Friday, December 2, 2011

Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free

Today marks Week Two of our gluten-free cookbook review blitz. (If you missed last week, check out our review of Laura B. Russell's fabulous The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen.) This week we focus on Amy Green's Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free. 

Amy is the founder of a popular blog of the same name. She's also the organizer of the upcoming Nourished conference, about food blogging and publishing, scheduled for April 2012 in Chicago (I'll be a panelist at the event). Nourished immediately precedes the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo (where Kelli and I will be teaching a Breads class).

A hallmark of Amy's recipes is that they are both gluten-free and refined-sugar-free. She uses some Stevia, but principally coconut palm sugar and agave nectar.

Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free is divided into major sections of recipes: starters and snacks; spreads and condiments; simple soups; salads; main dishes; side dishes; cookies and bars; cobblers, crisps and pies; cupcakes and cakes; fast frostings; mousses, puddings and custards; and frozen desserts. In other words, she offers up wide-ranging cuisine.

In general, her recipes have inspiring combinations of flavors. This is especially true of the naturally gluten-free entrees. Many recipes are also accompanied by handy "Quick Tips" that aid in the preparation of the dish.

One thing that became immediately apparent to us is that, by incorporating lots of fruits and vegetables (including into baked goods), and by using alternatives to refined sugar, Amy's is a very healthful way of cooking.

Admittedly, we did have difficulty finding some specialty ingredients at our local stores. After trips to five stores—3 major supermarkets and 2 natural foods stores—we still didn't find some things we needed, such as quinoa flakes that we wanted to use to make the book's apple spice muffins. Also, recipes are written in paragraph form, rather than as numbered instructions. We sometimes had to take a moment to re-find our place in a recipe. Other than the cover, the book contains no photos.

But on to the food...

First up we made the chocolate black bean brownies. Amy's book also contains a more conventional brownie recipe, but we were curious to try this unique alternative. The recipe contains no flour, and if you're coming in with "traditional brownie" expectations, prepare to be surprised! The consistency, texture, and flavor were all different. We thought of it more as a tasty chocolate bar than as a brownie. Banana, used in the recipe, comes through, as does a very mild sourness from yogurt. You'd never know there were black beans in it, however. The next morning, the first thing our girls asked for was more of these brownies. With how healthy they are (with bananas, beans, and just a bit of agave and stevia), we didn't hesitate to say "sure."

Next up we made the tomato, pesto, and fresh mozzarella socca pizza. The socca crust is made with garbanzo bean flour, whipped up as a liquid batter in a blender, and then poured into an oven-heated skillet. (Her recipe called for a cast iron skillet, which we don't have, so we used a heavy-duty Calphalon skillet of the same size.) Very unique. Amy describes it as a modified flatbread.

As a flatbread, it was very successful. As a pizza crust, for us it was less so. With the moisture from the fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, the crust became very soggy, to the point of almost falling apart on us. Par-baking the crust for longer, and using toppings with less water moisture, might help that.

We did absolutely love the flavor combo. In some regards, it was reminiscent of a margherita pizza, with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato, and basil. But instead of basil leaves, Amy makes brilliant use of basil pesto as a sauce for the pizza. Prosciutto, meanwhile, provides a pleasant light saltiness.

Then came blueberry yogurt crumb cake. The coconut palm sugar gave the crumb topping great flavor. (In fact, there's none left on our remaining cake because the girls ate all of the topping right off the top...) The cake was moist, and a little dense but not overly so. The taste of bean flour—part of Amy's Basic Flour Blend—came through strongly. As a matter of personal preference, we don't use much bean flours in our baking, but Amy notes that you can substitute brown rice flour for bean flour in her blend to change the flavor profile.

Finally, we made the carob chip cookies. It was pretty close to a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe, though a little thick. An initial batch remained more as slightly mounded cookies. For a second batch, we pressed the dough balls flatter, resulting in more traditional cookie shape. The cookies had less overt bean flavor than did the crumb cake, and have a cake-y cookie texture, as opposed to a chewy cookie texture.


In the interest of trying to quantify our subjective experience (as we did for The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen), we're using a five star ratings scale, with points earned as follows:

Layout and design = up to 1 star
Is the book appealing to the eye? Intuitive to navigate? Sensibly organized?

