Gluten-Free Apple Cake with All Spice Glaze: Posted by Popular Demand

After picking too many apples, I was getting tired of the standard crisps and applesauce, so I started exploring some of my old, pre-gluten-free cookbooks looking for alternatives.  For a long time I didn’t have the confidence to write my own baking recipes or convert old favorites into gluten-free alternatives, but there are ratios and patterns that make it easier to start re-inventing old favorites to fit a gluten-free diet.

One of my favorite wedding gifts was a cookbook from my grandmother.  Her copy of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook sits on my kitchen shelves just like it did on hers.  I always found the book intimidating because its recipes don’t lay everything out for you, such as cooking times or pan sizes or indications of when things are done (I think you were just expected to know that).
Fannie Farmer’s book was revolutionary when it was released because it treated cooking like a science and not an art.  She used measuring cups and leveled them off, bringing precision to baking and cooking.  She also explains a lot about nutrition in this book (I love that her recipes for buckwheat pancakes suggest adding corn because buckwheat makes you constipated).

As I started paging through the book, I was inspired by a “lightening cake” recipe that seemed to have a better balance of flour and other ingredients than many other recipes.  I used that recipe as a starting point for this one.

When I brought the test batches into my office or shared with friends, even the non-gluten-free people wanted a copy of this recipe.  For them, I would say, if you are going to use regular, gluten flour, omit the guar gum and use 3 cups of regular flour instead of the almond, millet, tapioca and rice flours I use below.

If you don’t like the all spice I used in the glaze, it is easily substituted for cinnamon.

Slice the apples to about 1/4 inch thick, they don’t have to be uniform by any means, but they should be thin slices that will layer well on top of the cake.

For the Cake:

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup almond flour

1/2 cup millet

1/2 cup sweet rice flour

1/2 cup tapioca starch

1 t salt

2 t guar gum

3 t baking powder

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature, just leave the butter on the counter overnight

3/4 cup milk

2 t vanilla extract

1 t lemon extract

1/2 cup brown sugar (optional, I recommend using the brown sugar if you don’t want to use the glaze)

3-4 medium apples

Icing the cake.

For the Glaze:  

4 oz of cream cheese

1 t lemon extract

1/4 t all spice

1 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Lightly oil a 9×9 inch square pan and line with parchment paper.  Let the parchment paper hang over the edges of the pan so you can easily lift the baked cake out of the pan.

2. Using a stand mixer on medium speed, beat the eggs.  Slowly stream in the sugar.

3.  Whisk together in a separate bowl: almond flour, millet, sweet rice flour, tapioca starch, salt, guar gum and baking powder.  Slowly add the dry ingredients to the mixer (reduce the speed so your flour doesn’t go flying all over the kitchen).

The finished batter. Notice how the batter isn’t streaming off the beater.

4. Add in the butter, milk and extracts.  Whisk on high speed two minutes more until the mixture has pulled together. The batter should not be too runny. If the batter thickens before the two minutes are up, don’t stop!  The mixer is aerating the batter, which makes a huge difference between a brick and a light fluffy cake.

I have layered the apples on top, you can make fun patterns with the apples, I just worked in rows and sprinkled with the brown sugar (optional).

5. Peel and thinly slice 3-4 medium apples.  Layer on top of cake.  Top with 1/2 cup brown sugar.

6. Bake for 60-70 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

7. After the cake cools completely, lift it out of the pan using the parchment paper.

8. Whisk together the glaze ingredients and spread over cake.

The finished product. It’s sweet, chewy and covered with a glaze that reminds me of something you would find on a cinnamon roll. I hope you like it!

Sweet Basil: Amazing Gluten-Free Friendly Italian

After hearing from someone that Sweet Basil makes its own gluten-free pasta in house, fresh from scratch, I knew I had to try it.

The sidewalk outside.

To get a better sense of the restaurant before heading over on a Friday night, I checked out the website and was surprised by a few things: they do not take reservations, it’s BYOB, dessert is not on the menu and they do not accept credit cards (they do take checks).  While the menu touted some interesting and diverse Italian dishes, it didn’t mention gluten-free pasta, so I wasn’t sure if this was something you had to call ahead for or not (turns out not).

On a Friday or Saturday night the wait can be about an hour and half.  If you do end up waiting around outside (there are chairs and plants, its like a patio), Chef Dave is a nice guy and wanders outside with some samples / bites.  If you don’t want to wait outside, downtown Needham has enough going on to while away the time getting a drink somewhere else or shopping.  When we arrived just before six, the restaurant was filling up quickly.

