Yossy Arefi's Simple Sesame Cake

Gluten-Free Simple Sesame Cake

I've been baking my way through Yossy Arefi's Snacking Cakes, a cookbook which came out last year. It's an excellent book, the kind that should just take up residence on your kitchen counter because it'll get used so much. The cakes are modest, one-bowl, one-pan affairs, but they're drop-dead delicious. Buckwheat Banana Cake. Pumpkin Olive Oil Cake. Buttermilk Spice Cake. Seeded Zucchini Cake. Minty Chocolate Malt Cake. You'll want to make every single one.

To qualify as a snacking cake, I believe it must be easy to make, with ingredients you mostly already have in your pantry, and requiring only one bowl. Maybe two. You want the making of the cake to soothe you as much as the eating of the cake. Nothing to mess up. No fussy preparation. Just the best kind of mindless baking where you're guaranteed something delicious in an hour or two.

I love this book's extremely narrow focus paired with its impressive breadth of offerings. There's a cake for every mood, every season, every occasion. (I was going to say short of a wedding, but the truth is I would happily eat one of these as a wedding cake, especially if it was a chic City Hall wedding or a crazy Vegas one. Case in point: Grapefruit White Chocolate Cake? Strawberry-Glazed Passion Fruit Cake? Sticky Whiskey Date Cake? I mean.)

Seeing as very few of us have "occasions" to bake for at the moment, I would like to underline the fact that I believe that it is very, very important to have cakes like this in your house at all times right now. They are for breakfast, they are for tea, they stand in for breakfast or as a special dessert—when dessert is usually fruit—they are good eaten standing up and they are good eaten sitting down. The Germans have a word for the food you eat when you're stressed and that word is Nervenfutter (nerve chow) (it's pronounced NAIR-fenn-foot-er). Snacking cakes are the quintessence of Nervenfutter.

Simple Sesame Cake

Now to this particular cake, the Simple Sesame Cake. It's made with tahini and two kinds of sesame seeds (which I had in my pantry anyway; if you only have regular sesame, not black, just do the cake with those). I substituted 1/4 cup oat flour and 1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour blend for the all-purpose flour (in fact, have done so in every recipe from this book that I've tried) and the results were velvety and perfect. Max can't stop marveling over the crumb. There's the faintest hint of bitterness from the tahini, and it's so lovely against the almost creamy crumb punctuated with all those tiny little sesame seeds.

If you're a cake pan butterer, then you can strew some of the sesame seeds onto the sides of the pan to truly encrust the entire cake in sesame, but I am an avowed non-butterer of pans, so I just scattered them thickly on top. I love the effect of the black and white sesame together and the gorgeous little crunch from the raw sugar on top. Up until now, the children have competed with us for pieces of each snacking cake I've made. For whatever reason, this one is a little too grown-up for them (it's like a grown-up peanut butter flavor), so we get to eat all of it ourselves.

All hail the snacking cake!

Gluten-Free Sesame Snacking Cake

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Yossy Arefi's Simple Sesame Cake
Adapted from Snacking Cakes
Makes
one 9-inch loaf cake
To make this cake gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with 1/4 cup oat flour and 1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour blend.
Print this recipe!

6 tablespoons (50 grams) sesame seeds (white, black or mixed), divided
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup (120 milliliters) whole milk
1/2 cup (120 milliliters) well-stirred tahini
1/4 cup (60 milliliters) neutral vegetable oil, such as canola or grapeseed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups (160 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon raw sugar, optional

1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line a standard-sized loaf pan with parchment paper, letting the sides hang over to create a sling.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the granulated sugar and the egg until pale and foamy, about 1 minute. Add the milk, tahini, oil, vanilla and salt. Whisk until smooth. Add the flour(s), 3 tablespoons of the sesame seeds, the baking powder and baking soda. Whisk until well combined.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, tap the pan gently on the counter to release any air bubbles, and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons of sesame seeds on top of the cake and, if using, the raw sugar.

4. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the cake is puffed and golden, and a cake tester or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

5. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool for about 15 minutes. Use the parchment overhang to lift the cake out of the pan and let cool completely before slicing and serving.


David Lebovitz's Gluten-Free Chocolate Tahini Brownies

Gluten-Free Tahini Brownies
 
Beep. Boop. Hello. I thought maybe you could use a panful of brownies today. Couldn't we all?
 