Photos = up to 1 star
Are there photos? Are they in color? How many photos are there? Are they good photos?

Recipe quality = up to 2 stars
Most importantly, how good is the food? Are recipes easy to follow? Do they deliver as promised?

Overall impression = up to 1 star
How well does the book achieve its vision?

And so, how does Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free rate?

Layout and Design: 1 star
Photos: 0 stars
Recipe Quality: 1 star
Overall Impression: 1 star
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you're looking for a cookbook that serves up recipes that are both gluten-free and refined-sugar-free, Amy delivers. She does so with many inspiring flavor combinations.

For this review, we specifically chose baking recipes from several sections of the book. We did have some challenges with the baking recipes—collecting required ingredients, executing steps, some unexpected flavors and textures. The addition of photos would be a great enhancement, and pump up the book's quantitative star rating...potentially to 4 out of 5 stars.

Meanwhile, we're very excited to try many of Amy's naturally gluten-free savory dishes, which have us drooling in anticipation.

- Pete


Anonymous said...

This was a very informative review. I'm glad that Amy provides alternative flours for her recipe's (at least the one you mentioned) because the bean flours don't appeal to me. I will purchase her book. Thanks for the review!!


peterbronski said...

Hi Sherri... So glad you appreciated the review! We always strive to be thorough, detailed, and specific in our reviews. Enjoy the book!

Cheers, Pete

Christie said...

Thanks for reviewing this book, it's one I've looked at a few times in the bookstore. The lack of photos has been a bit of a turn-off for me,I must admit, but I've been curious about the recipes.
So far your book "Arisinal Gluten-Free" is my favorite.

Christie said...

oops typo...sorry...Artisanal...:)

Amanda on Maui said...

I also have this cookbook and I've enjoyed some of the recipes from it. I wouldn't say I've used a lot of the savory recipes. I'm bummed that she only uses "lean" meats such as chicken and pork. These are two that I don't use much in my kitchen as happy chicken is too expensive, and my stomach doesn't handle pork. I wasn't expecting the book to focus on this "lean" aspect as much as it does. I just expected sugar substitutions.

I do like the socca pizza a lot. I've had many people agree that it is delicious. It's not a pick up pizza by any means, but very few gluten free pizzas I've had are of the hand held variety.

I've not tried the black bean brownies, but I've had great success with the chocolat teff cake. I really recommend you make it. It got rave reviews in one of my classes. I took it for our end of the semester party.

The carob chip cookies did have a bit of bean-y aftertaste, but they were good (I used chocolate chips).

Anonymous said...

Before I became gluten free and refined sugar free five years ago, I was a baking fool. In the 70's I not only made my own breads but ground fresh wheat flour. I made cakes and cookies for community events as well as serious sugarplums for familyand friends at Christmastime. The first four years of being GF and SF, I didn't bake anything. When I purchased Amy's book about a year ago, I started baking many goodies again, loving the Carob Chip cookes, as well as a few of the other cookie recipes in the book. A few weeks ago I baked the Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake and thought it was very yummy. I find the bean flours pretty delicious and friends who have tried these recipes enjoy them, too. I avoid the recipes that call for Stevia. I, too, enjoyed the pizza recipes even though the crust is less crisp and hearty. All the cupcake recipes I've tried are also yummy. I have to bake most of the recipes for much longer, maybe because I live at 3,550 feet in the Sierra. I'm glad to have Amy's book and now I can call myself a baker again.
-Nancy B.

peterbronski said...

Hi Christie... You're very welcome!

Hey Amanda... Thanks for sharing your perspective. I'll have to move the chocolate teff cake up the list to be made sooner!

Hi Nancy... Thanks for sharing your insights. I'm so glad Amy's book has been such a great resource for you! We're big fans of Amy - I consider her both a colleague and a friend. Do you have other favorite recipes from her book you recommend we try?


Anonymous said...

A few of the tastier savory recipes I've tried include Not Just Any Old Hummus and Deep Dish Lasagne, both fairly easy to make and liked by both GF and non-GF friends. Also made and enjoyed the Chicken Posole Stew and Broccoli and Raisin Salad.

I never made ice cream before but this past summer I made the vanilla and dark chocolate which made my eyeballs roll back in my head. I hadn't had ice cream for over four years, so I was amazed how creamy and delicious her ice cream recipes were.