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Cookbook review: Discover alternative flours and grains with Alanna Taylor-Tobin's 'Alternative Baker'

Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert With Gluten-Free Grains and Flours 
By Alanna Taylor-Tobin
Page Street Publishing Co., 272 pages, $24.99
Published Nov. 8, 2016

The term "gluten-free" implies that something is missing, but spending some time in the kitchen working with alternative flours showed me that adding naturally gluten-free flours and grains to the pantry only makes cooking and eating a richer experience.

Bakers need to know how to wield those flours — like teff, oat, rice and millet — as instinctively as all-purpose flour. In Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert With Gluten-Free Grains and Flours, author Alanna Taylor-Tobin shows us how to use these ingredients in order to introduce new flavors and textures to familiar recipes. It's a worthy kitchen exercise to try as the holiday season approaches.

Taylor-Tobin is a classically trained pastry chef living in San Francisco. She has a deep knowledge of the structure required of cakes, cookies and the like, and she has masterfully applied this knowledge to alternative flours. As a food blogger, photographer and food stylist, her work has been featured in the New York Times and Food and Wine and on Food52.com.

Eating gluten-free foods has never been a goal of mine, but Taylor-Tobin assuredly says flavor is paramount in her recipes. Alternative flours add nutrition to baked goods as well as another layer of flavor, texture and color, creating a "sensory experience," she writes.

Mesquite is earthy and potently fragrant even before taking it out of the container. Teff offers a hint of malted milk. Buckwheat flour is an otherworldly shade of gray, and its flavor evokes toasted hazelnuts, cocoa and cinnamon. Chestnut flour has a rich quality, while millet and sorghum are nutty.

Reading and baking through the recipes in this book, it's clear that flavor is indeed king in Taylor-Tobin's kitchen. Detailed recipes, the promise in the alluring photos and the intriguing ingredients help to pull a reader in.

In a recipe for teff oatmeal cookies, walnuts are toasted and a generous dose of fresh nutmeg is grated into the mix of flours. Currants are soaked in whiskey and emerge boozy and plump; after baking, the amplified raisins are a delight in the chunky cookie, leaving a whiff of whiskey lingering on the tongue. Taking a cue from the flavor-forward attitude of the book, I browned the butter instead of just melting it, adding another layer of rich flavor to the irresistible cookie.

The book is organized by categories like cakes, pies, tarts, cookies and fruit desserts, but there is also a guide on where to begin, depending on one's familiarity with gluten-free flours. Using alternative flours isn't difficult, but they do require some thoughtfulness. Some may be easier to find than others, and one cup of flour varies in weight depending on the flour. (Measurements are provided in the book by both volume and weight.)

Newbies would do well to begin with almond or oat flour; those more adventurous and willing to invest in new flours can look to mesquite and chestnut. In the back of the book, the author goes into detail on specific flours and where to find them. Many of the recipes offer variations or friendly tips for substitutions or certain tasks. Don't own a kitchen torch? Figs can be caramelized under a broiler. Step-by-step photos for mixing, rolling and crimping pie dough take up two pages. With Taylor-Tobin as a helpful and friendly guide, recipes like Millet Skillet Cornbread With Cherries and Honey and Salty Caramel Banana Cream Tart With Mesquite Crust await.

In the book, Taylor-Tobin writes, "it is with this new palette of flavors, textures and histories that we make new of what was once old." This seems an accurate description of baking with alternative flours and grains. Whether I eat a gluten-free diet or not isn't really the point; it's about getting to know new-to-me ingredients in my kitchen and expanding my palate.

Contact Ileana Morales Valentine at ileanamvalentine@gmail.com.

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