New resident columnist Claire Ptak’s gluten-free brownies
Like her rows of cookbooks, these gluten-free chocolate brownies by the Violet Bakery’s Claire Ptak are a comfort: soothing to gaze upon, yet distinct, with blueberries and almonds
In my 10 years in London, I have amassed a collection of more than 450 cookbooks. There are almost as many again, boxed up in a storage unit somewhere in California. I am an avid cookbook collector. They are comforting places to visit, whether cooking from them or not.
It was late last year, after a frustrating battle with a particularly slim volume that had slid behind the radiator in the space underneath my stairs, that I decided to install proper shelving for my collection. I solicited the help of my designer friend Max, and the result is strong and solid. The shelf has clean lines that appear to float in the space in front of the wall, suspending the books in mid-air. Your eye goes mainly to the books, which are arranged now by colour, but then it picks up a subtle edge of oak or a line of birch ply in-between the yellows, blues, greens and blacks.
I made the aesthetic choice to colour co-ordinate my cookbooks when Max installed the beautiful shelf, because, well, the shelf deserved it. At the time I was also designing the cover of my own cookbook, which I wanted both to blend in and stand out. Having finished the writing, I was now interested in how it would sit on the shelf. This was the acid test.
It is soothing to look at a shelf of colour-coded books, even when you can’t quite remember what colour the particular book that you are looking for is. In the past I had organised them by author in some sections, and by cuisine in others. Not to mention my own idiosyncratic reasons for putting Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed next to Stevie Parle’s Real Food From Near and Far, or Sally Clarke’s book next to my Chez Panisse collection. Over the years, these books have formed their own kinship or association in my mind. Switching
I like what ‘alternative’ ingredients have to offer in their own right
over to colour-coding has taken some getting used to.
Colour is intrinsic to cooking and baking. At the Violet Bakery, our cakes need to stand out to our customers visually before they are eaten (and blissfully enjoyed). I know that making what they want is why I am in business, and this in turn creates a wonderful symbiosis: I make recipes to taste delicious and satisfy my cravings while making what my customers want. I am always listening, observing and tasting for inspiration.
One recipe that crops up time and again in cookbooks is that of the humble chocolate brownie. In fact, there are so many recipes for chocolate brownies in the world that they struggle to stand out. I alone have written nearly a dozen recipes for them myself, and recently spent an afternoon looking at what my books had to say on the subject. This kind of research makes you hungry, and in my line of work, that inspires new recipes.
I set out to create an intensely chocolatey brownie that would meet the basic requirements –a rich bake, with crunch and complexity – but also have a character of its very own.
In the spirit of listening to what my customers want, I’ve noticed a real swing towards healthier eating in the last year. That suits me down to the ground, because while I obviously love cakes, I also like to feel good. Though I am not allergic to gluten, I do notice when I eat too much of it. For the times in between indulgences of classically prepared doughnuts or cream puffs, I am interested in creating sweets with alternative flours and sugars.
After much testing and many failures, what I really found was that I liked what “alternative” ingredients – such as buckwheat, millet flour and polenta – had to offer in their own right. The subtle differences, I realised, should be celebrated and used as the point of departure in my recipes, rather than thinking of them as substitutions for what we really wanted – and therefore as inferior or disappointing. This is also why I like to highlight the ingredient in the name of the dish.
And so I experimented with using rice flour in my new brownie recipe, for a gluten-free version of this classic treat. Finer than polenta or semolina, but with a coarser texture than plain flour, rice flour is suited to brownies because it produces a rich body in bakes. It also complements the flavour and texture of almonds, which we already know are great with chocolate.
The result of this brownie exploration is strong and solid without being heavy. Once cooled and sliced, it has clean lines with slivers of almonds and dried blueberries suspended midchocolate. Your eye goes mainly to the fact that it’s a brownie, which we all know we like, but then biting into it, you notice the layers of texture and flavour and it becomes something else. Much like my bookshelf, I think, they are a comfort: soothing to look at, yet really stand out.
ALMOND, DRIED BLUEBERRY AND RICE FLOUR BROWNIES
A homemade Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut!
Makes 12 brownies 200g whole almonds 225g unsalted butter 375g chocolate (70% cocoa) 3 eggs 375g golden caster sugar 75g rice flour ¾ tsp fine sea salt 75g dried blueberries
1 Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Butter and line a 20 x 30cm baking dish with parchment. Toast the almonds in the oven for about 7-8 minutes, or until golden.
2 Put the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Place it over a saucepan of simmering water to melt the butter and chocolate, stirring occasionally. Do not let the water boil or it can burn the chocolate. If it does boil, turn off the heat and the water will most likely be hot enough to melt the butter and chocolate. Stir occasionally. If there are still lumps in 10 minutes, turn the heat back on briefly. Remove the bowl from the bain marie and allow it to cool .
3 In another bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, rice flour and salt just to combine and break up the eggs. Do not whisk them into a fluffy mass. Fold the melted chocolate into this, along with the almonds and dried blueberries.
4 Pour into your prepared baking tray and smooth the top. Bake for 25 minutes only. Remove from the oven (it will seem under-baked in the centre but set around the sides). Rest for 2 hours at room temperature or one hour in the fridge before cutting.