Review: Against the Grain Products

Hello, world – long time, no post! I’ve had some work-related busyness to attend to, and lots of it.  After such a long time without a job, I’ve been throwing myself into my job and into my business with gusto (yes, I have two jobs now).  Which is excellent for my self-confidence and pretty good for my pocketbook, but not so great for my free time.

Or my baking.

While I have been doing some cooking over the last few months, it hasn’t been nearly as much as I’d like.  More often than not it involves me throwing whatever flours we have left into a bowl and stirring in baking powder and eggs, and baking the concoction.  It has turned out badly more often than it’s turned out well.  I did manage to put together a gluten free Irish soda bread that I’d like to share eventually (it needs one more round of tweaks) to eat with our corned beef and cabbage last weekend (did you know Trader Joe’s carries the most amazing corned beef?  And it’s gluten free!).

But really?  I’ve been doing a lot of on-the-fly eating (today, for example, is going to be a salad-bar-at-the-University-because-it’s-all-I-can-eat-at-the-dining-hall day).  It’s not particularly good for me, and more than once I’ve ingested something that flat-out doesn’t agree with me.  Since I realized that gums aren’t my friends (fairly early on in this process) I’ve only gotten really really sick a few times (gluten doesn’t seem to hit me nearly as hard as gum, at least not in the short term).  But it’s really disheartening to spend ten minutes explaining something to a waiter, painstakingly go through all the ingredients, be assured that the chef washed his or her hands and did my cooking in a separate bowl/pan, and still feel the effects.

Pity party aside, I’ve found some pretty amazing places.  Lots of places wouldn’t think to cook meat sprinkled liberally with flour and soy sauce.  Lots of places offer gluten free pasta, even when it’s not actually on their menu.  There’s even an Italian-style gelateria here in town (not quite as good as I remember in Italy, but when we asked if they used gums in their gelato, the person on the phone said, “I don’t know, let me go check with the guy who makes it…”  A few minutes later she came back and confirmed.  No gums!).

And of course if you look hard enough most menus will have naturally gluten-free items.  Meats with veggies and potatoes on the side.  Spaghetti squash “pasta.”  Big gorgeous salads.  Most of the time when we go out (which has been more often than I’d prefer, to be honest) I’m totally fine.  In fact, I know a few places where the waiters remember me and go out of their way to make sure I’m happy (Kitchen 4140, I’m looking at you!  We’ll be back soon, I hope!).

With all the work I’ve been doing, my time has been squeezed.  I’ve been lucky – the Whole Foods near my work has started to carry gluten free products that I can actually eat.  Just two days ago I picked up a package of gluten free matzo crackers (I happen to be one of those weird people who absolutely LOVE matzos, and it was one of the things I was mourning!) and a gluten free cake mix from Israel that I’m dying to try.  But the Sprouts market near my house has cut back considerably on the products they carry, and, even worse, a few of the products (*grumbleArrowhead Millsgrumble*) have been reformulated to put gums back in to the ingredients (great reminder to always, always check ingredient labels!!!).

Thanks to my local Whole Foods, I’ve been able to locate two new gluten free breads.  One, by Silver Hills, I’ll review at a later date (I’m still hoping they start carrying it on a consistent basis, in both GF varieties).  The products I’m reviewing today are by Against the Grain.  And just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t been compensated in any way for this review (I bought all the products myself, with my own money, and haven’t been in contact with the company in any way).

This family-owned company operates out of Vermont.  I love their website; they really believe in their product and it shows.  They use a minimum of ingredients (just 6, total, in their baguettes, for example).  They work with local farmers.  They pay good wages.  Anyway, I really like this company.

To be honest, I wish I could be as excited about their bread.

Let’s put it this way: I actually don’t think I like tapioca starch very much at all.  That kind of makes a big difference.  I didn’t really realize it at first, but tapioca starch tends to leave a sort of flowery talcum powder taste – and texture – in my mouth.  I understand that this is actually a rather common thing; my mom even commented on it when I made a gluten free pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving last year, using the tapioca starch I had on hand.  But a lot of people don’t mind it – or even like it.  So don’t completely write this bread off.

