture of the bread will also change. Adding gums can help replicate the elasticity of gluten, but adding another protein source can also help the structure and texture of some breads – top tip! Makes sense once you think about it.
We shaped our focaccia breads by smoothing out the dough with very wet hands, left it to prove, dimpled the top with our fingers to create the characteristic hollows in the top, drizzled with olive oil and decorated with sea salt and fresh rosemary sprigs. A short bake later and we were all bring fantastically crisp and golden focaccias out of the oven. The aroma from the fresh rosemary was mouthwatering.
As always happens it was interesting to see how the same recipe could produce slightly different results for each of us. I was very proud when I was deemed Star Baker for my focaccia!
We hungrily tore off pieces to taste and I was very impressed. The crust was crisp with a great salty flavour and the inside was soft and springy, with well defined air holes that are characteristic of focaccia. The rosemary had given it a wonderful fragrance too. After a quick taste we set them to one side to cool and began work on our pizza bases which would be our lunch.
I worked next to a lovely girl called Kizzy and as the day wore on we discovered we had a lot in common including a love of food and baking. It was such a treat to find a kindred spirit and we helped each other out throughout the day. The recipe for the Focaccia is below and the course also included Pizza, Seeded Crackers, Chai Multi Seed Loaf, Teff Bread, Corn Tortillas and…Brioche!!!
Some of the recipes I felt were more successful than others but the hints and tips and knowledge I picked up throughout the day was wonderful. Adriana and all the staff were so friendly and open with their knowledge and encouraged questions that it was a great day. We got to take all our breads (that we hadn’t previously devoured) home with us.
I was most excited by the brioche. It was meant to be orange and cranberry, but they ran out of ingredients and so instead I improvised with a chocolate chip, sour cherry and freshly ground cardamom version. My brioche loaves were still hot from the oven when I had to run for my train home and so I ended up perfuming the train with the heady scent of cardamom (I got a little over excited and added far too much to my brioche) but it smelt and tasted lovely. The texture was not quite like regular brioche but for a soft buttery yeasty sweet bread it was divine!
Note: I’d highly recommend the course and wanted to point out that I attended the course of my own accord. I was not invited by Leiths to attend, I received no discount on the fees and they never knew I write a food blog.
Next up pastry!
Gluten Free Focaccia (also egg and dairy free)
110g gluten free plain flour (we used Doves Farm plain)
220g cornflour (corn starch)
55g ground almonds
2 tsp salt
2 tsp xanthan gum
2 tsp caster sugar
14g quick active dry yeast
350g/ml tepid water
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Fresh rosemary sprigs
1 tsp sea salt for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 220C. Place a large baking tray into the oven to heat up. Lay a sheet of silicone paper onto your work bench.
Combine the flours, ground almonds, salt, xanthan gum, sugar and yeast into a bowl. Mix well to ensure all combines.
Weigh out the water and add the olive oil. It should be warm but not hot.
Pour most (not all) of the water over the dry ingredients and beat with a wooden spoon until everything is combined. It should be thick but wet to the touch. A few lumps are fine. Beat for 1 minute. You want a wet dough without it being runny, it must still hold a little shape without oozing. Add a little more water if needed.
Turn the dough onto the silicone paper and form into a mound. Dip the whole palm of your hand into a bowl of water and you’re your hand to gently shape and smooth the dough into an oval shape, around 1 inch thick. Keep dipping your hand into the water to smooth it out, it should look very wet and smooth on top when done. Don’t worry its looking too wet.
Once formed, set aside to prove for 20 minutes.
Once slightly puffed, dip your fingers into water and dock the dough to form dimples in the surface, only make the hollows about halfway into the dough, don’t press to the base. Be gentle as the dough will be soft and airy.
Brake off sprigs of rosemary and place some inside each of the hollows. Sprinkle over a generous amount of coarse sea salt and drizzle with a little extra olive oil.
Remove the hot baking tray from the oven and slide the focaccia onto it, still on its silicone paper. Return to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden.
Remove from the oven and tap the base of the bread, it should sound hollow. If not, bake for a further 5 minutes and test again.
Transfer to a cooling rack to cool. Eat or freeze on day of baking.