I have been looking forward to telling you about these brownies. For a very long time, I am more than chagrined to admit, I couldn't quite grasp the concept of tahini in baked goods. Tahini, in my limited mind, just wouldn't budge from its savory pedestal, where I associated with falafel or grain salads or maybe a nice little yogurt sauce, but nothing more. How terribly basic, I know!
 
Luckily, one day this past fall, a friend brought me a tahini chocolate chip cookie and who knows why this particular cookie flipped the switch, but it did. I ate it, the nutty richness flooded my mouth, the heavens opened, angels sang, etc etc. Oh, it was a wonderful moment. (2020 was also the year I finally learned to love halva, so who knows, I guess I'm a late sesame bloomer.)

In case you are still looking for a gateway into the world of baking with tahini, you must start with these brownies, which are a combination of these two recipes: David Lebovitz's and Bon Appétit's. They are gluten-free, yes, made with cornstarch instead of flour, which makes them fudgy and chewy as can be, and you will love them even if you're not avoiding gluten, pinky promise. A tablespoon of tahini is beaten into the batter, bolstering the texture a bit, and then the remaining tahini is mixed with syrup and marbled throughout.
 
I am usually agnostic when it comes to nuts in brownies, but I feel quite strongly that they are non-negotiable here. You can use walnuts, pecans or almonds, but they must be toasted. Must! The recipe below calls for 1/2 cup of nuts, for those who are just dipping their toes into nutty brownie territory, but if you like nuts in your brownies, you can bump it up to a full cup.
 
Once baked, the sandy tahini swirl, the warm crunch of the toasted nuts and the deliciously fudgy crumb of the brownie all add up to create a spectacular treat that is surprisingly sophisticated for something as crowd-pleasing as a brownie. I never cut these babies larger than 16 little squares, because they pack quite a punch. Even Hugo, who is a purist and a traditionalist when it comes to brownies, loves them. I hope you do too.
 
Next up, miso cookies?
 
Gluten-Free Chocolate Tahini Brownies
Makes 16 brownies
 
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
8 ounces (225 grams) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons tahini, divided
3 tablespoons (30 grams) cornstarch
1/2 cup (70 grams) almonds or walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon brown rice syrup or agave syrup
1. Line an 8-inch (23 cm) square pan with parchment paper and let the paper come up to the rim of the pan to function as a sling after baking. Preheat the oven to 350º (180ºC).
2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat on the stove top, stirring constantly until smooth.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the sugar, eggs and salt. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of tahini and the cornstarch.
4. Scrape the chocolate mixture into the bowl and whisk vigorously until completely smooth, for about a minute.
5. Fold in the nuts, if using, then scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
6. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 tablespoons tahini with the brown rice or agave syrup. Dollop this mixture over the top of the brownie batter, then swirl through the batter with a knife or skewer.
7. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until the brownies feel just set in the center. Do not overbake. Remove from oven and let cool completely before removing from the pan and cutting into squares. The brownies will keep in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Erin Jeanne McDowell's Gluten-Free Apple Butter Loaf Cake

Gluten-Free Apple Butter Loaf Cake

I know that there is nothing more tedious than reading about other people's special diets, but I'm going to be posting about gluten-free baking more frequently here and I would like to explain the shift. I'll try to keep things brief, but obviously, if you have questions about any of it, please feel free to ask away below.

I recently stopped eating gluten for good. It was a long time coming. Several years ago, after the fog of my second pregnancy lifted, I noticed lots of persistent and painful digestive symptoms. On my doctor's advice, I tried eliminating various foods out of my diet. The most noticeable difference happened when I stopped eating gluten, but, I mean, I love gluten. I LOVE IT. I love eating it and baking with it, bread and pies and pasta and toast and cakes and cookies and and and...I really just didn't want it to be true. Plus, some pesky and particularly worrying symptoms remained regardless of what I ate or didn't eat.

I ended up having a colonoscopy, during which a pretty large precancerous polyp was discovered and removed. It was a scary experience. The handsome gastroenterologist, who'd been a little scornful about why I was showing up for a colonoscopy at the age of 40, turned white as a sheet after the procedure and told me that my GP, who had insisted on the colonoscopy despite my young age, had saved my life. Uh, yay? Around the same time, I was diagnosed with stress-related gastritis. During the endoscopy for that, I was tested for celiac disease, which turned out to be negative, thankfully.