All of that said, I’m still eating this bread.  And it works.  So let’s talk about the good things.

First off, the texture is really fabulous.  I’ve tried the Baguette, the Vermont Country Rolls, the Cinnamon Raisin Bagels, and the Pizza.  More on each later.  Every one of these has a really lovely flaky texture.  These are essentially Brazilian cheese rolls (even the baguette), but they have been able to come up with a less gummy, more fluffy bread with lots of structure and tons of air pockets.  The pizza bakes up crispy.  The bagels toast up gorgeously.  In a world of rock-hard, dense gluten free breads, the texture is the number one best thing about Against the Grain’s products.

On the subject of flavor, as much as I’m not crazy about the tapioca starch, there are some good points.  For one thing, the pizza has a lovely fresh tomato sauce and the cheese tastes good.  My husband doesn’t like most mozzarella, and he commented about how wonderfully cheesy this cheese was.  I think it’s because they work with local farmers.  For another, the less-plain rolls/bagels actually do have pleasant back notes.  My local Whole Foods hasn’t started carrying the Pumpernickel yet (waiting!), but the Vermont Country Rolls have enough other ingredients in them that they don’t actually taste very much like tapioca starch.  The cinnamon raisin bagels scared me (I love cinnamon, but hate cinnamon-raisin bread), but they don’t taste much like raisins (they are actually my favorite of the products, because they’re just lightly sweet and slightly cinnamon-y).

Of course, for anyone who is gum-free (like me), be careful.  Both the Vermont Country Rolls and Cinnamon Raisin Bagels are dairy free.  Which is wonderful for people who are allergic to dairy.  But the coconut milk that is used has guar gum in it.

Sigh.

I decided to get and try these because, I reasoned, the amount of guar gum from the coconut milk in each bagel or roll had to be tiny. And so far, I have not reacted to it.  But knowing it’s there, I won’t be eating these every day.

As for eating the plain baguettes, I’ve found I like them better if I have a very strong flavor on them.  Corned beef, hot dogs, turkey with lots of honey mustard…  The tapioca starch flavor can be ignored if there are other things going on.  Just don’t expect these to make pleasant peanut butter sandwiches.  Unless you like the taste of tapioca starch.

Like most gluten free products, Against the Grain’s line does benefit from toasting.  And as I mentioned earlier, the breads do toast up quite nicely, with a much fluffier texture than any other GF bread I’ve found.

In short: If you can find their breads or pizzas, give Against the Grain a try.  You might find that the tapioca starch flavor is just too much for you, but under the right circumstances they offer a pleasant alternative to dense GF breads, and one of the only commercial options for us gum-free folk!

Edited on 3/26 to add: Sadly the second time I ate a bagel I reacted.  Badly.  So it goes to show me that no amount of guar gum, in coconut milk or otherwise, is processed well in my system.  Sadness!

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New Restaurants on my Eating Out Page!

I know I’ve been completely out of pocket lately.  I have had very little time to spend on writing or even cooking.  I’ve had to try several packaged options lately for GF products, simply because I haven’t been able to make anything of my own.  Some have been decent (Amy’s makes a beautiful pizza with a rice crust that I’ll be reviewing soon).  Some not so decent.  And I’ve discovered that, while tapioca flour makes nicely-textured baked goods, by itself it tastes kind of…  Bleh.

Anyway, what I am posting about right now is that I updated my Eating Out page to reflect some new Gluten- and Gum-Free “Friendly” restaurants that I’ve found.  One even has gluten and gum free cookies!  Check them out!

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Masa Harina Yeasted Sandwich Rolls

These lovely little sandwich rolls were a weird and amazing idea I came up with after spending an hour making corn tortillas from scratch for lunch this weekend.  Seriously if you haven’t done that yet, you really have to – the time-consuming part is rolling them out, but there’s nothing to the dough (if you buy the instant masa, which is pretty much how it’s sold in most places in North America) and they taste phenomenal.  Honestly I didn’t like corn tortillas before I made my own.  Since going gluten free, I’ve learned to like them elsewhere…  But I still vastly prefer making them at home.

