It all started so casually with a simple question: “Ever had hummingbird cake?” An image of four and twenty blackbirds in a pie immediately started to swirl through my mind. But I knew that wasn’t the correct answer.
No, I’d never even heard of it.
Kathleen Cwirko, the talented stylist who helped to orchestrate the photo shoots for my upcoming cookbook gave me a quick smile and wrote down the name of the cake on a little piece of lilac paper. She handed it to me and I tucked it away and promised to look it up when I wasn’t in the middle of finishing a cookbook.
Finally, after much too long a time, I started to research the cake: I discovered that many people consider it the southern equivalent to carrot cake; I found that it harkened back to the mid-1800’s here in this United States, and that the recipe had evolved over time; I read about the folk legend that says it’s so good, people will hum with happiness after they take a bit.
Southern Living ran a version of hummingbird cake originally submitted by Mrs. L. H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1978, and it went on to became the most requested recipe in the magazine’s history. And in 1990, that same recipe was heralded as their recipe of the year.
Some of you in-the know-southerners might be licking your lips right now. But if you grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, like me, you may not have been introduced to the magic of hummingbird cake. So let me fill you in. That original Southern Living recipe made a rich, three layer cake that featured pecans, ripe bananas, crushed pineapple and ground cinnamon. It’s really like a pecan spice cake laced with banana and a touch of pineapple. The cake is frosted with a sweet, cream cheese frosting, and then chopped pecans are sprinkled over the top. Hmmmmmmm.
Southern Living knew they had a good thing, and they ran several variations over the years that included a “mile high” version, a “lightened” version, and a Bundt cake version with a cream cheese glaze. The Bundt cake looked mighty good, so I decided to give it try.
I started with the wheat-based Southern Living recipe and tweaked it a bit to create my gluten-free version. Their recipe made a large cake that called for using a 14-cup Bundt pan. But I cut it in half and was able to use a smaller, 10-cup Bundt pan. I adjusted the ingredients, added a little bit of xanthan gum and into the oven it went. What a delicious cake!
See the original Southern Living Hummingbird Bundt Cake here.
I served it to my family and several unsuspecting dinner guests (all northerners) at a dinner party over the summer. My guests were admittedly a bit suspicious, and maybe even a tad bit hesitant about trying such an unknown “delicacy,” but they all succumbed once I told them about the legend. I cut slices and passed them around. Soon my table was filled with melodic humming and requests for seconds. Success? Well maybe. I knew it was delicious, but was it the real thing?
I made it again and brought a big piece of my gluten-free hummingbird cake over to Kathleen to make sure. I nervously watched her take the first bite as I contemplated exactly how many very ripe bananas I had left on the counter at home, in case I had to go back to the drawing board. She gave me one of her big smiles and said, “This is it! This is my grandmother’s cake!”
Want a little music at your next dinner party or brunch? Make this cake and let the humming begin!
And thank you Kathleen Cwirko for introducing me to the magic of hummingbird cake!
Makes one 9-inch cake
1 cup pecans
1 1/2 cups Brown Rice Flour Mix
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup finely chopped or mashed, very ripe bananas, at room temperature (about 2 medium bananas)
1/4 cup well-drained, crushed pineapple (from an 8-oz. can, save the juice)
3 tablespoons pineapple juice
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup canola oil Cream Cheese Glaze (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Position rack in center of oven. Bake pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet for about 6-8 minutes, until lightly toasted and fragrant; stir once or twice, as needed. Cool pecans and then coarsely chop.
2. Lightly grease a 10-cup Bundt pan (9 inches across the top x 2 1/2-inches) with cooking spray.
3. Whisk flour, 1/2 cup of the chopped pecans, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
4. Beat eggs in large bowl of electric mixer until lemon colored. Add granulated sugar; beat until smooth and thick. Add bananas, pineapple, pineapple juice, and vanilla and mix until well combined (you can leave tiny pieces of banana in the batter). Scrape bowl. Add flour mixture and oil and beat at medium-low speed for about 30 seconds; scrape bowl to incorporate all of the flour mix. Do not overbeat.
5. Spread batter into prepared pan. Place in center of oven and bake about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of cake comes out clean. Do not open oven for first 40 minutes.
