If you have tried much gluten-free baking, you will know that it can be tricky to pull off. Taking the gluten out of the equation and not fully understanding what is needed to replace it can leave your cake dry, crumbly and flat.
Wheat flour contains a gluten, which is a protein. Gluten has four functions in baking. First of all, it is a binder – holding the ingredients together. It also provides structure, which starch can stick to that in turn provides the stability for the cake to rise. Gluten has elasticity, more important in bread making over cake baking, but still of relevance. Finally, gluten also has moisture retention profiteering which is why you often find gluten free bakes have a tendency to be dry.
As well as the core properties of gluten, wheat flour contains naturally gums and ground seeds that help the gluten do what it does, so well.
Do you begin to recognise why taking the gluten out of baking can feel tricky?
One of the best ways to substitute flour is to use a base gluten-free flour to which you can add other flours, gradually building up a mix that brings together those different elements which go missing once you remove the gluten. You need to increase the stability of the rise of the mixture, which can usually be achieved by using a gluten-free baking powder (most brands are but it’s always worth checking). You have to be careful not to over-beat the mixture as you need to keep the air otherwise you could end up with a dense cake.
There are so many options for gluten-free flours: rice four, tapioca flour, coconut, ground almonds, potato starch, corn flour, chickpea flour…the list goes on. I’m not going to cover the pros and cons of each in this blog post as we will never get to the recipe! Have a play though, the best way to discover what works and what doesn’t is to simply have a go.
I cheat a little bit here and let someone do the bulk of the balancing and mixing of the most user-friendly flours. You can buy some great ready-to-use gluten-free flour off the shelf now, I used Doves Farm Plain White in this recipe which is a blend of Rice, Potato, Tapioca, Maize and Buckwheat.
You can then use that as a base to add other ingredients which bring their own properties to the party.
In this recipe, it calls for ground almonds which are good at adding moisture back in to a recipe. The consistency of ground almonds is more like a cornmeal than a flour but it is easy to work with. They crop up in baking from macarons to Sachertort and marzipan, they just so happen to also be gluten-free. Handy ey?
Enough chat, now on to the cake! I originally saw this recipe on the Good Housekeeping website (yes, turning into my Mother!) but tweaked it a little bit to my own taste. You end up with a cake that would pass for afternoon tea with your in-laws without falling apart or resulting in a sponge drier than the Sahara.
Oh and I forgot to say, this is a chuck it all in one mixing bowl and pop into the oven kind of recipe. Simple!
Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4 (180*C). Grease and line a 18cm round cake tin (I used one of my victoria sandwich tins and it worked perfectly for the quantity of sponge) with baking paper.
Add 125g Gluten Free Plain Flour (or blend of flours), 75g ground almonds, 1tsp gluten-free baking powder, 50g desiccated coconut and 125g caster sugar into the bowl of a food processor.
If you don’t have a food processor, you can mix this with a handheld mixer or a wooden spoon! Don’t panic, you can still have baked coconutty goodness.
Once you’ve weighed out all the dry ingredients into the bowl, add 1 large egg, 100ml full fat coconut milk, 150g sunflower or olive oil spread (can be substituted for dairy free if you need to) and 1.5tbsp water.
Mix away! Pulse the food processor until the mixture is fully combined, don’t go crazy though – you want the texture of the coconut to remain. Scrape the batter into the lined cake tin and bake for 35-40 mins, until golden brown on top and a skewer comes out clean.
Leave to cool for ten mins in the tin before releasing and cooling on a baking rack.
Whilst it’s cooling you can make the meringue icing. This is totally optional, you could just dredge it with icing sugar and be done. However, this meringue topping is quite easy and looks pretty damn good.
Put 40g caster sugar and 1tsp cream of tartar into a small bowl. The cream of tartar is optional so don’t panic if you don’t have any, it just helps stabilise the egg white when you whisk it. It’ll still work if you omit it. Pour on 2tbsp boiling water and stir quickly until all the sugar is dissolved.
Separate the yolk and white of 1 large egg. Discard the yolk (or save to add to your scrambled eggs!). Put 2tbsp egg white into a different bowl and whisk with until it begins to go frothy. Whilst whisking, slowly pour the sugar mix into the egg white. Continue beating until it’s white, glossy and holding stiff peaks. Add a few drops of vanilla essence and mix in gently. Spread the meringue over the top of your cool sponge, I just use a spatula to work in a few whirls and peaks. Sprinkle over a handful of toasted almond or coconut flakes.
Et voila! Now put the kettle on and grab a slice (not before instagramming the shizz out of your creation).