Anyway, I digress.  I’d read about arepas, a South American masa bread that can be used for sandwiches.  And I was enjoying the flavor and pliability of my fresh tortillas.  Arepas and tortillas just use different ratios of the same ingredients, but all the recipes I could find were very very simple.  And I thought, “Why not make a yeast bread roll, like a cross between an arepa and a hamburger bun?”  What a strange idea, I thought, and decided to google it.  If course no idea is ever completely original. I searched for every variation of yeast, masa, roll, and arepa I could possibly think of, but I couldn’t come up with a single recipe for what I wanted to do.

So it’s entirely possible that I’m the first person to ever put together this combination.

Which is actually incredibly exciting.

I started off using Michael Ruhlman’s bread ratio (which usually serves me well for gluten free baking) but found that masa absorbs a ton more water than regular flours. After a little trial and error and lots of kneading, I found a ratio that worked better for me.  I also added a little buckwheat flour – mostly because I wanted a little backnote of the buckwheat flavor (it’s really lovely) – but also because it contains both more fiber and more protein than masa.  This makes a really lovely, slightly sticky but totally shape-able roll.  Yes, I said shape-able.  These actually hold their shape really well when baking, too.  And afterwards?  They’re soft, chewy, light, and tender.  Even the next day.  They don’t fall apart. Let me repeat that: no disintegrating at the first bite into one of these rolls!  They’re everything gluten free bread usually isn’t.

Oh yeah, and they taste faintly of corn, but not unpleasantly so – it’s not like you’re biting into a thick tortilla.  More like your tortilla got crossed with a roll.  Exactly my goal.  In short, I’m really impressed at their awesomeness.

Masa Harina Yeasted Sandwich Rolls

Elisa’s Masa Harina Yeasted Sandwich Rolls

  • 10 g yeast
  • 15 g sugar
  • 600 g warm water (NOT hot – warm enough to bathe a baby is what I always say -you want to activate, not kill, the yeast!)
  • 50 g buckwheat flour
  • 300 g masa harina (instant corn flour for tortillas – they have a similar flour for tamales but I think it’s coarser)
  • 100 g arrowroot starch (or your favorite starch)
  • 10-15 g salt (we found that 15 g was just slightly too salty for us, since we usually like just a little touch of salt, but definitely wasn’t unpalatable or even salty at all, compared to most commercial breads)
  • 30 g flaxseed meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 75 g oil (I used olive oil, but you can use any cooking oil you like)

This is a yeast bread, so if you haven’t baked a yeast bread before, please see my notes on baking with yeast on my personal blog (this was written before I went gluten free so I apologize for all the gluten talk!  It’s still a really excellent explanation of the steps…  I’ll probably have to copy it over here too so it’s all in one place!).

Place yeast and sugar in a medium bowl and pour in the warm water.  Once the yeast has bloomed, add all the remaining ingredients.  This is also the time for you to add any seeds, herbs, or other flavorings you’d like in your rolls.  Mix everything together well.  Gluten free bread really does best with a large spoon (rather than your hands, which were my preferred tool when I was baking with wheat) because the dough is quite sticky.  Because the masa soaks up so much water, this dough is less sticky than you’d think, but it still does stick to your hands.  To avoid getting frustrated, I use the biggest spoon I can!  Mix until the dough seems uniform and then knead a few times to make sure everything is well-incorporated.

Once all your ingredients are mixed into your dough, you can start shaping.  You don’t need to let this dough double in the bowl!  First, get yourself a little bowl of cool water and dunk your hands into it.  The water helps your hands not to get too stuck with dough – trust me, it works!  Divide the dough into 8-12 equal pieces (depending on whether you want big hamburger bun size or not).  I flattened my buns probably more than I should (you can see how flat they baked) – keep yours a little thicker than you think you need to, unless you want the gluten free equivalent of a sandwich thin!

Place your rolls on a cookie sheet and let them rise for 15-45 minutes.  In 15 minutes you dough will just start to puff, and it will work just fine for a quick sandwich roll.  In 45 minutes you’ll get a fluffier roll.  Just be careful when you’re putting your pan in the oven, because the more jostling you do, if you’ve let the dough rise a long time. the more these will fall!  Just be sure to preheat your oven to 450 degrees at least 15 minutes before you plan to bake the rolls!

