As a baker, I've mostly ignored the growing buzz about gluten-free foods. It's hard to imagine making cookies, cakes and breads without gluten-rich wheat flour. But, after so many people I know began to mention that they were going gluten-free, I figured I'd better start paying attention. As a frequent hostess and bringer of baked goods, I don't want to exclude anyone or make someone sick.

Cooking gluten-free dinners is a relatively simple matter. Avoid bread and pasta, replacing these starches with rice and potatoes. Coat your chicken breasts and fish fillets with cornstarch instead of flour before pan-frying. Use crushed rice cereal instead of bread crumbs in your meatballs.

It gets more complicated when you want to make gluten-free biscuits or pound cake. Gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat flour but also in barley and rye, forms an elastic web when moistened. It is this web that provides structure (like the steel beams holding up a building) for well-risen muffins, cakes and breads. For advice on how to build a bread or dessert without gluten, I called a couple of experts.

The first thing I learned: Although there are several gluten-free baking mixes available at the supermarket, don't try to sub one of these for wheat flour in a favorite recipe and expect perfection. Kyra Bussanich, the first gluten-free baker to win the Food Network's Cupcake Wars and the author of "Sweet Cravings: 50 Seductive Desserts for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle," stresses there's an art to blending alternative flours. Bussanich customizes her own homemade flour blend, depending on what type of texture she wants in the final product. For fluffy cupcakes, she uses tapioca starch, potato starch and white rice flour. For a crisp pie crust, she adds millet flour to the mix.

Gluten-free pioneer Carol Fenster, author of the newly revised "Gluten-Free 101," points out that recipe developers spend months looking for just the right formulas for light cupcakes and well-risen breads. Instead of trying to adapt one of your own wheat-flour recipes, try some well-tested gluten-free recipes. When you've found one you like, adapt that recipe to suit your taste.

Beyond buying a good book, what else should the beginning gluten-free baker do? Here's a short list:

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You probably can't reach into your existing pantry for everything you'll need. Bussanich suggests buying tapioca flour, rice flour, potato flour and xanthan gum to start. Fenster likes brown and white rice flours, along with sorghum flour, which has some protein and fiber. Potato starch gives lightness and airiness to baked goods, and tapioca flour lends a chewy texture and helps brown the crust. If you don't bake often, store these ingredients in airtight containers or zipper-lock bags in the freezer, and they'll keep for months.


Guar and xanthan gums thicken, bind and enhance volume, and are key to getting gluten-free baked goods to rise. Leave them out at your own risk. They may sound suspiciously chemical, but they actually are made from a drought-resistant plant from the pea family and fermented corn sugar, respectively. At $10 to $12 a package, they might seem pricey, but you'll need only a small amount for each recipe. Over time (the gums are shelf-stable and will keep indefinitely), they're a small and wise investment.


Feed Me

Bussanich suggests bars and cookies, which don't need to rise to great heights to be successful. Fenster likes muffins, which bake quickly and rise high, thanks to the support of muffin tins.


Gluten-free batters and doughs are soft and wet, so they need the support of sturdy pans as they bake and solidify. That's why muffins are such a good gluten-free choice, Fenster says. Baked in tins, they have nowhere to go but up. Gluten-free bread also needs support. If you don't use a French bread pan for your dough, Fenster warns, "it will spread out into an unsightly blob."


Different flours give baked goods different flavors, but just because the flavors are new doesn't mean they are bad. "Each grain has its own unique flavor profile. Experiment with them, see what you like and don't like. Build your own repertoire. Over time, your palate will come to expect those flavors."

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Bussanich urges newbies to go with the flow. Recalling a tapioca and soy milk pudding that failed to jell, she says she simply renamed the dessert chilled dairy- free vanilla soup, and served it with some grilled nectarines and a smile. "People feel pressure to make something perfect, and that can get in the way of having something great."



Adapted from "Sweet Cravings: 50 Seductive Desserts for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) by Kyra Bussanich

For the crispy rice layer

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1/4 cup butter

1 (10-ounce) bag jumbo marshmallows

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

8 cups gluten-free crispy rice cereal (such as Erewhon)

For the peanut butter layer

2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

1 cup creamy peanut butter

1/2 cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the chocolate layer

2 cups chopped dark chocolate

1/4 cup butter

1. Spray an 8-by-11-inch baking pan with gluten-free cooking spray and set aside.

2. To make the crispy rice layer, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter browns, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the marshmallows and vanilla and stir continuously until the marshmallows are melted. Remove from heat and stir in the cereal. Pour entire contents into the baking pan. Wet or grease your hands and pat down the cereal so it is level and compact. Freeze for 15 minutes to cool and set.

3. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine all the ingredients for the peanut butter layer and blend on low speed. Remove the crispy rice layer from the freezer and spread the peanut butter filling evenly over it. Freeze until firm to the touch, 30 to 60 minutes.

4. In a microwave-safe bowl or over a double boiler, melt the chocolate and butter for the chocolate layer and stir together until smooth. If using the microwave, heat at 30-second intervals, stirring well between each interval. Working quickly, spread the chocolate evenly over the peanut butter layer. If the peanut butter is cold, the chocolate will set quickly.

5. Put pan back into freezer for 15 to 30 minutes. It will be much easier to cut if the peanut butter layer is firm. Cut into bars and serve cold or at room temperature. Makes 18 bars.



Adapted from "Gluten-Free 101" by Carol Fenster

Use a pan designed for French bread -- one with two indentations that hold bread in a French loaf shape. These pans are available at kitchen-supply stores. The dough is too soft to hold its shape free-form on a regular baking sheet.

