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Friday, May 11, 2012

Modulating Gluten

Modern American food media seem to be confused about gluten. There's an explosion of products in the market proudly proclaiming their gluten-free status, from rice "pasta" to cold pills. Indeed, this is a wonderful accommodation of people with celiac disease and diagnosed gluten sensitivities, but it seems to have hooked into the rampant chemophobia. Some speak of gluten like as if it were as toxic as rat poison, but that is hyperbole. Gluten is formed when the indigenous proteins of wheat (and other grains in the Triticum genus) meets water, and produces this elastic network responsible for the spring and chew of pasta and bread.

In Japan, the products seitan and yakifu are really nothing more than just the gluten of flour - the actual starch is washed away - and when cooked with broth, provide a meaty chew for vegetarian diets.

Wheat flour is more of a staple in European and North American cooking, and much of the skill in baking stems from managing the formation of gluten. Take for, example, the prized difference between a Southern biscuit, and a pizza crust.

Biscuit from Steinbeck's, Atlanta
The iconic Southern biscuit is tender, crumbling, meltingly so, and it derives this from a vigilant interruption of the gluten formation process. Low protein flour, a high fat to water ratio, rapid leavening, and very minimal kneading are employed to this end, and takes technical mastery to do this consistently.

Pizza. Not very good pizza, so I won't say where I got this. 
On the other hand, pizza crusts are prized for their crispy and chewy texture, and the processes involved in making it maximize gluten formation. High protein flours, very high hydration, extensive kneading and potentially extended yeast based leavening results in a dough so elastic, you can stretch it to a thin film without breaking. And that's a good thing.

My creation: the pizza scone
So, can we combine these two extremes? I say yes: behold, the pizza scone

Note, you can vary this in many different ways. Anchovies, anyone?

Put about 2 cups of regular all purpose flour in a bowl, and sprinkle with salt and pepper, about 1 tsp of baking powder, and whisk until mixed. Cut 5-6 tablespoons of cold butter into small pieces, and cut it into the flour. Can be done with two knives, or a food processor, or a fork. Do so until it resembles coarse meal. Put in some chopped up roasted tomatoes, fresh basil cut into strips, and some chopped up mozzarella cheese, and stir well. 

Then add about 1/2 cup of milk or cream, and mix under a fairly dry crumbly dough comes together. Add more liquid as necessary, but mix until it just comes together. Dump it out on a clean hard surface, and press together into a delicate dough ball. Shape into a disk, and cut into 8 segments, and bake in a 180°C oven for about 20 minutes, until lightly browned. 

Goes well with some good pepperoni and other charcuterie. 

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