After being seduced by truffles in Paris in the mid-1970s, Alice Medrich opened her own chocolate dessert shop, Cocolat, in Berkeley. Since selling that business, she has written many bestselling books. Her most recent one, Flavor Flours (Artisan Books, Nov. 2014), won the James Beard Foundation Award for best book of the year in the baking and dessert category. The book is the result of her interest in baking with a wide variety of whole and ancient grains, nuts, and other non-wheat flours. Berkeleyside Nosh had the chance to speak with Medrich just before her appearance at the Uncharted Ideas Festival on Saturday, Oct. 17.
Are your recipes simple to follow using these other types of flours?
Many of them are very simple. Most of them are very simple and some are indeed simpler to mix up than a traditional recipe with wheat flour.
So you don’t have to let things get to room temperature?
Often you don’t have to worry about the temperatures of the ingredients. And of course you don’t have to worry about accidentally developing too much gluten and coming up with a tough cookie. The instructions in that book are pretty detailed. And if you just follow them, you’re going to get a nice result. Not too much rocket science there! The rocket science went into figuring it all out on our side.
What can we expect to learn during your presentation at Uncharted on Saturday?
What I want to do in this program is hope that all kinds of people interested in food will come, including, but not exclusively, people who are gluten intolerant. Because I really meant this to be an exploration of ingredients treated in a way they haven’t been. It’s meant to be for anyone who’s curious about eating and cooking. I approached the whole project with the idea that it can be sometimes so productive to reject received wisdom and assumptions. So I tried to turn the usual gluten-free baking strategy on its head and look at it differently and take a totally different approach to the ingredients we’re going to use. And I want to show that at the event.
So, let’s pretend wheat never existed and see what else can we do with these other interesting flours?
I wanted to treat the other flours, these so-called alternative flours — I’m not even sure I like that phrase — because it assumes that flour means wheat, and flour doesn’t necessarily mean wheat. It can be any grain or any substance ground into a powder. I wanted to treat these as hero ingredients and follow the flavor and texture that they bring, instead of trying to make these flours behave as though they’re wheat, or instead of pretending they’re wheat. Just follow them where they wanted to go. One of the things that has become the wisdom of gluten free baking is that you have to use a blend, and that is really not true. I started out saying, I bet that’s not true, let’s prove that’s not true. We will be tasting four or five different cakes, each of which is made, predominately, if not completely, with one of these really beautiful flours so people can taste and see the lovely colors.
Was there one particular “aha” moment during your experimental stages?
The whole project was filled with them! I worked with a co-author, we were working parallel, sometime on different aspect of the same flour, sometimes on the same things, so we were in communication regularly, but we were approaching certain things in some different ways. My first round of experimentation was, OK, we’ve picked these flours because they’re flavorful. Now let’s see what they will do. My way of doing that was to take a really, really simple cake — which was a genoise, or a sponge cake, and make that cake with each of the flours in turn. . . to see if a stabilizer, like xantham gum would need to be used. So I learned right off that bat that the sponge structure with the eggs was enough structure without the xantham gum, which is often used in gluten-free baking. That was the first bit of received wisdom that was really fun to reject. Some of these little sponge cakes . . . were so flavorful themselves that you didn’t want to cover them up. It was really hard to pick the accompanying frostings and fillings and so forth. That was a big aha that pushed the project forward. That first round of sponge cakes was such an eye-opener and so exciting. Everything we taste on Saturday will be some of these little sponge cakes.
The tone of the book is very conversational and accessible. Did you have a particular reader in mind?
That’s interesting! A reviewer once described my tone as very directive — do this, do that! I feel that I’m writing to a home baker. I have a sense about what kind of encouragement is needed, what kind of explanation is needed. I feel that I’m always improving on that — writing a recipe for a stranger. I also know that professional pastry chefs will have this book on their shelves because this work hasn’t been done before. It is meant for the home cook, and I know that’s where it’s going to find a home.
You say soufflés are easier to make than anyone thinks. Any other myth busting in the book?
Oh, the book is full of myth busting! Well, soufflés are easier than anyone thinks! And the whole thing about how you have to use xantham gum in gluten free baking — you do not! There are many ways to get around that!
Let’s talk about the necessity of weighing flour versus measuring. You always recommend weighing, right?
I really agree strongly with that. Baking is challenging for people… If you want to have better results with less pain, in baking, the weight is the thing. . . people are often scared of a scale. It takes five minutes to learn how to use a scale. I just want to take people by the shoulders and say “do it!”
For me, this opens up a whole new world of non-wheat flour options in baking. The taste associations you mention are tantalizing.
There are a lot of things in the book that are beyond imagination. They didn’t exist before. These are brand new things, not foods of memory. It’s expanding the repertory of desserts!
Alice Medrich’s popup “Flour Power” session takes place at the Last Call bar at the Berkeley Rep on Sat. Oct. 17 at the Uncharted Festival of Ideas. Visit the BerkeleyIdeas.com for full details and to secure your one- or two-day tickets. (Apply for special discounted student tickets here.)