GLUTEN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES: Taking on the Challenge of Gluten-Free Baking

ADDED NOTE TO THIS BLOGPOST (5/25/12): After one reader with a corn allergy added a comment to this post, I’ve now deleted the “No-Corn-Products” part of the above title – first doing a little research, of course. According to what I’ve found out, Namaste may be the only company which manufactures and sells a corn-free xanthan gum. Unfortunately, I was using Bob’s Red Mill, which is gluten-free but not corn-free. As for the almond extract, I e-mailed McCormick’s twice. The first time I got the usual stuff about its being g-free but then I wrote again saying I knew that already and that I needed to know if their choice of alcohol in the extract was produced without corn. Their Consumer Affairs Specialist replied that “The natural alcohol used in McCormick Extracts is derived from corn. Corn does not contain gluten, and is not on the US allergen list.” Luckily, my friend’s corn allergy is not life-threatening and I didn’t hear back about any severe stomach issues after the reading.


This is yet another lesson about what’s missing on product labels re ingredients. I have not edited the text below so be aware that, despite my efforts at the time, I wasn’t able to produce a corn-free cupcake for the reading. However, I suggest that it would likely work to use a vanilla powder instead of extract, plus substitute finely ground almonds for part of the flour. And now, here’s the original test & recipe…


*****


There’s nothing like a challenge to get the old noggin spiraling with possibilities. Tell me it can’t be done, or that it’s been done and results were usually so-so (or lousy), I’ll want to change that precedent – or at least try. Where there are friends involved, well, I like giving a bit of food-joy when possible. If those friends have allergies or sensitivities to various consumables, therein exists the challenge.


I wanted to ensure that at least one of the cupcakes I baked for the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading at Caffè Lena was gluten-free since two of our readers couldn’t/can’t do gluten (and one WomanWorder who was planning to be in the audience can’t either). I knew another to be lactose-intolerant but she’s always assured me that she can take a pill to offset that condition, provided she doesn’t overdo it. And then there was the corn allergy challenge. Processed food products in this country are saturated with corn – corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated corn products and more “stuff” with names designed to hide the fact that there’s a corn product as our eyes scan the ingredients portion of the label. There’s even a documentary made about it by the guys who author a blog titled “Culinate.” (Go to the site and click on “King Corn” to view a trailer of the film.) I don’t doubt that the overabundance of “hidden corn” has produced many an allergy in unsuspecting Americans.


It turns out that confectioners’ sugar (when we were kids, Mom called it 10X Sugar), at least the brand I purchase, contains corn starch. It keeps it from clumping. I didn’t know weeks ago that I could create my own confectioners’ sugar by spinning granulated sugar through the blender (not, apparently, the food processor), and so I came up with a mascarpone-based frosting that relied on flavor not from sugar, but from soft sweet cheese and finely-ground almonds (plus a bit of bakery emulsion and cinnamon). It was excellent, tasty and corn-free!




I couldn’t concoct the same decadent almond cupcakes that I’m made for daughter Kristen’s birthday last fall. That delicious version called for self-rising flour, which I didn’t have in a g-free version. I had to come up with something sans a wheat flour.


I started with a basic Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe in the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which I would also use for the Vanilla cupcakes I’d bake for the Lena Reading. In order to try for the same sort of texture that the original recipe’s combo of self-rising and all-purpose flours would produce, but in a gluten-free rendition, I researched a bit and came up with a mixture of all-purpose flour, almond flour (some of which I substituted with finely ground almonds) and xanthan gum (pretty much essential for g-f baking).


Since the cakes I’d made for Kristen had called for baking powder (Magnolia’s did not), I thought I might add that too – and then I checked the ingredients on the container. First one was corn starch, so I pulled out my handy-dandy little paperback, Substituting Ingredients: The A to Z Kitchen Reference by Becky Sue Epstein (Sourcebooks, 1986, 2010). I love this book’s philosophy: “Don’t have an ingredient? Substitute. Don’t like something? Substitute. Can’t afford it? Substitute.” It also often works for “Body can’t handle an ingredient?” Substitute.) It offered four different substitutions, from which I opted for the baking-soda/cream-of-tartar one.


I got raves for these cupcakes, even from folks who don’t have to do gluten-free. People especially loved the frosting!



GLUTEN-FREE, CORN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES (with mascarpone and cream cheese almond frosting)
Yields 2 dozen cupcakes (original Vanilla Cake recipe makes a 3-layer cake)


THE CAKES


Ingredients



  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I’m now mostly buying “evaporated cane juice organic sugar” – BJ’s has started to carry it!)

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature

  • 2 cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour

  • ¾ cup almond flour (ok to sub part of this with finely ground almonds – which I toasted first!)