I took a course of antibiotics for the gastritis and tried to reduce my stress (ha ha haaaa) and things slowly calmed down. Still, even when all the scary stuff was out of the way, I still dealt regularly with pain and bloating and other unpleasant things. I tried the FODMAP diet for a while, which sort of helped. I tried replacing all regular bread with sourdough, which also sort of helped. But eventually, I cut gluten out entirely, and it has made a world of difference. In fact, it made me realize for just how long I'd been dealing with digestive pain, anxiety and distress. It long predates having children, that's for sure.

So that's that. I don't have celiac, but I do have gluten intolerance. I've stopped eating gluten, but luckily, I don't have to worry too much about cross-contamination. For example, when we have pasta for dinner, I make regular pasta for my family and gluten-free pasta for me, but when I have to test the pasta, I know that half a wheat noodle isn't going to hurt me. But I recently ate a piece of regular birthday cake at Bruno's birthday (how bad could it be to have just one piece?) and I was in so much pain and discomfort the next day that I really regretted it (damn, it was a good piece of cake, though).

Going gluten-free without celiac disease isn't a terrible hardship. Good-quality gluten-free pasta and bread isn't that hard to find anymore (and I'm lucky enough to live sort of close to the most amazing gluten-free sourdough bakery called Aera) and I have loved the challenge of discovering the huge variety of Asian noodles that are naturally gluten-free, as well as cooking more with rice and other gluten-free grains. But gluten-free baking really is a whole other ball of wax.

As I wrote on Instagram the other day, after a lifetime of home baking, it's been humbling, to say the least, to dip my toes into the waters of gluten-free baking. So much trial and error. So many failed experiments. What I have realized is that my only goal, really, is to learn to make gluten-free things that are delicious in their own right and that people will want to eat even if they aren't gluten-intolerant.

Gluten-Free Apple Butter Sweet Bread

Which means that now I can finally get to the thing I really wanted to tell you about! This cake!

The recipe originally comes from the self-titled baking fairy godmother herself, Erin Jeanne McDowell, and isn't gluten-free to start with, but I fiddled with the ingredients a little bit (after an ill-fated experiment with a different applesauce cake that was so sandy as to be rather repulsive) and ended up with a cake so tender and lovely that we couldn't stop eating it. It was my tea break cake and Hugo's breakfast cake for nearly a week! It's the kind of cake that you want living on your counter permanently, with a velvety crumb, a wonderfully chewy-crunchy top and a whole lot of cozy flavor.

You'll need apple butter, which I make every fall after we go apple picking, using this brilliant recipe. This year I made the apple butter in the Instant Pot, which made things go so much quicker, so I very much recommend that little shortcut. You'll also need an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend. I use one from Schär, because it's what I can get at my local grocery store here. Two things I've learned from kind commenters and some reading is that adding a little bit of oat flour to a gluten-free cake or cookie can help provide a better, less gritty crumb and that it's essential to let gluten-free cake batter (and other baking mixtures, I assume) sit a bit to hydrate the flours properly. I reduced the amount of sugar from the original and I think it's the perfect amount of sweet.

Below you'll find the recipe as I made it (the original is here). I hope you like it as much as we did. Next time, I'll try folding in a handful of walnuts and the time after that, a handful of fresh cranberries. (If you stick to the original recipe, I still think you can leave out the brown sugar entirely.)

And if you have any tips or tricks or favorite gluten-free recipes or sites or books to recommend, have at it in the comments! I'd be so grateful.

Gluten-Free Apple Butter Loaf Cake
Makes one 9-inch loaf cake
Print the recipe!

1 cup/130 grams all-purpose gluten-free flour blend
½ cup/60 grams oat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ cup/120 milliliters vegetable oil
½ cup/100 grams granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup/180 milliliters apple butter
¼ cup/60 milliliters plain yogurt
1 1/2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, or to taste

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 Celsius) and line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, oat flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt to combine. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the oil and sugar until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time and whisk well after each addition to incorporate. Whisk in the vanilla extract.

3. Add the flour mixture and stir just to combine. Add the apple butter and yogurt and mix well to incorporate. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Set aside to rest for 8-10 minutes.

4. Sprinkle the surface of the loaf generously with turbinado sugar. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool for 20 minutes in the pan, then, using the parchment paper as a sling, pull the cake out onto a rack to cool completely before slicing and serving. The cake, loosely wrapped with plastic wrap, will last at room temperature for five days.