James Distefano, Executive Pastry Chef at Rouge Tomate in New York, NY explains how "For the modern pastry chef, it’s not just about white flour anymore."
Flour – what exactly is it? As pastry chefs, we use it every day, but most people probably don’t think too much about this important ingredient’s origin. Flour is a fine powder made by grinding cereal grains, seeds and even nuts. Its primary use has been in bread making and dates back roughly six millennia. It is a remarkable ingredient that has integrated itself into so many disparate cultures the world around. Its versatility has proven itself to be a life source on which we can count on for survival.
The etymology of flour can be traced to the word “flower”. Both of these words derive from the Old French, “fleur”, literally meaning “blossom,” with a more figurative meaning “the finest part of the meal.” As time has evolved, so have the uses for flour in the kitchen. No longer are we limited to using white flour for our cookies, batters and cakes. In today’s kitchen, chefs need to be even more adept at understanding the various grains, seeds and nuts being ground into fine powders for use in our recipes. As our world slowly closes in around us we are being exposed to more and more ingredients and foodstuffs from around the world. Having an understanding about how these products react in our recipes is beneficial not only to us, but to also our clientele as well.
When I first started cooking 20 years ago, terms like ‘gluten-free’ and ‘celiac’ were not that common. It seemed so foreign that a person couldn’t eat wheat. What else was there? At that time, I didn’t pay too much attention to working with flours other than the white, all-purpose flour that was found in so many of my recipes. As time passed though, more and more people were developing allergies and intolerances to wheat-based products. It was important to be able to provide for these guests equally. Fortunately, through my position at Rouge Tomate, I have been afforded a great opportunity to experiment with a plethora of alternative flours; some with gluten, some without. Some are seeds while others are nuts. Having the versatility and knowhow to work with these products can be really liberating. To be able to cater to your guests’ dietary restrictions and to do this in an atmosphere where side by side, plate by plate a discerning guest may not know the difference, will only make you more of an asset to your employer.
Hopefully, over the course of this article, I will be able to showcase a few gluten-free whole grains, seeds and nuts and focus on a few in particular, like mesquite, and explain how they can not only be used as a flour, but also as a flavor enhancer, build depth in to a dish and even be used to flavor an ice cream or two.
Some Ancient Grains
Amaranth. This “pseudo-grain” is technically a seed but often referred to as a grain because it has a nutritional profile similar to grains and it is often utilized as a grain in the kitchen. Amaranth contains all nine of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein, and it is high in fiber and a good source for many vitamins and minerals. This grain has been harvested for close to 8000 years. Amaranth seeds are similar in size to poppy seeds and are light brown or tan in color. They have a mildly sweet, earthy flavor. Whole amaranth seeds can make a great addition to meringues and cookies and can also be folded into batters, as well. The whole grains can also be cooked in the manner of a morning breakfast cereal or even popped in the manner of popcorn. Use amaranth flour as a portion of your total weight in flour (up to 25% total weight).
Quinoa. An ancient grain (technically a seed) that dates back to 4000 years ago, quinoa originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru. Quinoa is a complete protein; it is one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, making it ideal when baking for vegans and vegetarians. Quinoa is similar in size to sesame seeds. In addition to being available whole, quinoa is also available as flour and flaked. Flaked quinoa makes an excellent addition to a streusel or a multigrain granola or a crumble topping. To some, quinoa’s flavor can be slightly strong, so I would suggest using between 10-15% of your total weight of flour.
Buckwheat. Actually a relative of the rhubarb family, buckwheat has a strong, earthy flavor. Buckwheat is a whole grain cereal derived from whole buckwheat groats. Buckwheat flour is available in light and dark varieties and can be ground to various settings on a mill to achieve different consistencies. It adds protein, fiber and minerals to your products. Buckwheat also contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Buckwheat complements chocolate very well and, when used in small quantities, pairs well with rhubarb and fall fruits. The groats can be added to a streusel recipe for texture or be used as a coating for a pain perdu to add an unexpected earthy crunch.
Millet. Another ancient grain whose cultivation dates back at least 8000 years, it is a grain whose origins can be traced to western Africa and East Asia. While millet is a staple grain in India, it has also been gaining in popularity in America over the past few years. Its flour is an excellent addition to a gluten-free flour blend, while the seeds themselves can be incorporated into cookies, sprinkled on top of waffles or pancakes or folded into batters. Puffed millet can be mixed with honey, maple or molasses, orange zest and cinnamon and slowly dried in the oven for a great, healthy snack. Lastly, as a grain, it can be cooked in the manner of a pudding for a nice alternative to rice.
Sorghum. Also known as milo, sorghum also dates back some 8000 years and can be traced to Southern Egypt. Sorghum is also very healthy for individuals. In addition to being gluten-free, it also contains a large amount of anti-oxidants and it is rich in thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. It’s also high in protein and fiber. Sorghum has a slightly sweet, molasses-meets-maple flavor profile which makes it great for roasted peaches and plum and in the fall, roasted pumpkins. Its syrup can also be utilized in place of maple or molasses. In southern parts of the United States, a common breakfast would be hot biscuits drizzled with sorghum syrup. When using its flour in recipes, start with 25% of the total weight of flour in sorghum. This would be a good launching pad to see if you like the flavor or not.