6. Cool cake on a rack for 8 minutes. Carefully remove cake from pan and cool completely on rack. Move to cake plate and spoon Cream Cheese Glaze (recipe below) over top of cake and let it drip down the sides. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup chopped pecans.
Serve at room temperature. Cut with a sawing motion with a serrated knife. Can be made a day ahead. Store cake in refrigerator, covered tightly with plastic wrap. Can be covered with plastic wrap and then with foil and stored in freezer for up to two weeks. Best when eaten within three days of baking.
2 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy
1. Beat cream cheese in large bowl of electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla and milk, then gradually add powdered sugar and beat until light and creamy. Add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to thin as needed.
©2014 by Annalise Roberts
If my email box is any indictor, some of you have been wondering if psyllium husk REALLY is the next best thing since sliced gluten-free bread. This bulk laxative, fiber supplement, and colon cleanser is produced from the seed of the Plantago plant (a plant that has a long history of medicinal use here on earth).
I wondered about it, too, especially since several cookbook writers and many bloggers started using it a couple of years ago to replace xanthan gum across a wide range of recipes. I tried it back then in my favorite vanilla cupcake test and didn’t really like it. The cupcakes came out an off-color, denser, gummier, and they had a taste that wasn’t like a normal vanilla cupcake; i.e. if you didn’t already know by the color and density, then the off-taste gave it away as a gluten-free cupcake. (I had used this same test as when I wrote The Big Gluten-Free Flour Test: Thomas Keller’s Cup4Cup versus Authentic Foods GF Classic Blend.)
But just recently, a new gluten-free cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen claiming “revolutionary techniques” and “groundbreaking recipes” said psyllium husks powder was far better than xanthan gum in gluten-free bread. In fact, the cookbook said it “resulted in a more delicate crumb” and “provided a stronger protein network that trapped gas and steam” in their bread recipes. Sounded like I needed to do a little more testing! Trouble was, I didn’t want to make their bread. It had mostly white rice and starch in it (34 ounces out of a total 42.25 ounces, or 80%), with only a little brown rice flour thrown in almost as an after thought (to reduce the “starchiness” of all the starch they added, and to “add flavor notes” to all the flavorless starches they used). I stopped using rice flour in bread back in 2003 and even though I test flour mixes that contain it every now and then, I’ve never returned to it. I not only like the taste and texture of bread made with my millet and sorghum bread flour mix, but I think we need gluten-free flour diversity in our diet. Even though I don’t eat a lot of baked goods, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use rice flour in every baked good we do make (wasn’t that part of the problem with wheat- that it was everywhere?).
First consideration: I needed to create a test that made sense for my recipes and my bread flour mix which contains millet, sorghum, potato starch, tapioca starch and corn starch. Would psyllium husks powder work with flour blends and recipes that weren’t in the new “groundbreaking” cookbook? Yes, according to the blogosphere where there are hundreds (if not thousands) of permutations of various gluten-free recipes using psyllium husk in place of xanthan gum.
Second consideration: I needed a bread recipe so simple and basic that the nuances of the effect of the psyllium husks powder would be obvious to me. The bread recipe would have to have very few ingredients, so I could see what happened when I took out the xanthan gum and replaced it psyllium husk. Otherwise, why bother adding another new expensive ingredient I didn’t need? I already had a recipe that worked well.
And to those of you who really hate the idea of xanthan gum because it comes the secretions of the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria after a glucose induced fermentation frenzy, well I can’t talk you out of it. But I’m personally ok with helpful bacteria and the science behind how xanthan gum is produced from corn or wheat or cabbage glucose (glucose is sugar- not protein). Anyway, according to microbiologists the world over, especially those who are working at the American Gut project, we are all filled with lots of helpful bacteria – and their excrement. I’m thinking a little more bacterial excrement now and then isn’t going tip the balance in my body.
And to those of you think psyllium husk is healthier than xanthan gum because it gives you added fiber, my thought is this: ideally, we should be getting our soluble and insoluble fiber from natural, whole plant sources because in addition to feeding the healthy flora in our guts, real whole foods offer nutrition to our bodies (plant sources including cruciferous vegetables, leafy green vegetables, squash, sweet potatoes, nuts, seeds, and fruit, especially pears, apples, and berries). 100% pure Psyllium husk is simply empty calories.
And to those of you who are really just looking to be more “regular”, I’ve heard rumors that butternut squash is the “white knight of poop”. Just saying.
