Sunday, March 07, 2010

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Allergen-Free I: Classic Yellow Cake with Velvet Frosting

It's been quite a while since I've ventured into the kitchen specifically for the purpose of my food ethnography. I've been quite busy with the start of the semester and, as everyone from new York City to Raleigh to Charleston, WV, will understand, I've been even busier shoveling snow. So I have not had much time to concern myself with ciorbăs or banana wines and such. But even as I have new ideas for projects, I now have the time to ease my way back into kitchen anthropology. Now there's a new turn of phrase.

Sorry, the next paragraph gets somewhat science-y, but it'll end soon.

An ethnography, as any anthropologist or sociologist will tell you, is the study of a culture. But cultures don't have to be related to country, ethnicity or geography. They can be any "subculture" - for example, the Baltimore blogging community, in part because we share some of the same norms - ideas about blogging, subjects (in this case, things related to Baltimore). I could go into the science of ethnography, but you came here for food, not a social science lesson.

I went through that mini-anthropology lesson to explain the subject for my next food ethnography. It isn't an ethnic group or a national cuisine, but a community tied together by a way of eating. A way of eating that most of us, fortunately, do not share.

Food Ethnography: Allergen-Free Community
Located: Everywhere
Number of persons living with food allergies in the US: about 12,000,000 *
Number of emergency room visits in the US: about 30,000 per year, with about 200 deaths per year *
Some common allergens: gluten and wheat, milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, seafood
Some common ingredients: gluten-free flours, xanthan gum, non-dairy non-soy replacements for milk, butter and yogurt, sunflower butter, egg replacer
Number of allergen-free restaurants in the Baltimore area: 0, though there are many stores where one can find ingredients for an allergen-free kitchen, such as Whole Foods and most natural food markets.
Number of allergen-free restaurants in the DC area: 0, but see above
Kind of like: vegan cuisine (from a baking perspective at least), but even stricter
* source of statistics from sources quoted by Wikipedia, "Food Allergy"

Though I am quite happy to have no serious food allergies (just a minor allergy to walnuts), I was interested in seeing how foodies with food allergies eat. One enticing cookbook for this project comes from Cybele Pascal, whose Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook has become the source for at least this part of my current food ethnography. Robert Eitches, who contributes a foreward to Pascal's cookbook, points out that food allergies are, disturbingly, on the rise:

The nation has seen a mysterious rise since the 1990s in the number of children with food allergies, now estimated to be three million, or one in every twenty-five children. In the past decade alone, the prevalence has increased by 18 percent. (Eitches, in Pascal pp. vii-viii)
Michael Pollan kept popping up in my head as I read on, as it became clear that the increased processing of food is at least one culprit.

Out of most allergen-free cooking, baking seems to me to be the most difficult to do, because it is so dependent upon butter, milk and eggs, and often uses ingredients that incorporate tree nuts and soy by-products. So this is the basis for this food ethnography: not just allergen-free foods, but allergen-free baked goods. My "Bible" for this project: Cybele Pascal's abovementioned cookbook.

The whole basis of baking for people with allergies is baking with none of the following:
  • milk or dairy, including butter (NOOOOOOOOO!)
  • eggs
  • wheat and gluten - it ALL must go
  • soy, too - nothing related to soy, soybean or tofu in any way
  • anything related to peanuts or tree nuts (this does not include coconut, though a very small handful of people will be allergic to those)
  • sesame
Certainly, few people have all of these food allergies at the same time. Many people are simply lactose intolerant (that would be the majority of humans, by the way). Many others suffer from celiac disease, making them very sick upon contact with wheat or gluten or anything containing them (gasp! no beer!).

You might think "Well, why not just go vegan? Problem solved!" Not so fast: there is nothing inherently non-vegan in wheat or gluten in and of themselves. It's just that most things that contain them also contain animal products. Plus, if you have an allergy to peanuts, tree nuts or - GASP! - soy, you can kiss the peanut butter, the walnuts, macadamias, pecan pies and anything and everything containing tofu goodbye. To live with all these allergies, one has to live with a diet that to me seems far more restrictive than that of your average vegan.

That said, it's definitely possible to eat well, even to bake well, on a diet free of all the things I've mentioned above. But if you also have a shellfish allergy on top of everything else, you can probably scratch Maryland crabcakes off the menu, since pretty much everything inside is an allergen for those with lots of food allergies. And if the day comes when I can no longer eat Maryland crab cakes... Well, I'm only speaking for myself here, but just shoot me.

Note: this allergen-free baking is not exactly budget-friendly, unless you don't do a whole lot of it. There are a few extra ingredients that cost a good bit of money, relatively speaking. But on the plus-side, unless you plan to bake a lot, most of those ingredients may last you a while. That $9 bottle of xanthan gum, for example, would probably last a regular allergen-free baker for a few months, which ain't bad. It's probably going to last me a few years, which is even better.

The dish: Allergen-Free Classic Yellow Cake with Allergen-Free Velvet Frosting

To find allergen-free baking ingredients on a budget, you pretty much have to shop around. Some will be surprisingly close, even surprisingly cheap. But other essential goods will not. To make a simple yellow cake - Pascal's recipe for the classic version, which looks a lot less yellow before going into the oven than coming out - you will need the following ingredients that most allergen-proof bakers don't have on hand. Except me, because now I do:

Instead of Wheat- and Gluten-Filled Flours -there are many flours that have no gluten in them - rice flour, millet flour, quinoa flour, potato flour, tapioca flour, etc. The problem is that you can't really bake by simply replacing wheat flour with any one of these unless you really don't want it to turn out. Instead, you must mix and match some flours together. After much trial and error, Pascal came up with a flour mix that she likes for most of her baking: 4 cups superfine brown rice flour, 1 1/3 cups potato starch (she is adamant that it be potato starch, not flour), and 2/3 cup tapioca starch/flour (these are interchangeable).

