My mom has been gluten-free for years. It started when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called Myasthenia Gravis about 15 years ago. She made two attempts to be gluten-free before it finally stuck the second time. The first time around, there was an incredible dearth of gluten-free products, so it was difficult for her to find alternatives for the gluten products she loved. The second time around, the gluten-free diet was picking up and gaining popularity. More and more products were and are coming on the market, and Europe seems to be quite accommodating. I’m just hoping she doesn’t decide to up and move across a continent and an ocean, especially since I moved back to be closer to her.
Anyways, my mom being gluten-free has meant I’ve been learning to bake without regular flour. I don’t often do so as she doesn’t eat as many baked goods as she did 15 years ago, but she does enjoy a birthday cake every year.
Until this past January, I always tweaked a chocolate cake recipe I liked. It worked well enough. It just always seemed too crumbly. That’s one of the problems with gluten-free baking, my mom said. She also told me gluten-free baked goods don’t last long and get hard fast. I always felt bad when I made her something because she would need to eat it right away.
When I started ratio baking, I kept wondering if I could make better gluten-free baked goods, ones that wouldn’t crumble too much or get hard too fast. I was a little apprehensive about doing it, though, since gluten-free baked goods don’t last more than a day or two and I really didn’t want to have to eat so much cake all at once. That was also before I finally bought some miniature cake tins, which has made experimenting so much easier. Anyways, I had two problems to solve.
Problem 1: Not too crumbly
One of my attempts ended with a crater in the middle of the cake. I’m not sure what happened. It was perfectly beautiful and flat when I took it out of the oven. Five minutes later, I had a crater in my fully baked cake. Fortunately, my mom laughed it off and said that’s normal with gluten-free flour. It can sometimes be unpredictable. My sister-in-law was going to frost and decorate it and we joked it could be turned into a lake.
I was annoyed with that cake. I didn’t like being beaten by a sack of gluten-free flour.
Cakes need structure. Flour and eggs provide the structure. Clearly, whatever I had done hadn’t given it enough. There was also a previous attempt that just crumbled in my hands, but I don’t like to talk about that one. There was even less structure then.
I know I like to use egg whites, or ensure I’m using more egg whites, when I want a lighter, fluffier cake. After all, they do whip up to be light and fluffy. They also dry out cakes. In order to get around that, I decided to use more yolks than whites. Yolks are denser and add richness, so I expected they might add more structure.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like bready cakes. I was reluctant to be more heavy handed with the flour, so I tried to keep it to be about twice the weight of the eggs, and then err on the side of having a little more egg weight. So I guess that would mean the weight of the flour would be a little less than twice the weight of the eggs.
Problem 2: Hardens fast
When I was a kid, I wrote a completely absurd play about a tea party a group of friends tried to have. There was one character who insisted on baking, but could bake to save her life. Her cakes were bricks and her cookies were frisbees. It was funny in the context of a play, but, in real life, I didn’t want my mom sinking her teeth into a brick.
Tenderness. I had to make sure my cake was tender. Sugar and fat provide the tenderness. In theory, I should add more sugar and fat. But…I didn’t want a cake so tender it would crumble. Gosh, gluten-free cakes are headache-inducing!
I also had to remember I didn’t want an overly sweet cake. That made it easy for me to decide to keep the sugar weight a little below the weight of the flour, which was already a little under twice the weight of the eggs. Instead, I opted to add a bit more fat. Butter, in my case. The fat should be about equal to the eggs, so I added a bit more fat.
Solution: A very precarious ratio
In the end, I had what I thought of as a skewed this way and that ratio.
Let’s start with the eggs because that’s what I always weigh first. I quickly learned yolks actually don’t weigh much. They’re somewhere around 20 grams while a whole egg weighs more than twice that. I didn’t want to use a million egg yolks, so I was forced to add in an egg white.
Next comes the fat. I wanted to add tenderness, so I made sure my butter weighed a little more than the eggs, by about 10 grams or so.
The sugar and flour should weigh about the same in a high ratio cake, but I needed to balance tenderness and structure. I also didn’t want a too sweet cake. I doubled the weight of the eggs and measured the flour so it was slightly below twice that weight, by about 5-10 grams. Then I made sure the sugar was less than the flour by about 15 grams.
The liquid posed another question. I didn’t want to add to add too much liquid as I feared it might destroy the structure too much by making it too soupy (That has happened before and I had trouble getting to fully baked). The liquid should be about equal to the eggs, so I made sure it was just under, just by a couple of grams.
I’m not sure what you might consider this, but it wasn’t fun having to counterbalance everything to make sure the ratio was still relatively intact while also providing enough structure and just enough tenderness.
A Perfect (?) Gluten-Free Cake
Well, I’m not completely sure, but it did turn out well. I would have to attempt this again to know for sure. But it was a good cake. It was tender and had structure. I accidentally made a two layer cake when I set out to make a single layer (oops) and it held up. I don’t know if I lasted into a second day. There was only a slice left and I imagine my mom didn’t make it wait too long before it was eaten.
It was quite an adventure trying to make a close to perfect gluten-free cake. In a way it was fun. In another it was a complete headache. I miss the days when my mom wasn’t gluten-free, but, since it helps her feel a bit like her old self, I won’t complain. I suppose I’m just on my way to being a gluten-free baker.
Next up: gluten-free bread?