The Submarine Sandwich Bread – Psyllium Husks Powder Test
I choose my very basic and easy to make Submarine Sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Baking Classics. It’s so easy that I use it in “introduction” classes to gluten-free baking. The bread contains only 1 1/2 cups of my bread flour mix, 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum, active dry yeast, water, and a tiny bit of salt, sugar, and olive oil. No eggs. No milk. No other funky gluten-free add-ins – other than the xanthan gum. The recipe reads like a wheat submarine sandwich bread recipe, except for the flour and the xanthan gum, and it makes a good tasting, golden brown loaf with a nice soft, airy crumb structure.
I also choose this particular recipe because it has a nice slow rise; i.e. it isn’t fast rising like a pizza crust or bread sticks. I wanted to take psyllium husk out for a proper test run.
I did a lot looking into just how much psylliun husk to use and I can only say that there doesn’t seem to be any set rule for home bakers. Every cookbook writer or blogger seems to have their own notion about just how much to use. And that notion seems to depend on the flour mix, or lack there of, and the baked good they’re trying to make. The first non-industrial baking recipes to use psyllium husk for came out in cookbooks and on websites for individuals with diabetes and people who were trying to keep their glycemic levels low by adding fiber to their diet. Since then, writers recommend using anywhere from a tiny bit to 5 or 6 tablespoons per loaf.
Even London based food writer, Dan Lepard, who seems to be one of the first food writers to popularize the notion of adding psyllium husk to gluten-free baked goods, did so to add fiber (in May, 2009). Scroll down to the question “What about fiber?”
Of course, he also said it gave his mostly cornstarch bread (“cornflour” in England) a crumb and crust “more like wheat bread”. But he used it with xanthan gum in that first published bread recipe (link above). And he uses a little more than 2 tablespoons of it (25 grams). That’s a lot of colon cleanser.
In a later recipe without xanthan gum, Lepard used 50 grams (there are about 10 grams per tablespoon) and dairy, and another 25 to 50 grams of flax seed in his all cornstarch bread. Then, some time after Dan Lepard’s column ran in The Guardian, psyllium husk went from being used as a fiber add-in to a texture enhancer to a stand-alone replacement for xanthan gum for home bakers.
In reality, psyllium husk was being studied as a possible substitute for gluten in industrially produced gluten-free breads as far back as the early 1990s (when Bette Hagman introduced the first gluten-free” flour mix”, xanthan gum, and the use of extra eggs, egg whites, and powdered milk to gluten-free home bakers). But again, depending on the proportions, the flours and the other ingredients used (which often included dairy, eggs, bread enzymes, or other highly processed ingredients) the industrial testing results varied widely.
I decided to test three combinations: 1 level tablespoon psyllium husks powder, 2 level tablespoons psyllium husks powder and 1 level teaspoon psyllium husks powder against 1 level teaspoon xanthan gum in my submarine sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Baking Classics.
I shaped the bread a little longer and thinner than a regular submarine sandwich bread and baked it in a 2 1/2-inch wide French bread pan. I used Yerba Primi Psyllium Husks Powder that I purchased at a Whole Foods for $9.49 for a 12 ounce jar (a jar that wouldn’t last too long if I were using the same amounts that Dan Lepard and many others use in their breads).
The Test: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Gluten-free submarine sandwich bread – surface texture
Top made with 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
Bottom made with 1 tablespoon psyllium husks powder
Gluten-free submarine sandwich bread side by side slice
Left made with 1 tablespoon psyllium husk powder
Right made with 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
How did the bread made with 2 tablespoons of psyllium husk powder turn out? When it came out of the oven it was really tight and small. Interestingly, so was the bread made with only 1 teaspoon. So how do I explain it all?
The final loaf volume of gluten-free loaves depends on the stability of the gel formed by the hydrocolloids added to the dough. Xanthan gum is a thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier and foaming agent. It provides structure and is stable over a broad range of temperatures. Pyllium husk, however, forms a gel that is stable only up to temperatures of about 176ºF (80ºC) (1), depending on the amount used in the recipe.
So while psyllium husk is very useful for holding in the carbon dioxide based gas bubbles during proofing, once you put the bread into a hot oven and it starts to bake and the internal temperature rises, the loaf will ultimately collapse – IF you are depending only on psyllium husk to give structure to the bread.
