Gluten-free cakes

Karly O'Brien
November 05, 2013
Written by
For one baker, creating a gluten-free cake is like creating a new product with a cornucopia of flours to explore along with the way.

“I’m not trying to replicate gluten products since I’m working with completely different ingredients,” explains Peter Fryns, owner and operations manager of Turtledoves Bakery. “Gluten-free flour requires attention in different areas than gluten, and that’s what you have to realize.”

He points out that gluten-free cakes will have a different texture, but says they should be just as tasty and look just as beautiful as any other traditional cakes.
“I have people who buy gluten-free cakes just because they think it tastes better.”

Finding the perfect mix
Jenny Breckon of Sweet Tooth Cakery notes that chemistry gives plenty of insight on how to compensate for the missing characteristics gluten gives a cake.

“When you are thinking of creating a flour blend for gluten-free cakes, you have to think about what gluten has in it that creates a solid and tasty texture,” she says. The wheat is basically tasteless and neutral smelling, while gluten is high in protein and provides structure, as well as stickiness, springiness and moisture.

“You have to research and find out ways to replace those in the same fashion,” says Breckon, whose business is located in Vancouver and completely gluten-free. “You can’t really look to things such as a bean- or nut-based flour as they have an earthy taste and smell to them that would dominate any cake.” 

Some areas to focus on are crumb structure and air pockets, she says. In a traditional cake, the molecules around the air pockets are made up of gluten protein. When replacing it, the air pockets can become tight if there’s too much concentrated protein, thereby making it heavy. If there’s not enough protein, then they will become loose
and crumbly.

As for types of flour, there are a surprising number of options to work with such as cornstarch, potato, sorghum and arrowroot flours.

“Bakers will have their own preference of gluten-free flours,” she starts. “And if anyone ever says that there is one flour that can replace gluten flour, then they haven’t done enough baking, because you need a multiple flour blend to get all the characteristics you need.”

For Breckon, the perfect mix is made in house and contains sorghum and rice flours, and tapioca starch. Sorghum provides protein structure without any dominant taste or smell, and tapioca provides the stickiness, springiness and moisture. The rice flour is the filler to ensure the cake isn’t too heavy or condensed from the protein in sorghum.

There are ways to help a gluten-free cake retain more structure and stickiness (which it naturally lacks). If you are using rice flour, don’t add too much because it will speed up the drying process. Adding arrowroot flour helps to keep moisture in and adding more eggs will give it a sticky structure. Xanthan gum also will add more stickiness.

Overall, there is going to be a texture difference between the gluten and the gluten-free cakes.

“You always have to work towards making sure it isn’t too grainy, or has an unpleasant texture,” says Fryns, noting one area where bakers should tread carefully.

“Sometimes a secondary issue for celiacs is corn, soy and dairy,” he says. “So you have to be careful with the ingredients you’re using and that the flour doesn’t have this either.” He says he creates an in-house mix that blends arrowroot and rice flours and tapioca starch.

“A mix made from scratch is better because you know what’s in it, and also commercial mixes are much too expensive right now. The market needs to get more competitive before I go down that route.”

Beyond the cake, there are decorations and icing to worry about. However, Breckon says, gluten in icing isn’t too common as flour isn’t a necessity. “Sometimes gluten is in the anti-clumping agent, but aside from that mostly cornstarch is used.”

Challenges
Aside from finding a suitable flour and icing blend, there are other aspects that need to be considered, such as shelf life, nutritional value and cross-contamination.

The shelf life of a gluten-free cake is up to three or four days, so it must be made either the day of or day before to give customers a couple of days to finish off the cake before it goes stale.

For Fryns, shelf life is a big issue with only 12 gluten-free cake orders manageable per week since the bakery also makes breads, pies, and cupcakes amongst others.

“We are finding it is getting more and more difficult to keep up with the orders we are getting because there’s no way we can make them throughout the week,” says Fryns, whose business is located in Burlington, Ont., and completely gluten-free. “It’s either the day of or the day before and anything earlier won’t work.”

His bakery needs 48 hours’ notice before making a cake to ensure there is ample time. However, he says, it’s tough when running into the very frequent last-minute shopper who wants their cake now.

Sweet Tooth Cakery runs into this same problem, and decided to add frozen cakes to help accommodate customers. These ready-to-go cakes are plain, and undecorated until there is a customer request. “Refrigeration dries out the gluten-free cakes, but freezing sort of stops everything and holds in all of that moisture tight.”

Fryns is taking the freezing idea one step further by creating the layers of the cake several days in advance and then adding the filling and decorations the day of or the day before. “I’ve personally heard that decorating a frozen cake is much easier anyway, and this will allow us to increase production.”

He plans on testing this out in early October before implementing it on a permanent basis.

Nutrition is also a challenge since bakers have to educate customers on a gluten-free cake’s content. Some patrons make the assumption that they are eating healthy by choosing gluten-free, but it’s not so black and white.

“A cake is a cake [and] it’s not healthy, no matter,” Breckon begins. “I always have a couple of customers thinking that by eating gluten-free cake they are eating the healthy alternative or that it’s somehow calorie-free, and it’s not since there are many more calories in gluten-free cakes than gluten cakes,” she says.

With that said, gluten-free cakes can have a wider range of nutrients due to the different flours used in the blend. “You’ll find there is plenty of protein, fibre, and iron compared to other traditional cakes,” Breckon continues.

In addition to nutritional considerations, cross-contamination is a critical food safety issue when it comes to serving gluten-free products. 

“If you’re a bakery that is doing gluten and gluten-free options, then one or the other needs to be made off site since flour easily spreads,” says Breckon. She mentions that while cleaning her bakery, she regularly finds flour in her vents. “It gets everywhere.”

The food should be wrapped up to ensure that the product is protected from cross-contamination, and shouldn’t be opened until outside of the facility for ultimate protection.

The actions the bakery takes are one step towards ensuring a gluten-free environment; what customers do is another thing.

“I regularly have to tell people to take their gluten food outside of the shop because you never know,” she says. “Of course, it has to be done as politely as possible, but it is something that needs to be done.”

The Canadian Celiac Association’s website provides information on what it means to be celiac and tips on how to prevent cross-contamination.

“Educating yourself is so important when dealing with gluten-free items that are being sold to the public because even though some of the customer base chooses to eat gluten-free, some customers need to eat gluten-free,” says Fryns. “If you make a mistake, then you are endangering someone’s life.” 

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