Our daily (gluten-free!) bread

Marriage is supposed to make you grow. In this relationship you’ve willingly entered, you need to constantly learn, change, and adapt. My dear husband, Mr. Photographer, takes this requirement to grow very seriously. After many years of eating my food and being seemingly happy with it, he must’ve decided it was time for me to grow a bit, because one day, completely out of the blue, he came home from the doctor with a diagnosis of celiac disease.

*** Public service announcement: Gluten-free diet is not just another fad. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the gastro-intestinal tract, caused by a reaction to gluten – protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. The body of gluten-sensitive people is unable to absorb nutrients properly, and the only known treatment is a life-long gluten-free diet. The symptoms include gastrointestinal discomfort, anemia, and fatigue, but it is also possible to have celiac without any symptoms whatsoever. Those patients just find out incidentally during a regular check-up, and have the diagnosis confirmed by a blood test and a biopsy.***

You can guess which group of patients Mr. Photographer belongs to. Well, I always knew he was special 🙂

He was a trooper. Imagine being told that you can never have bread again. And bread is just the beginning – gluten hides in so many things you wouldn’t believe. But he just decided to concentrate on things he still could eat and enjoy. I, on the other hand, went through a period of real mourning. I’m a baker, darn it. What am I going to do?! After I came to terms with what I couldn’t change, I went to the store to look at what is available to people who need to be gluten-free. And I was surprised, and not in a good way. The breads were papery and sliced so thin you could see almost to the east coast through them. The baked goods were crumbly and dry. And since in that marriage deal I promised to take good care of Mr. Photographer, I’ve decided he would never have to suffer eating that sorry excuse of a food. And I set out to bake him good bread. Hearty, chewy, with a crispy crust. The kind of bread he used to love.

That’s when the real growing started. What’s the big deal? I thought. I’ve been baking forever and know what I’m doing by now. So what – I’ll just swap wheat flour for a gluten free one. It can’t be that hard! Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My first loaves were hard as a rock and tasted horrible. My pride got hurt so many times I stopped counting. But I’m stubborn persistent. I kept at it, I experimented with different flours. I learned. I grew. I stretched. (Well, somebody had to, when that darn gluten free dough wasn’t going to, right?!)

Until one happy day we achieved bread.  And even though I baked countless different gluten free loaves since then, I keep coming back to this recipe, because it’s foolproof and mighty tasty. Over time, when I came to understand the characteristics of different GF flours,  I started to play around with it, using different flour combinations according to what I had on hand. It never disappoints.  And today I’m offering it to you as a proof that there is life after a celiac diagnosis that might be different, but it is still full of surprises and every bit as delicious as the life you used to know.

Gluten-free bread

Crusty gluten-free bread

(adapted from Gluten-free girl and the Chef)

For approximately four 1 lb. (½ kg) loaves you’ll need:
  • 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) brown rice flour
  • 1 ½ cup  (200 g, 7 oz.) sorghum flour
  • 3 cups tapioca starch (a.k.a. tapioca flour)
  • 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons xanthan gum (or guar gum – used as a binder)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 2/3 cup water, divided
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Sunflower, pumpkin or caraway seeds (optional)
  1. Heat 2/3 cup water till lukewarm, add a pinch of sugar. Mix in dry yeast and set aside for 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a flat beater, carefully combine all the dry ingredients. Add the yeast mixture, eggs, oil, honey. With the mixer on, start gradually adding water until you achieve dough with consistency of cookie batter. (The dough will be soft, not at all like gluten yeast dough. You might be tempted to add more flour, but resist the temptation. If you do add flour, your bread will be hard as a rock. Soft cookie batter consistency is what you’re going for. You might not need all the 2 cups of water, and that’s OK.)
  3. Mix the dough for 2 – 3 minutes to combine everything together.
  4. Scrape the dough into a clean bowl, and let it rise, covered, in a warm spot for about an hour, until doubled in volume.
  5. You can now bake the bread, or transfer the risen dough into a bowl with a lid, and store it in the refrigerator for up to a week. Chilled dough is much easier to work with and has better flavor and texture as well.
  6. To make the bread: On a parchment paper, shape 1 lb. of dough into a small ball or a tapered loaf (wet your hands with a little water). Let the dough rest at a room temperature for 40 minutes, or 1 ½ hours if you pulled it out of the refrigerator.
  7. Half an hour before you’re planning to put the bread into the oven, put in a pizza stone, and heat the oven to 450 °F (230 °C). Put a metal baking pan on a rack below to preheat as well.
  8. Before baking, make ¼ inch (6 mm) deep slits on the top of the bread. Gently oil the top and sprinkle with seeds if desired.
  9. Transfer the bread onto a hot pizza stone in the oven (I put a small cutting board under the parchment and then slide the bread still on the parchment paper off the cutting board and onto a pizza stone).
  10. Pour a cup of water into a preheated pan on a lower rack and close the oven door. This will create a steam that will give your bread a crispy crust. (You can also throw a couple of ice cubes into the pan, just make sure the pan is not made of glass.)
  11. Bake the bread for about 35 minutes until light golden brown. (The internal temperature should be at least 180 °F, and the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom). Let cool for 30 minutes before slicing.

Unlike gluten based baking, when you use just one all-purpose flour, gluten free baking requires mixing various flour blends for different purposes. It might seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll quickly get a hang of it and might find it is actually pretty fun to play with different flour combinations. The flours used in gluten-free world are classified according to their density and nutritional value into 3 categories:

Light     – all the starches (tapioca starch, potato starch, corn starch, arrowroot powder)

Medium – sorghum, millet, quinoa,  (certified gluten-free) oat, bean flours

Heavy    – brown rice, buckwheat, almond, amaranth, teff flour

The recipe combines flours from each of the three groups: brown rice is a heavy flour, sorghum is a medium one, and tapioca starch belongs to a light category. You can sub the flours with any other alternative or combination from their respective categories, and are free to play around with many different possibilities. As long as you remember to sub heavy for heavy, medium for medium, and light for light, and stick to the quantities listed in the recipe, each of your breads will be unique and delicious.

The bread can also be baked in a loaf pan – it won’t be as crispy, of course, but it’ll still be very tasty. Just take 2 lbs. (900 g) of risen dough and place it into a lightly greased standard bread pan. With wet fingers smooth out the top and let the bread rise again in a warm spot while you preheat the oven until it rises a little over the top of the pan. (If taking the dough from the fridge, the second rise will take longer). Then bake the bread as written above – 30 – 35 minutes at 450 °F/230 °C. Let cool 5 minutes in the pan, then remove it from the pan and let cool completely.

And lastly, this wonderfully versatile dough also makes an awesome pizza! Just take 8 oz. (225 g) of the risen dough and spread it on a sheet of parchment paper into a thin circle (you can use a spatula or your fingers, just remember that a little water will help a lot to combat the stickiness 🙂 Drizzle the dough with olive oil and spread your favorite pizza sauce on top. Let the dough rest for a while (15 – 20 minutes), and then transfer it still on the parchment paper onto a hot pizza stone in an oven preheated to 400 °F/200 °C. Prebake the pizza for 7 minutes, then add your toppings and bake for 7 minutes more.