Tracy Kamperdyk Assue is the executive pastry chef for City Limits in White Plains, New York, and Stamford, Connecticut—restaurants with a reputation for having among the best bakeries in the region. So it was with a bit of a start that she realized her sensitivity to gluten might have to alter her approach to baking. The restaurants were already offering a few gluten-free desserts, and Assue introduced three new items this fall. For gluten-free baking, she says she relies on the fundamental, good baking techniques she learned at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and by working with famed Pastry Chef Eric Gouteyron at the River Café in Brooklyn. As the holidays approached, Assue talked with Gluten-Free Living about ways other new gluten-free bakers can create traditional cut-out cookies, gingerbread and more. And she shared recipes for three desserts she created for City Limits
What is your gluten-free story?
Customers started requesting gluten-free products a few years ago, and we delivered a few. But I started getting more passionate about it as I started having some issues with gluten. I tested positive for celiac disease recently with a blood test, but on biopsy I did not test positive. I do have a sensitivity, and that has brought about more awareness that a lot of people are going through this. I just met a master pizzaiolo from Naples who’s been making pizzas for 40 years, and he said he might have celiac disease, too. The more I got into gluten-free baking and the more of a challenge it was, the more interesting it became.
What steps did you take to go from baking in the traditional way to learning how to bake gluten free?
For me the big advantage was having a good knowledge of baking in the first place. Keeping all of the good baking techniques that I have and then just learning about different ingredients and substitutions was helpful. The best thing for anybody would be to just start practicing. You just have to learn how to use new ingredients.
What is your best advice for those who have baked all of their lives but are tackling their first gluten-free holiday?
I would carefully pick what I was going to make that was gluten free. I wouldn’t make bread because that’s probably the hardest thing to do. I would go to something I know would translate well that’s gluten free, like cookies and brownies or muffins and quick bread. Those types of things lend very well to gluten free because any recipe where you’re not developing the gluten is where you’re going to have the best results. Anything that has to be mixed a lot, a process that is oft en designed to develop gluten, I would stay away from. Anything that requires a short mix once the flour is added would work well.
What recipes are most likely to trip you up if you’re a new gluten-free baker?
Recipes without a strong predominant flavor are more likely to cause problems. For instance, the other day I made a blueberry crumble, and I think it was successful because it had a lot of blueberries. A blueberry muffin with 30 percent blueberries didn’t taste as good as the blueberry crumble with 50 to 60 percent blueberries. I would stay away from a cake or cookies where flour is the predominant flavor and go for the items that have other interesting things, such as nuts, purees, and chocolate, and things with texture because some gluten-free flour has that mealy texture. Stay away from the simplistic things that are mostly butter, sugar, gluten-free flour and eggs.
Are there certain kinds of holiday cookies that work best?
There are ways to make traditional holiday cookies work. For instance, with a gluten-free thumbprint cookie, minimize the amount of dough and maximize your filling. Make a bigger hole in your thumbprint cookie and add more jam or maybe put in fruit or use a better-quality jam.
Cut-out cookies and gingerbread cookies can be tough to roll out, especially for a first timer.
There’s a quick fi x for that. Just make sure the dough is very, very cold. You can put it in the freezer a few minutes before you roll it out. I would flatten it out so the dough is in a little half-inch-thick parcel, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the freezer. Sprinkle gluten-free flour under the dough before you start rolling. Don’t do too much dough at a time. As far as flavor, I would add nuts on top or chocolate or coarser sugar sprinkles—anything to distract from that mealiness. You still do the same things as in regular cookies, but just add to them.
Are there any tricks for transferring the cookie once you have the dough rolled and the cookie cut out? What if it’s cracking or sticking when you try to move it to the cookie pan?
Keep your pan in the refrigerator or freezer while you roll your dough onto parchment paper. When you’re ready to cut out the cookies, to. You could also roll the dough out on parchment paper, slide it onto a metal pan, and put it in the fridge for five to 10 minutes or to release it from the paper and then cut out the cookies. That will make it easier.
What about cut-out cookies that don’t keep their shape when you put them in the oven to bake?
That would be because they’re not mixed properly.
How would you solve that at the mixing stage?
Those kinds of cookies use a “creaming mixing” method. The butter and sugar, which should be at room temperature, should be creamed or mixed very well to incorporate air. Eggs that are added should be pre-mixed and added in thirds. Add one third of the eggs, mix—don’t over mix—and scrape the bowl. This emulsifies the fats and liquids. That’s probably where the problem is.
So you would add the eggs in thirds even if the recipe doesn’t call for it?
Absolutely. Eggs in thirds, scrape in between. If you don’t mix well at this stage, that’s where you’re going to have problems. It’s not even the addition of flour.
Are there particular challenges with gluten-free gingerbread cookies?
I think gingerbread would lend itself very well, though I haven’t done it yet. Either a gingerbread cookie or a true gingerbread would be a great thing to do gluten free, as long as the flour isn’t overmixed, making it gummy. I’d make sure to add fresh ginger to have a really nice kick, maybe even candied ginger, chopped very finely. If you’re not rolling the gingerbread out too thin, you could put candied ginger on top. I would get a really nice coarser sugar or a more intensely flavored sugar—muscovado sugar is nice. That texture will take away from any mealiness.
What is your most important pantry item for gluten-free baking?
Mine would be almond flour or oat flour. They lend a more palatable texture and delicious flavor. Fine coconut also works well.
When you’re baking gluten free, do you use a certain pre-mixed combination of flours or a commercial brand?
Cup 4 Cup is great. Caputo, the Italian flour company, makes delicious gluten-free flour. I have been working with Caputo flour because I think the quality of the flour is better in general, even non-gluten free. King Arthur also makes good gluten-free flour.
Can people be successful in converting a gluten-containing recipe by using a one-to-one exchange with a gluten-free flour blend?
I do think they can, especially if they use an all-purpose flour mix.
Flakier dough can be more difficult to make gluten free. Is that because of the nature of gluten-free flours?
It is. The best thing you can to remedy that is to practice good baking techniques. With that kind of dough it is critical that your butter is very, very cold and the water or milk you add is very, very cold and that you don’t over-mix. If you maintain proper technique, that is going to help the end product.
Which kitchen tool is extremely helpful as you work with gluten-free baking?My refrigerator. It’s so important to keep ingredients that need to be cold, very cold. And a lemon zester because zests are always nice added to gluten-free recipes.
When it comes to measuring gluten-free flours and ingredients, do you weigh or measure? Does it matter?
Definitely weighing the ingredients makes a huge difference. There’s just no room for error. It’s more accurate to weigh the ingredients.
For holidays, will you be baking gluten free?
This is a process for me. It’s not something I can do cold-turkey. At the restaurant, we will definitely have gluten-free holiday items. For home and work, I will have holiday gluten-free additions.
What gluten-free items will you be baking?
I am going to try a panettone. We make our own candy with zests and lemon zests. I’m hoping that if I add more of those it will be a denser product, but the flavor will be there. And without a doubt I will do all the favorite traditional cooking.
Holiday baking basics
- Pick what you’re going to make carefully, knowing that cookies, brownies, muffins and scones lend themselves well to gluten-free substitutions.
- Use things that are naturally gluten free. For example, with a chocolate cream pie recipe you can change the crust to be gluten free, but the pudding filling is naturally gluten free.
- Use things that have a great texture such as pumpkin and other ingredients you can puree—raisins, nuts, sugars, zests. Those really help with texture and flavor.
- Use good baking techniques. Make sure to follow the directions.