Many of the cookbook writers or bloggers who feel they are successfully creating baked goods using psyllium husk to replace xanthan gum create recipes that contain eggs. For example, all the recipes in the ATK’s new “groundbreaking” cookbook use 2 large eggs and 3 tablespoons of psyllium husk powder to make a bread that is 80% starch and contains a little more than 3 cups of flour.
What is happening in their recipes is this: at the point where the psyllium husk starts to fail as a gel, if the bread contains tapioca starch or even potato starch (which many do), the tapioca starch can act like a bridge until the egg proteins take over to help hold the bread up. The tapioca is able to act like a bridge because it gelatinizes at a higher temperature than psylium husk (or potato starch, for that matter). Then, the proteins in the egg provide some of the structure necessary to hold the bread up. But if you’ve ever made a bread that uses just eggs, and no xantham gum, for extra added support, you already know that the xantham gum does a better job.
Writers whose recipes don’t contain eggs, often contain other seeds, sometimes in large quantities. And some cookbook writers and bloggers create recipes that really just rely on a combination of heavier whole grain or non-grain flours that would produce a pretty solid bread (read: dense) with or without psyllium husk.
The recipes that depend on other seed gels (like flax seed gel) instead of eggs to help the psyllium husks powder provide structure have a similar problem. Although I sometimes use flax seed gel as an egg replacer when I bake for people who have egg allergies, it really is better suited to helping hold things together (as an emulsifier). Flax gels are weak structure builders because they don’t have the relatively strong protein network of eggs to reinforce dough and batters. As a result, fully baked cakes, muffins and breads won’t be as light and airy when using flax seed gels to replace eggs. (Flax seed gel also won’t act as a foaming agent, which you would need to make an angle food cake).
Xanthan gum makes a prettier, better textured, better tasting, lighter and more airy bread than psyllium husk in my simple submarine bread recipe. Perhaps if I had to add eggs or egg whites to it in order to create a decent loaf, the test outcome would be different. But I don’t. The recipe doesn’t contain seed gels, or any other out-of- the-ordinary gluten-free add-ins. In fact, none of my artisan breads contain do: not my Focaccia, French-Italian bread, pizza crust, multigrain artisan bread, or any of the rest. My thinking when I developed these recipes was this: wheat pizza crusts and wheat baguettes don’t contain eggs or gels; I wanted to maintain the integrity of original recipes to the best of my abilities. I won’t be adding eggs or seed gels to any of my artisan breads, so it looks like I’ll be sticking with xanthan gum- at least for now.
The bottom line is this: it is possible to use psyllium husk to replace xanthan gum in gluten-free breads. You just have understand that your end product will look and taste even more like a gluten-free bread.
(1) Haque, A., Richardson, R. K., Morris, E. R., & Dea, I. C. M. (1993). Xanthan-like weak gel rheology from dispersions of ispaghula seed husk. Carbohydrate Polymers, 22(4), 223-232.
The days have been long and cold and filled with snow and ice here in the northeast. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to cook low-simmering stews and fragrant soup and fill the house with the scent of delicious food. So early this morning, with another storm heading my way, I hauled out a much-used soup pot, a couple bags of split peas, and a frozen ham bone leftover from the holidays and set to work. I now have a huge cauldron of bay leaf scented pea soup for dinner tonight – and several dinners after that, if we lose power.
And you know what? Even though I swore off baked goods until I lost all my “Christmas pounds”, today I’m throwing caution to the wind: it’s an I-really-want-some-fresh-bread for dinner kind of day. Thank goodness there isn’t a rule about the best kind of bread to eat with pea soup because I’m hungry for walnut bread.
The dough took a long time to rise in my very cold kitchen even though I put it in a warm oven (I preheated the oven to 100ºF, the lowest setting, then it turned off and aired it out for a few seconds to bring the temperature down to about 80ºF). I made a long cut across the top of the dough with a very pointy knife just before I baked it. But you can see the in picture below how it didn’t open evenly.
The side that is wider was on the hotter side of my oven. Even when I try to stick the whole pan there so it’ll bake evenly, it doesn’t work. As some of you may remember in my Babka escapades, the hot spot of an oven can really affect the final look of your bread. You might also notice that my walnut bread isn’t quite as high and round as the Babka; the finely ground walnuts I added to the walnut bread dough make the finished loaf a little heartier – and a little less high.