Nut Meals & Flours
Nut flours are made from the remains of the nuts after they have been pressed for oil. Talk about a great way to utilize your entire product! These nut flours can add rich, nuanced flavors to cakes, cookies and pie dough and can also reinforce their flavor when utilizing nut oil in the same recipe. For added depth of flavor, try toasting the nut flour before using it in your recipe. The difference between a nut flour and meal is that nut meal is made from the whole nut and will have a coarser, grittier texture and naturally be oilier than nut flour. Either way, both should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent them from going rancid (due to their high oil content). Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts can all be sourced for flour, meal and oil.
Technically not a nut, but a drupe (a fruit in which an outer, fleshy part surrounds a shell with a seed or kernel inside), coconut can be processed into a flour. Coconut flour is a natural by-product of coconut milk production. It is rich in protein, high in fiber and is gluten-free. Its flavor is similar to toasted coconut with a warm, sweet finish. When using it in a recipe, take caution first because it is incredibly absorbent and your recipes will probably require more liquid than you think. You may have to increase the amount of your liquids by 10-15% in order to compensate for this absorption. It’s also a great addition to a coconut dessert. Utilizing a little coconut flour in place of some white flour will help give your dessert another added dimension of flavor. Furthermore, using some coconut sugar in place of white sugar will really reinforce and drive home the coconut flavor.
Most seeds can also be ground into flours and used with excellent results. These seed fl ours not only contribute flavor and texture but they also provide added nutritional value. Amaranth and Quinoa are excellent sources of protein while Millet can provide subtle sweetness. Hemp, flax, chia and mesquite are also exemplary seeds that can be used a plethora of ways.
Hemp seeds are a great addition to the pastry pantry. The seeds are extremely versatile and they can be ground into a meal, made into milk and pressed to make oil. As a meal, it can be incorporated into a brownie, cookie or cake batter. Hemp seeds are extremely well balanced and rounded in terms of their nutritional content. Like quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth, hemp seeds also contain all nine essential amino acids. Hemp powder and seeds make admirable additions to homemade protein and power bars, as well. The supple crunch of the seeds adds great texture when sprinkled over pancakes or as an inclusion with chocolate chips for cookies.
Chia seeds….ch-ch-ch-Chia! If you were a child of the ‘70’s or ‘80’s, you may remember the commercials on television for chia pets. You may have even owned one… I know I did. And now these seeds are really making a name for themselves in today’s kitchen. In fact, these seeds date back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs, and were eaten by them. Chia is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids; in fact it is the highest plant source for Omega-3, and can give a recipe added nutritional value by its presence. It’s also a pretty versatile ingredient to have around. As an egg substitute in baking, simply combine 3 tablespoons of water plus 1 tablespoon of chia seeds. Stir to combine and let hydrate for 15 minutes. Afterwards, you will have a thick paste that is the equivalent of one whole egg. Another great use for chia seeds is to hydrate them with a flavored liquid such as a fruit juice, consommé or vinegar or try muddling or macerating the seeds with fruit compote to add a surprising crunch to your dish.
Flax is another seed that has multiple uses. To extract the most out of it, it should be ground first before using. The human body does not digest it in its whole form, much the same way as corn. Its uses range from using the meal in a muffin, batter or cookie. Like the other seeds mentioned, it’s also a great crunchy element to a baked good or your morning cereal. You can even blend flax seeds into your smoothie for a potent nutrient punch.
Mesquite is one of my favorite flours to use because of its complexity and its versatility. Mesquite flour is made from the dried and ground pods of the mesquite, a sustainable tree that grows throughout North and South America as well as the Caribbean. It grows well in arid climates. The color of these grounds pods looks very similar to a light cocoa powder. Mesquite is gluten-free, high in protein, mineral rich, has an antioxidant level approaching chocolate and is high in insoluble fiber due to the pod being ground. Its flavor and aroma are equally as dynamic, lying somewhere between coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, dark cherries, malt and nutmeg. To say it adds complexity to a recipe would be an understatement. As flour, it adds depth to anything from cakes to cookies to waffles. It’s great with chocolate because their aromas are similar. It’s equally as stellar with dulce de leche because the caramelized flavors of the milk in conjunction with the warm, spicy flavors of mesquite complement each other beautifully. Not only can mesquite be used as flour but it can also be used as a spice, similar to how cinnamon, nutmeg or mace would be used. Either in accordance with these other spices or on its own, mesquite has enough going on that its flavor will come through and give you that oh-so familiar feeling of, “What is that flavor? I know what it is, but I can’t put my finger on it.” Lastly, it would also be superb as an ice cream flavor.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on with whole grains, seeds and nuts. Whether they are gluten-free or not, being used as an egg replacement or as added nutritional value, or simply used to enhance and/or boost the flavor of your favorite recipe, whole grains, seeds and nuts have really proven their worth in today’s kitchen. Here’s to another six millennia of using Mother Nature’s gifts to us.
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