After doing a little math, I figured out the ratio: 12 parts superfine brown rice flour to 4 parts potato starch to 2 parts tapioca starch/flour. While any brand of tapioca or potato starch will do, she recommends Authentic Foods superfine brown rice flour, or if that cannot be found then use Bob's Red Mill or Ener-G. She advises against Arrowhead Mills' brand, which is too gritty for her tastes. I couldn't find anything called "superfine brown rice flour" so I settled for the regular kind. Being on a budget, I did in fact go with Arrowhead Mills' brown rice flour. She was right: it was a bit gritty. But at $3.50 per bag, I had to settle. I paired that with Ener-G's potato starch (about $4) and Bob's Red Mill's tapioca starch (again, about $4). While this alone totals about $12, the only thing I would have to buy a lot of would be the brown rice flour. The others are used in small enough quantities that they should last a bit longer.

Instead of Eggs - The cashier at Whole Foods recommended Ener-G Egg Replacer ($6, surprising, it was cheaper here than anywhere else). This is not a full-on egg substitute. It only replaces eggs in baking.

Instead of Milk - Apparently, you can use non-dairy milks in baking. I just went with Rice Dream ($1.79 at Wegman's)

Instead Butter or Soy-Based Substitute - Spectrum's Organic All-Vegetable Shortening ($6.50) is a must. It tastes nothing like butter, but it works as well.

Instead of Yogurt or Soy-Based Substitute - I had no idea that Turtle Mountain's Soy Delicious also made a non-soy yogurt: So Delicious' coconut milk yogurt ($3 for a large container). The plain one does indeed have a coconut aftertaste.

And to bind it all together - The one final thing that must go into all allergen-free baking is xanthan gum. This is what binds everything else together, and this is what helps a gluten-free baked product act gluten-y. It is also precious, as it is almost impossible to find for under $10. I found a bottle of Now Foods brand of xanthan gum at the Natural Market in Timonium for $9. But as I said above, it will last me for a long while.

Along with these ingredients, I also needed
  • fresh lemon juice (the lemon was $1)
  • baking soda and double-acting baking powder (check and check)
  • granulated sugar (this is allergen-free, not diabetic-friendly) and salt (got that too)
  • vanilla extract (I had that, but I checked later and it said it was indeed processed in a plant that processes soy and tree nuts. So, ironically, this cake ended up being unfit for an allergenic eater after all.)
The complete assortment of ingredients

The one thing that I most noticed while assembling this cake was that it has extra steps that a basic yellow cake doesn't usually have: assemble the flour (normally done ahead of time), Then whisk together the dry ingredients. Then mix the coconut milk yogurt and lemon juice. Next cream the shortening, etc. Eventually, after alternately beating the yogurt and flour mixtures into the shortening-sugar-vanilla-egg substitute mixture, the batter was ready to go. On a nice side note: you can eat as much of the raw cake batter as you want since it has no raw eggs ready to make you ill.

After 30 minutes or so the cake was done, and ready to cool down. Something else caught my attention: neither of the cakes rose. Instead they were very flat in the pan. I'm not talking cookies here, but all the same, they didn't need to have the tops trimmed off.

Upon trying the un-frosted cake, I can only say that the flavor was somewhat unexpected. It was mildly citrusy, probably due to the lemon juice. But it also had a flavor I can't really describe. This probably comes from the rice flour. I can't put my finger on it but upon eating it I could definitely tell that this was not a wheat-based cake. It's not a flavor I'm used to, and it's not one I really want to go back and try again. But it's not one that I wouldn't eat if put in front of me. That and the coarseness of the Arrowhead Mills brand of flour (remember, the author warned us) make this cake one that I'm not sure I can finish.

The finished cake. I've never been that good at frosting cakes, and the bottom layer broke on me. This sometimes happens with me and cakes.

But I will say this: the frosting is quite lovely. It isn't buttery, but it's not meant to be. And again, the basis for this so-named Velvet Frosting is the same soy-free palm oil shortening that I used in the cake. The recipe almost parallels a Domino Sugar recipe I use often for Vanilla Buttercream Frosting, but with palm oil shortening in place of the butter, and rice milk instead of the cow milk. Again, this may be wonderfully safe for a person with allergens, but it'll kill a diabetic! There is so much confectioner's sugar in this recipe. To make it, just cream the shortening and add confectioner's sugar - at which point it ends up very crumbly. Next, add the vanilla, lemon juice, salt and rice milk. You have to cream it for a while, and after several minutes it takes on a lovely consistency and is easily spreadable. In fact, I may wind up using Pascal's Velvet Frosting recipe for full-on wheat, milk and butter-based cakes.

Yes, allergen-free cake!

To make a long post short, if I did develop a gluten or soy allergy, I am glad I now have some experience making a gluten and soy free vegan cake. It can be done, people! But admittedly, it is something that takes some practice. This was my first try. Next up: another foray into the strange new (to me it's new) world of allergen-free baking.

Note: It just hit me that this is my 1,234th post!