I asked about the lack of reservations and the owner, Dave explained that he wants to treat all guests the same and ensure the best and most timely service for all.  Not having reservations means he doesn’t have to hold tables for late / no shows.

The dining room.

Later in our meal, we noticed that a table of four had just left, but the party coming in was larger, like six or seven.  To seat them without delay, Dave and a bus boy put a cloth on the table and a large, round piece of plywood on top and covered it with a tablecloth in just a few minutes.  Voila, table for four became table for six.   The dining room just kind of adapts to whoever shows up.

That off the cuff relaxed style just pervades the whole restaurant.  The space is simple and homey.  The decor is simple and plain with artist prints on the walls.  Even the plates and bowls are unique.  Dave makes most of them himself, so some are a little uneven and not all of them match, but it is unexpected and kind of fun to see the plate arrive and not just wonder what is on it, but what the plate itself looks like.

The kitchen is somewhat open to the dining space, so you can catch glimpses of the activity.  The atmosphere was very lively and bustling.

As we perused the menu, the bus boy brought over bread with fresh homemade pesto for Husband and fresh veggies for me.  I liked the fresh veggies: it’s easier and cheaper than stocking gluten-free bread and it is so much healthier.  I wish more places had this option.

The kitchen hard at work.

As we looked at the menu and tried to decide what to eat, I did ask why Sweet Basil is BYOB.  Dave said it was just fun to see what people bring in.  In a given night, someone might bring a super fancy bottle of wine and someone else might bring a few cans of Schlitz.

Before we ordered, I asked about the gluten-free pasta and how Sweet Basil avoids cross contamination.

Sweet Basil decided about three years ago to start making its own pasta in house.  While they were experimenting with the pasta maker, Dave decided to challenge his pasta making skills by trying to do something gluten-free.  He finally developed gluten-free pasta using chickpea flour.

To avoid cross-contamination, the staff is trained to steam clean the pasta-maker prior to making the gluten-free pasta.  Gluten-free pasta is cooked in separate pot from the regular pasta.

When I asked about other gluten-free options, the staff was able to give details on which items were gluten-free and which items could be made gluten-free (turns out almost everything because it is all made fresh).  At least 60% of the menu was gluten-free friendly.

The feta on this salad was the star of the dish.

We started with a simple Greek salad and a beet risotto.  The salad was lightly dressed.  I liked the ratio of lettuce to other veggies and the healthy dollop of feta on top.  The beet risotto was awesome.  Husband is not a huge fan of beets, but he could not stop eating it.  The beets were well-cooked, they weren’t tough or slimy.  The risotto was perfectly cooked.  The dish was really garlicky, but we are both garlic fans, so we liked that.  There was a nice balance of fresh herbs and Parmesan.

Beet risotto. I wasn’t expecting tomatoes in this, but it really worked.

For entrees, we got the gluten-free pasta with Bolognese sauce and the lamb shank with polenta.  The portions are big, not quite Cheesecake Factory, but certainly far from dainty.

Generally, I avoid lamb at pretty much all costs.  I find it stringy and tough.  This lamb was a revelation.  I was surprised by how much I liked the dish.  It was served on the bone and was juicy and tender.  The polenta was not the standard reconstituted polenta grits.  This polenta was made that day from fresh corn and cream.  The pasta sauce was really rustic, with fresh chunks of carrot, eggplant and other veggies.  There was a nice balance between the creaminess of the polenta, the earthiness of the lamb and the fresh vegetables.  It was probably one the best dishes I have had in a long time.

It looks a little cave man…but very tasty.

The gluten-free pasta with Bolognese sauce was also really great.

The Bolognese was not like the spaghetti Bolognese I was raised on.  My frame of reference has been ground beef floating around in tomato sauce (think sloppy joe without the peppers).  I googled what Bolognese really is and Sweet Basil’s recipe certainly seems within the bounds of Bolognese, it’s just a different variation.  The Sweet Basil version was tomato sauce with chunks of fresh tomato, mushroom, beef and sausage.  There was some milk in the sauce, but it wasn’t creamy.  It was a little spicy.

The gluten-free pasta. Totally worth the trip.

The shape of the pasta was definitely not slick and uniform.  It was like two strips of spaghetti tied together and cut down.  Gluten-free pasta dough is like other gluten-free dough: super sticky and not as pliable as its glutenous counterpart.  Don’t go expecting gluten-free spaghetti that twirls around your fork.  However, the taste and texture of this pasta works.  It’s rich and kind of buttery.  It totally reminded me of egg noodles.