But I have to say, even if it is a little crooked, like it smells incredible when it’s baking in the oven and it looks beautiful when it’s comes out..
My recipe makes a large bread that you can bake in a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. It has a rich flavor and a complex, hearty texture from the finely ground nuts that enrich the dough. It’s perfect toasted for breakfast and topped with fruit preserves and nut butters, or served along side cheese or soup, and it makes a great sandwich with leftover roast chicken. Of course, tonight I’ll be enjoying it for dinner with my pea soup, but I know the left overs won’t be around for long.
Allow the bread to rise slowly. Don’t put it in a place that is too warm; the ideal temperature is about 80ºF. A fast rise will contribute to an unstable bread that is likely to fall. The xanthan gum needs time to “set” in gluten-free breads. Also, try not to let the bread rise above the pan before you bake it, because this will also contribute to instability. It should be no more than 1 inch below the top of the pan. You can use non-diary milk substitutes. If you don’t want to use the gelatin, add extra egg yolk or leave out entirely.
Makes one 9 x 5 inch loaf
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons skim or 1 or 2% milk (or milk substitute) (110º F)
1/4 cup Canola oil
2 large eggs (room temperature
2 2/3 cups Bread Flour Mix*
1/3 cup finely ground walnut
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons xanthan gum
1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1- 1/4 oz. packet active dry yeast granules (not quick rise)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
Cook’s Notes: Dry ingredients can be mixed ahead and stored in plastic containers for future use. Do not add yeast until just ready to bake bread.* Find my Bread Flour Mix in the Guide to Flour Mix section of this blog.
©2013 by Annalise Roberts
Sub-title: A lesson about xanthan gum in gluten-free baking.
I ‘ve had many requests for a gluten-free pumpkin roll recipe over the years. People typically ask me to help them convert a treasured family recipe for it right around mid-October. I didn’t catch on at first because the requests trickled in a little at a time, but after about six years, I finally noticed a distinct pattern – almost every recipe was the same. The quantity and combination of spices in the cake changed slightly, as did the amount of butter and vanilla in the cream cheese filling , but it was pretty clear that I was helping to convert a basic recipe that had been tweaked by friends and family.
After testing three of the most commonly submitted spice combinations, I choose a pretty classic blend of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg; it was universally liked by my tasters. The second place combination was 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1 teaspoon allspice (a cinnamon and clove rendition was nice, but not as popular as the more classic blend).
The hardest part was the xanthan gum; but the lesson clearly illustrates the magic it plays in gluten-free baking and how little is needed to make a difference. I started with 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum, which gave me a tender, delicate crumb, but a surface appearance that was a little unruly (a bit “open-crumbed”). As is my obsessive way, I increased the amount of xanthan gum to 1/2 teaspoon and tried it again. The cake had a smoother surface appearance, but the texture was tighter, more “sponge-like” and bit chewy. The xanthan gum had done its job – a bit too much. And just 1/4 teaspoon had made a huge (to me) difference. (Imagine the large amounts of xanthan gum people innocently and unnecessarily add to their baked goods when they use flour mixes that contain it?) I decided to go with taste and texture and stayed with 1/4 teaspoon. Luckily, I found that after a good long chill in the refrigerator, the cake looked prettier and was easy to slice.
I went middle-of-the-road for the Cream Cheese Filling. Submitted versions varied from 2 tablespoons to 6 tablespoons of butter and no vanilla extract to 2 teaspoons. My recipe has 4 tablespoons butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla. It tastes delicious. Some versions contained chopped nuts, others had pieces of toffee or candied ginger. My recipe specifies chopped nuts as an option, but you can add whatever you think will make those around your table happiest.
So maybe you were thinking about making a pumpkin roll for the holidays? And even if you weren’t, now you can. It’s really easy to make, it looks impressive and it’s tastes really good.
Serves 6 to 8
3/4 cup Brown Rice Flour Mix*
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Cream Cheese Filling (recipe follows)
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Serve chilled or at room temperature (I like it better not too “chilled” because the filling is softer that way). Can be made a day ahead. Store in refrigerator for up to four days.
CREAM CHEESE FILLING
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
* Find my Brown Rice Flour Mix in the Guide to Flour Mix section of this blog.