  • 1¼ teaspoon xanthun gum (remember to store unused portion of this in the freezer to avoid spoiling, unless you’re doing lots of gluten-free baking!)

  • 1 cup milk

  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

Process



  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  2. Place 24 paper cupcake fillers in cupcake tins, or grease and lightly flour each cakespace.

  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter until smooth.

  4. Add sugar to butter gradually, then beat until fluffy (about 3 minutes).

  5. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition.

  6. Combine the flours, ground almonds (if using), xanthan gum, cream of tartar and baking soda in another bowl with a whisk.

  7. Add flour mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk and almond extract, beating well after each addition.

  8. Divide batter between the prepared cupcake tin spaces.

  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a couple of the little cakes comes out clean.

  10. Remove tins to wire racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

  11. Remove cakes from tins to wire racks to cool completely before frosting or freezing. (If freezing, individually wrap in plastic wrap as soon as cooled, eliminating all air. They should keep for at least up to two weeks or even a month. I had never frozen cupcakes before but, via the internet, learned that one should take the wrapping off before thawing – as soon as taken out of the freezer – or they will have a gluey top texture. Then frost. It  worked out great!)

THE FROSTING


Ingredients



  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese

  • 4 oz. cream cheese

  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened

  • 1¼ to 1½ cup finely ground toasted almonds (the finer, the better – although you might want some a little chunkier if you’d like a little texture in the cupcake)

  • 1 scant teaspoon bakery emulsion (or vanilla extract)

  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (I use my favorite Roasted Saigon Cinnamon)

  • 2 tablespoons milk – I use 2% milk (possibly more milk, to get preferred consistency)

Process



  1. In a large bowl, beat together mascarpone and cream cheeses with butter until well-blended.

  2. Gradually add toasted ground almonds to cheese mixture, beating between additions.

  3. Add bakery emulsion, cinnamon and milk, beating until well-blended.

  4. Frost the cakes! (Cupcakes should be stored in the refrigerator since this frosting contains cheeses.)

My g-free gourmet friend, Leslie, gave them a major thumbs-up. And the cakes were just as yum-o the next day – which is, too often, not the case with gluten-free baking!

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4 responses

  1. I came across this while looking for something corn-free. Sorry to burst your bubble, but these aren’t corn-free. Almod extract has corn in the alcohol. And xanthan is made of corn (sub guar gum instead). I’m still looking for a safe almond flavoring.

    • Hi Roxanne. I was sorry to see your comment since I was sure I was doing well with the no-corn issue, but it’s so hard with the lack of information on packaging. I thought Bob’s Red Mill xanthan gum was corn-free, but further research on the internet didn’t confirm this. In fact, it looks like Namaste is the only company that produces corn-free xanthan gum (which would be essential for much baking when my one friend who must do gluten-free as well as corn-free). As for the extract, I sent an e to McCormack’s about the extract and they still responded that it was prepared with no corn products. I’ve now responsed to their response, asking if they are certain that the alcohol used in their extracts wasn’t made with corn. Waiting for that reply.

      So I will amend the post’s title and explain further… and I need to ask my friend if she had any issues after eating one of those cupcakes. I’ve seen her since, with no mention of it, so perhaps not. On the other hand, hers (luckily) is not a severe allergy but still results in problems (especially if all her allergies wind up on the same plate).

      I hope my further question to McCormack makes it clear to them that even clearer labeling might be helpful. And, if it turns out they don’t even know if the alcohol was processed with a component of corn, then it should be a lesson to them…

  2. It depends in how corn sensitive your friend is. Some people are very sensitive. I myself am gluten, dairy, egg yolk and corn free. I am most sensitive to corn, but some people are super sensitive to anything. Unfortunately it’s in everything. And I can tell you that McCormick doesn’t know if there stuff has corn or not. But it does. Alcohol is almost always derived from corn. So when i want vanilla for example, it needs to be vanilla flavoring that is alcohol free. Than it needs to be glycerin free as that is made of corn (unless specified otherwise). I know frontier brand’s vanilla flavor alcohol free is corn free. I believe trader joes is as well. Outside of that I don’t know of any (as I said, I’m still searching for a safe almond flavoring). Namaste says that their xanthan is corn free, but if you do a bit of digging you’ll see that they won’t tell people what it’s dirived from. Many corn sensitive people have reactions to their products and it’s sketchy that they refuse to share this info since their consumers are people with allergies and sensitivities. However, in my baking I have found guar gum is totally fine as a sub to xanthan.

    • See my “Added Note” written today re the corn-free problem & McCormick’s response. I’ve deleted the “No-Corn-Products” from the title of the post so newly-diagnosed corn-allergic folks surfing the internet don’t stumble upon his recipe and think it’s safe for them to bake and consume.

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