Chocolate, Quinoa, Potluck, Werk

It elicits strange looks, surprise reactions and a lot of questions when I answer that always awkward question that some people still insist on asking (oh, small talk, I haven’t missed you); “What do you do for a living?” When I answer that I work as a recipe developer and food stylist, among my other roles in the world of food, I often find that people apparently didn’t know any of them “was a thing”. When I point out that any image of food that they see online, in magazines, billboards, television, and cookbooks, there was a person or team behind getting that image to look just like it does, like something you want to eat, to make, or to dive into.

In addition to recipe development and food styling, another of my duties the three years I worked as a recipe editor with my dear friend Erika at her beautiful and inspiring GFF Magazine, was testing recipes. Yes, it’s just as awful as it sounds. I jest, but don’t get me wrong, recipe testing is work, but almost always delicious work that is also almost always gleefully consumed once completed – job done!

Recipe testing requires a thorough understanding of how recipes work, a pretty good idea of how most foods/recipes should look and taste, the technique it takes to get them there and the practiced eye to catch errors, typos, and other conundrums before you even start the actual cooking. The job also informed and satisfied my curiosity of how some things that I didn’t quite understand worked, as the world of gluten-free baking was relatively new to me then.

The myriad ways in which one can mimic the amazing stretchy, springy, structural, strong-yet-delicate properties of gluten can be overwhelming. The many different alternative flours, flour replacements, baking blends (they don’t all act alike!), substitutions and additions like xanthan gum, psyllium, chia or guar gum for binding, emulsifying or volumizing really need to be understood, how they work individually and how they work when combined with others. Years later, I am still a work in progress, but cooking, testing, baking, developing, asking questions, dissecting failures, celebrating wins and enjoying scrumptious results has been a labor of love. Discovering my high sensitivity to gluten earlier this year has made it a personal necessity. In my initial research, I found I was caught up in seeking the best gluten-free version of all of my former favorites. Hearty, rustic bread, flaky pastry crusts, buttery laminated doughs (oh, croissant my heart, I miss you most!), and my finally perfected pizza dough, now just memories, albeit more of a Stockholm Syndrome situation in hindsight. Where I am now, months later, is actually celebrating the beauty of recipes that just happen to be gluten-free rather than trying to imitate or recreate. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll most likely still see some version of all of my French favorites along the way, bien sûr, but I love that many recipes that just happen to be gluten-free are lacking nothing as they are their own lovely thing, just over here living their best life, a life that just happens to be free of gluten – like these Chocolate Quinoa Cupcakes.

A cupcake is a cupcake is a cupcake, right? Oh, no mes amies, not the case here. Cooked quinoa steps in to replace standard all-purpose flour, making these lovely little daymakers gluten-free as well as delighting with an amazing textural experience. Usually consigned to side dish status or ubiquitous salad bar selection, quinoa’s earthy nuttiness and fluffy, toothsome chew provides incredible depth and dimension to all of the enchantments and desirousness of chocolate. And what a lusty plunge into chocolate these little gems are. Topped with a frothy cloud of mint-kissed chocolate buttercream and my addition of toasty-crispy, puffed quinoa, who is going to even be thinking about gluten, much less missing it?!? Flour-schmour!

I made the cupcakes in miniature form for my husband to take to a recent al fresco work party potluck. I simply decreased the bake time by about 25% after scooping into paper lined mini muffin tin. For potlucks, I like to offer something more inclusive than standard buffet contributions. These cupcakes being gluten-free and nut-free could have easily been made dairy-free by replacing the butter and milk with plant-based options – everybody’s happy! Most importantly, nobody feels like they’re missing out on anything, and you sure don’t here. Potluck tip: use a simple planning tool for you next party, like so you don’t end up with 5 potato salads and NO cupcakes! Personalize it to make sure there’s something for everyone. It drives me crazy that more people don’t use great, easy tools like this.

The only adjustment I would make to the cupcake recipe next time is to use fine brown sugar in the frosting or maybe even swap in superfine white or give your brown sugar a whiz in the food processor. The brown sugar I had on hand was an organic, unrefined brand that was coarse, more like turbinado sugar and just never fully melted, creating a bit of crunch to the finished frosting. Good thing I had that crispy quinoa to top them with! The recipe requires cooked, cooled quinoa, so be sure to plan ahead when you make these, and make them you should. Find the recipe for Chocolate Quinoa Cupcakes at Bon appétit, mes amours!

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