Bake your rolls for 20-25 minutes at 450 degrees or until lightly golden brown, and enjoy!

Masa Harina Yeasted Sandwich Rolls

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Winter Squash Soup with Sage Browned Butter

This velvety-smooth soup is well worth making extra when roasting your own winter squash!!!  If you’ve already got the squash cooked (and refrigerated or frozen), putting it together takes less than 15 minutes.  It’s not rocket science, but it tastes like it took all day.  I made it as an appetizer the day we bought our Christmas tree (we made it into a special occasion) and it.was.fantastic.  I didn’t realize I hadn’t posted it yet!  Although butternut or kabocha squash will give you the prettiest color, any winter squash will do.

Gluten lovers won’t even realize this recipe is gluten free…  It tastes too good!

Homemade Velvety Smooth Butternut Squash Soup

Elisa’s Winter Squash Soup with Sage Browned Butter (serves 4 as an appetizer)

  • 2 cups mashed roasted winter squash (1 medium-sized squash)
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock or broth
  • 1/2 cup half and half or cream
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, granulated garlic (not garlic salt!), salt, and ground nutmeg
  • 16-20 leaves fresh sage, torn into smaller pieces
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • milk

Add the winter squash and broth to a pan (If your squash is frozen, you can add the frozen mashed squash directly to the broth instead of having to defrost in a separate container!) and simmer on low until the broth and squash are heated through.  Add half and half or cream, pepper, garlic, salt, and nutmeg, and simmer until heated through.  Using your immersion blender (or a regular blender if you don’t have an immersion one), blend your soup until it’s smooth.  Keep on low and keep an eye out for big bubbles (your enemy!) while you start the sage brown butter.

In a separate small sautee pan, cook 2 tbsp butter with torn sage leaves over medium heat until the butter browns.  Keep this mixture moving, and whatever you do, don’t leave the room – browned butter can turn into blackened butter in no time flat!  Once the butter solids have turned a nice light brown color and your sage leaves are crispy, turn off the pan.

Add a small amount of milk to your soup and stir in.  Don’t add the milk sooner because it has a tendency to curdle if you don’t watch the temperature very closely!  Add just enough milk to make your soup the thickness you want (I only added about 3 tbsp, because I prefer a thick soup).  If you add a lot of milk, you may need to bring your soup back up to temperature before serving.

Once your soup is back to serving temperature, put it into bowls and top it with crisp sage leaves and brown butter!

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Review: Hol*Grain Brown Rice Crackers

I was on track to get to work early this morning, so I stopped at Whole Foods (just a couple of blocks away).  I haven’t been shopping in, like, ever, and we needed everything.  Including my lunch.  I actually picked up a gluten and gum free bread that I’m anxious to try for lunch, but that’s another post.

This post?  This is about the new crackers I picked up, called Hol*Grain Brown Rice Crackers.  Actually I don’t know if they’re “new,” per se, but this was the first time I’d seen them.  So I picked some up.  I’m always up for trying something new, and since my snacking is limited to the few brands I can find that I like (and only one or two brands of most anything, except maybe chips, at any given store), I am open to trying just about everything once.

Well, I really needn’t have bothered.

These “crackers” have two ingredients: Brown Rice and Salt.  Which actually sounds like it might work – I mean, simple is good, right?  Especially in a world full of nasty factory-processed emulsifiers and additives, I really liked the length of that ingredient list.  But with the texture of styrofoam and the taste of poison…  They’re just not worth it.

Seriously, poison.  Bitter, bitter, bitter.  It’s all I could taste when I put one of those crackers in my mouth.  Like it had been dipped in the worst, most medicinal flavor in the world.  Like poison.  Actually I looked it up online and supposedly rice bran has a very high concentration of arsenic.  As in bitter poison.

Not surprising, given the flavor of these crackers.