2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/4 cups warm (110 degrees) water

2 cups gluten-free flour blend

1 cup potato starch

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon guar gum

1/4 cup nonfat dry milk powder or Better Than Milk soy powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon butter or buttery spread, at room temperature

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

1 egg white, beaten to a foam for egg wash

1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in warm water. Set aside to let the yeast foam for about 5 minutes.

2. Grease a French bread pan or line with parchment paper. If the pans are perforated, they must be lined with parchment paper or the dough will fall through the perforations.

3. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, combine the yeast mixture and the flour blend, potato starch, xanthan gum, guar gum, dry milk powder, salt, butter, 3 large egg whites and vinegar. Beat on low speed (using a regular beater, not the dough hook) until just blended. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat 1 minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. The dough will be soft.

4. Divide the dough evenly between the 2 indentations in the pan. Smooth each half into a 12-inch log with a wet spatula, making the ends blunt rather than tapered for more even baking. Brush with the egg wash and let rise at room temperature (75-85 degrees) until doubled in height.

5. Place a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Just before baking, make 3 diagonal slashes (1 / 8-inch deep) in each loaf, so steam can escape during baking. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, if desired.

6. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until nicely browned and an instant-read thermometer registers 200-205 degrees when inserted in the center of the loaf. Tent with aluminum foil after 20 minutes of baking to prevent overbrowning. Remove the bread from the pan; cool completely on a wire rack before slicing with a serrated knife. Makes 2 loaves.



Adapted from "Sweet Cravings" by Kyra Bussanich

The pastry cream can be made up to 5 days in advance: Simply keep in an airtight container or wrap well with plastic wrap directly on the cream to keep a skin from forming. Or you can use a gluten-free vanilla pudding mix instead of homemade pastry cream, cooked according to directions. The puffs can be baked up to a week ahead and frozen in an airtight container. Make sure you poke the hole in the bottom, sticking your pinkie in to clear the way for the filling, before you freeze them. Then, just reheat the puffs at 350 degrees for 6 to 10 minutes.

For the pastry cream

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar, divided

4 egg yolks

1/3 cup cornstarch

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or extract

For the puff dough

2 cups whole milk

2/3 cup canola oil

4 cups tapioca starch

6 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

For the chocolate glaze

1 1/2 cups best-quality dark chocolate

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup heavy cream

1. Make the pastry cream Line a baking pan with heatproof plastic wrap and set aside. Place the milk and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a saucepan and scald the milk (heat to the point where it is steaming and the edges look like it is about to boil but is not yet bubbling). Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornstarch and the remaining 1 / 4 cup of sugar until smooth. Once the milk is scalded, whisk the egg mixture vigorously while very slowly pouring in the milk in a steady stream. Then pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return to medium-high heat. Whisk constantly while heating to ensure that no lumps form. Bring to a boil and, whisking constantly, continue to let boil for 90 seconds. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and vanilla bean paste until well blended.

2. Pour the pastry cream into the plastic wrap-lined pan and cover the entire surface of the cream with additional plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Chill 30 to 60 minutes.

3. Make the puff dough Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set aside two mini muffin pans and leave them ungreased.

4. Pour the milk and oil into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, put the tapioca starch in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. When the milk mixture comes to a boil, turn the mixer on medium speed and slowly pour the milk into the tapioca. Turn to high and add the eggs, one at a time, and blend thoroughly, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix in the vanilla and salt.

5. Evenly fill 36 muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake until puffed and golden brown and hard to the touch, about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the plastic wrap from the pastry cream and place the cream in a bowl. Whisk to soften and smooth the texture. Spoon the cream into a pastry bag fitted with a No. 802 round piping tip. Then refrigerate. Once cool to the touch, pop the puffs out of the pan. (If you can't get the puffs to easily pop out, or if they begin deflating as they cool, put them back in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes so they finish baking and crisp up.) Take a pointed paring knife and carefully cut a small round hole in the bottom of each puff. To fill the cream puffs, insert the piping tip of the bag of pastry cream partway into the bottom of each puff and gently squeeze.

6. Make the chocolate glaze Melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in a microwave-safe bowl. If using the microwave, heat in 30-second intervals, stirring between each. Stir the butter and cream into the melted chocolate until well blended.

7. Dip the top of each cream puff in the chocolate glaze, turn right side up, and place directly on a serving platter. Makes 36 puffs.



Adapted from "Sweet Cravings" by Kyra Bussanich

You can prepare everything ahead of time. Refrigerate the apple filling and keep the topping frozen until ready to assemble and bake. Don't refrigerate the unbaked topping overnight, as the millet flour will interact with the butter and taste and smell cheesy when it's baked.

For the apples

6 large tart apples (Pippin or Granny Smith)

1/3 cup sugar or 1/4 cup maple


2 tablespoons tapioca starch

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Generous pinch salt

3 tablespoons cold butter

For the topping

1/2 cup sweet white rice flour

1/2 cup millet flour

1/2 cup tapioca starch

1 cup packed golden brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 cup butter, room temperature

3/4 cup gluten-free oats

1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Prepare the apples: Peel, core and slice the apples into 1 / 4-inch slices. Put the apple slices into a large bowl and sprinkle the sugar over the top. Add the tapioca starch, cinnamon, five-spice, ginger and salt, and toss together to evenly coat the apple slices. Pour into a 9- by 13-inch baking pan, dot the top with pieces of the butter and set aside.

3. Make the topping: Combine the flours, tapioca starch, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, five-spice and ginger in a mixing bowl. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, mix in the butter until it is uniformly incorporated into the flour mixture. Stir in the oats and pecans. Crumble the oat topping evenly over the apples. Bake until the topping is golden brown and set, and the apples are warm and bubbly, 55 to 60 minutes. Makes 8 servings.