We didn’t feel rushed out the door despite the diners waiting outside. The bill was very reasonable.  If we had brought some wine, there would have been a five-dollar corking fee.

Overall it was a fantastic experience.  We will definitely be going back.  This is one of the best restaurants in the area, period.  The best part is that people with gluten allergies can go and enjoy safely.

I give Sweet Basil 5 out of 5 for gluten-free friendliness and quality / taste of food.

Back Deck: Another Sign of Revival in Downtown Crossing

For years, Downtown Crossing has been known as that dead zone in the middle of Boston with tons of potential.  About two years ago, I saw a shoplifter I can only describe as Ron Jeremy’s doppleganger run out Tello’s with a bag full of hideous shirts.  I felt really bad for the guy that had to chase after him.  Those were some hideous shirts, not worth either of those men’s dignity.  And that vignette pretty much summed up how I felt about Downtown Crossing.

Luckily, over the past few years, theaters, hotels and restaurants have cropped up and revitalized the area, though the shopping still leaves something to be desired.  Tello’s is still there, just to give a frame of reference.

There is now a good mix of bars, cafes and higher end restaurants.  I have been to a few and found them either too focused on gimmick and not enough on food or just a little pricier than after work dinner and drinks generally warrants.  Back Deck seems to have filled the space in between.  Chef Paul Sussman has a great restaurant track record, having worked at venues like Fireplace in Brookline and Z Square in Cambridge.  Recently, I was invited to go to lunch there to check it out.

When I first walked around to the front door from Washington Street, I noticed the huge windows wrapping around two sides of the restaurant.  Apparently, those windows can slide out in good weather and allow for more interactive people watching.

The inside of the restaurant is just as interesting with casual and overt references to its namesake: a back deck.  The furniture is comfortable wooden outdoor furniture.  There are railings throughout that reminded me of the railings from my parent’s first house.  Some of the walls have maroon subway tiles that are a clean update on exposed brick, or maybe in this case, a cute allusion to a chimney.

The music is good and reminds me what I would expect to hear coming from a friend’s iPod. The décor verges on gimmicky without being irritating or distracting.

When our waitress came by, I asked about gluten-free options.  She mentioned that many of their items could be made gluten-free.  She also mentioned that the kitchen has a separate gluten-free grill. Having a separate grill is huge in my book.  A separate grill can help to cut down significantly on cross-contamination.  Our waitress seemed overall, knowledgeable about gluten-free options, and was able to point out several items that could be made gluten-free.

I ordered a Mexicali burger and was pleased to be able to choose between various sides: cole slaw, potato salad or fries.  Don’t get me wrong, I love fries and potatoes, but sometimes it is nice to be able to have something a little lighter than fries.  I went with the coleslaw.

After the waitress took our order, the chef, Paul Sussman came by to say hi.  He was a really nice guy.  He asked me if I wanted to try one of his newest item additions: gluten-free buns from the Curtis Street Bakery in Somerville.

Chef Sussman’s interest in gluten-free options stems from a desire to help all guests enjoy his restaurant and dining out.  On a personal note, one of his family members has Celiac disease.

The service was good and our lunch arrived fairly quickly.  My friend had the gobbler, which was an open-faced Thanksgiving sandwich: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy.

The Mexicali burger with chipotle mayo and cole slaw.

The Mexicali burger was cooked a little more than I asked for, but was not over done.  There was a good balance of lettuce, onion, tomato and avocado.  On top of the burger was a nice, medium heat green chili salsa.  I especially liked the Chipotle mayo that came on the side so you could decide to lather it on or just use a little.

The bun was really soft and tasty.  Of course, as with all gluten-free buns, it was flakey and broke up more easily than a regular gluten-bread.  Don’t get me wrong, the bun did its job and held up better than some other gluten-free buns I have come across, but gluten-free bread does break apart more easily.  I am not sure any chef has yet come across a way to completely eliminate this.

The coleslaw was great.  Instead of the normal, super creamy coleslaw, this coleslaw was a nice blend of cabbage, onion, celery, apple and light vinaigrette.  It was crunchy and fresh tasting.  It really lightened the dish and kept my burger lunch from weighing me down for the rest of the day.

I was intrigued by my first visit to Back Deck and am looking forward to going back to try more.

I give this restaurant overall four stars. The food is fresh and well-balanced.

I give this restaurant five stars for its gluten-free grill and bread.