Seriously I never take stuff back but I’m saving the receipt and will bring these back to the store for a refund next week – they’re that bad.  I have an appointment after work, or they’d be back this afternoon.  I think I’m going to stick to my Lentil Crackers and Nut Thins (both of which probably deserve a review, to be honest!).

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Oat Bran Muffins

Wow, wow, WOW!  These muffins are SO good.  And so pretty!  You’d never ever guess that this tall, fluffy muffin is completely gluten free.

FLUFFY oat bran muffins!

Yup.  No gluten anywhere in sight!

Now, I know that some people who are gluten intolerant have issues with oats.  Obviously this is not the recipe for you, if you do (sorry!  Maybe rice bran and buckwheat flour?).  That said, if you can eat them, this is a super easy and filling breakfast bread.  It contains eggs and butter, so it’s not low fat, but having real, nutritious food that I can digest properly is so much more important to me than having low fat food!  This isn’t something I’d eat every morning, but it’s definitely a fantastic way to start the day!

I usually use grams in my recipes, because I find them super easy to add, subtract, and divide.  But I have to admit that I adapted this recipe from one I found in the book Ratio by Michael Ruhelman. It’s one of my favorite baking tools (it makes gluten free baking so much less of a headache!).  I didn’t have the brain capacity this morning to change ounces to grams, so I just went with it.  Hence, ounces.  You could probably easily make the change yourself if you wanted to.

Elisa’s Oat Bran Muffins

  • 6 oz oat flour (use certified gluten free oat flour to be assured of nonreaction)
  • 2 oz arrowroot starch (or your favorite starch)
  • 4 oz oat bran
  • 2 oz flaxseed meal
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1-2 oz white sugar
  • 2-3 oz brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 8 oz milk
  • 4 oz (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1-2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

Mix together flours, bran, flaxseed meal, salt, cream of tartar, baking powder, and sugars.  Add eggs and milk and whisk until smooth (remember this is gluten free, so you can mix this for an hour and still come up with a lovely fluffy muffin…  there are definite advantages to not eating gluten!).  Add melted butter and whisk until smooth.  (I add the butter after the milk and eggs because I find that this makes lumpiness less likely than adding everything together!)

Pour into super well-greased muffin tins (or muffin tins lined with cupcake liners).  I’m warning you ahead of time – these stick.  I’m not sure what it is about certain flours but some of them are more prone to sticking than others.  Anyway, these do stick if you’re not incredibly careful!  I fill my muffin tins almost completely, and these (amazingly) dome up just gorgeously instead of spreading out.  This recipe really makes just over 12 muffins (either make another small muffin in another container, overfill, or toss the rest of the batter).  Bake for 25-28 minutes in an oven preheated to 375 degrees.  The tops won’t get very brown but the edges will, so be careful.  These are light, fluffy, and oh so good.  They’re slightly sweet and nothing like the heavy lumps of bran muffins I ate before I discovered I was gluten intolerant!!!

It’s a day after I made these, and I had them again for breakfast.  I just have one thing to add before I publish my post, but it’s something I think is awesome.  These were just as good this morning.  They’re fluffy, moist, and springy – NOT crumbly or grainy like gluten free breads often get.  They didn’t need toasting this morning.  Yup.  You need to make these!!!!

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Review: Popcorners Kettle Chips

I bought these on a whim.  They looked good.  Oh boy was I right.

They’re basically chip-shaped rice cakes made from corn.

Did I lose you yet?

Popcorners are as light as rice cakes but made from corn flour.  They’re crispy and crunchy.  But melt in your mouth.

And the kettle flavor is fantastic.

Sweet and salty, in just the right combination.  They taste like really good kettle-flavored popcorn.  Well balanced.  Addictive.

There are 5 servings in every bag.  I ate half a bag by myself in one sitting.  Oops.

Yeah I totally ended up hiding the bag in a drawer.  Only, I still know it’s there.

The kettle flavor is gluten and gum free.  But if you’re looking at any other flavor, read the label thoroughly (not that you probably don’t already do this, of course), because I know that I checked out the ingredients for the “regular” flavor (butter or original or something similar) and they included guar gum.  That said, I’ll totally buy these again for a nice snack.

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