Sunday, February 13, 2011

First Foray into Gluten-Free

Cupcakes. So popular these days, so over-rated in my opinion - so much more about the frosting than about the cake that necessarily will become dried out due to the ratio of surface area per serving - yet nevertheless unbeatable in the smiles and delight they can bring especially to groups of classmates and coworkers on such holidays as Valentine's Day. I'm not typically a huge fan of cupcakes because I just don't think they usually taste that good, but I am a big fan of sharing my joy of baking with people I see regularly, and little morsels of bite-sized cakes with a flourish of frosting and some festive sprinkles are just right for showing some appreciation without the mushy romance that Hallmark hopes to inspire.

A few months ago, I came across a series of "healthier" cupcake recipes in NPR's Kitchen Window blog. Since cupcakes are not my favorite, I didn't rush to my oven to bake a batch, but the unusual ingredients called for in the recipes intrigued me enough to file them for the future. The approach of Valentine's seemed just the right time for experimentation... Will and I have never celebrated Valentine's Day, as I am a hopeless unromantic, and while I have been known to decorate heart-shaped doilies for cards for my grandmothers, and scarf-up the 50% off candy from Bartells on February 15, that is typically the extent of my worship of the patron saint of lovers. So, with nothing riding on my performance, I turned to these cupcakes. If they turned out, I would have something to share at the office. But with nary an expectation of gifts nor sweet signs of affection, if they bombed, no one would be the wiser (except you my dear readers).

Don't try this at home.

To truly appreciate this endeavor, you really must see the recipe first... I'm not sure if it was the author's intent to create gluten-free cupcakes, or if that was a byproduct of her bumping up the nutritional worth. Either way, the ingredients are quite bizarre for what you would typically expect to find in a cake. The chocolate ones use black beans, and the red velvet ones use garbanzo beans! Additional eggs replace the butter/oil, so the recipe isn't low (or even reduced) fat, but the protein, fiber, and other nutrition of the beans in these cupcakes certainly qualify them as "more-than-just-empty-calories." Sadly, that is untrue for most of my favorite items to bake.

Never one to set the bar low, I was willing to give these cupcakes my finest effort and benefit of all doubts. In my minds eye, I pictured an adorable platter of smartly decorated morsels of two varieties of cupcakes both thematically chosen for the holiday of love: rich, desire-inspiring chocolate, and sexy, mysterious red-velvet.

My chocolate cupcakes sank in the center making them highly unattractive, but as Will in his persistent optimism pointed out, "that leaves a place for the ganache to pool up." I cannot comment on whether this lack of structural integrity is due to the recipe, because I realized my oven was significantly under temperature during the baking, so I firstly blame that for the fall. But as you can see from the photos in the article, none of these recipes create cakes that rise much or dome in the center, so it's possible that in a repeat run the same thing could happen. I used my own standard recipe for ganache to finish the tops of these. I also had some chocolate buttercream, but Will felt that ganache would do more to cover the flavor the cake. Yes, cover over the flavor. While there was certainly an aspect of dark chocolate, and while these have a moistness I've rarely come across in a cupcake, there was also a distinct undertone of the beans. I would not call it unpleasant, but I would not serve these to an unsuspecting taster without warning them first of a "secret ingredient." Certainly the flavor could be misconstrued as them "going off" if someone was expecting a standard chocolate cupcake. The ganache did add to the enjoyment of the cupcake such that these might get a chance at a future vacation in my oven should I ever find myself needing a gluten-free cake.

The red velvet cupcakes did not fare as well in the taste testing. They were the second batch I made, and were far more promising as I transferred them to cooling racks, as they had much better shape without the sunked centers of the chocolate batch. I was also pleased with their color, red enough to indicate a happy heart holiday but not a chemically Mr. Sketch rainbow. I brought out some of my prized cream cheese frosting to top these off, and it is almost good enough to make anything taste good. But these cakes have both a disappointing and a disconcerting garbanzo bean flavor with a disagreeable aftertaste. And if that weren't enough of a turn-off, they have a most unusual melt-in-your-mouth texture that rather than impart an ethereal quality, serves instead simply to make them seem undercooked. These will definitely not receive a second chance.

Looky, no tasty.

When I started this blog, I had no intention of posting recipes that didn't work. And that is still counter to my objectives to maintaining my musings in this forum. But I chose to share my experience with this garbanzo velour to illustrate a grander theme of my baking philosophy:
Take one look at the photo of these cupcakes. Do you not want to literally lick your computer screen to get a taste of them? Would not holding one between your sticky fingers cause your mouth to water in anticipation of delightful cake bliss? Can you not feel the devotion of their creator oozing directly from her heart into each savory crumb? And yet, to take a bite is to experience a mild revulsion of the senses compounded with a much more serious repugnance based primarly on a feeling of betrayal. How could something so charming taste so... well, just STRANGE?
And yet, I feel this happens frequently. Less so with a result of "strangeness" but very often with adorable, expensive highly-billed treats disappointing the tastebuds with rough textures or unrefined and unbalanced flavors. And whenever my piping bag squirts out wiggly lines or globs, and my offset spatulat just can't quite get the finish fine and smooth enough, I can still hold my head high and proud and show my loved ones just how dear they are to me by passing around the forks and digging in to something that tastes extraordinary even if it doesn't look like something that's been sitting in the bakery case. And THAT is what makes for a Happy Valentine's Day.

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