Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ratio Rally! Gluten-Free, Vegan Teff & Black Sesame Shortbread Cookies

Welcome to another Gluten Free Ratio Rally challenge!  After sitting the last four months out, it's good to be back, especially with this particular challenge:  shortbread.  Shortbread cookies were one of my first baking successes after transitioning to a gluten-free way of living, and in fact, my most popular and most requested recipe to date is for rosemary lemon shortbread cookies.  And while I could easily have rehashed or regurgitated that recipe, what fun would that be?  

Give me baking trials, give me learning opportunities, give me inspiration to re-envision and reinvent.

For those unfamiliar with the Rally, it's a monthly blogging event based upon the basic baking ratios proposed by Michael Ruhlman in his book, Ratio.  In it, he explains how ratios, and the relationships between ingredients, are the foundation of cooking and baking.  Ruhlman encourages the reader to understand how basic ingredients like eggs, flour, milk, and butter work together, and how given different proportions the same ingredients can result in a variety of things, from pasta to pancakes to muffins.  Now, since all of this was written in the context of gluten, in February of 2011, Shauna James Ahern (aka gluten-free girl) decided to start a monthly blogging event where the ratios set forth in Ruhlman's book would be put to the test using gluten-free ingredients.  Each month features a different food item with its proposed ratio and each month's challenge is hosted by a different blogger.  So for March, we had the task of shortbread hosted by Meaghan from The Wicked Good Vegan.

While in previous months, I often had to negotiate egg substitutes to veganize baked goods like brownies, cookies, and crepes, it was so nice to not have to worry about that here.  The proposed ratio for shortbread is simple and egg-free and sticks to Ruhlman's general ratio for cookies:

3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part sugar

Another nice thing about this month's challenge?  This ratio worked with no modifications.  And looking back at the recipe for my rosemary lemon shortbread cookies, it was almost the exact same proportions.  However, with shortbread, there's actually a ratio within the ratio which helps get at the specificity of what sets shortbread apart from cookies of the chocolate chip, molasses, or sugar variety.  

Shortbread is crumbly by nature due to the large amount of fat, which coats the proteins in the flour, thus inhibiting them from binding to one another and forming stretchy networks.  This also makes shortbread an excellent candidate for gluten-free ingredients, as its tender texture is a result of gluten being constrained rather than developed.  And when one thinks of shortbread, some adjectives like "sandy" or "gritty" may come to mind.  And this is where additional breakdown of the flour part of the ratio can be helpful.

Palette to please the palate.

Of those 3 parts flour, I have found that using a light flour or starch (e.g., tapioca starch, white rice flour, arrowroot) for up to 2/3 of it and balancing it with a whole grain, heavier flour (e.g., buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa) for as little as 1/3 of it allows you to play with that texture, making it as sandy, sturdy, smooth melt-in-your-mouth, or delicate as you like.  Of course, you can opt to use an all-purpose gluten-free flour for all 3 parts, but as I said earlier, what fun would that be?

So my idea of fun for today's contribution to the Rally was to use ground black sesame seeds and teff for my heavier flours. Only two ingredients, yes, but the combination of the two lends a beautiful, earthy, complexity that calls forth several different flavor notes on the palate: nutty, bitter, sweet, fruity, smoky.  And when you combine that with each cookie's crisp crumble and interesting bluish-brown color, it makes for quite an experience for the senses.  And when each bite can bring you to all those places and more, that my friends, is good eating.

Black Sesame & Teff Shortbread Cookies
Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, & Vegan

Active Prep Time:  5-10 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: at least 2 hours
Baking Time: 15-20 minutes
Yield:  16-18 cookies

1/2 c (80g) slightly softened Earth Balance vegan butter
1/4 c (40g) blonde coconut palm sugar

1/2 c (60g) tapioca starch
1/4 c (40g) teff flour
2 tablespoons (20g) ground black sesame
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon salt

sesame seeds, to garnish

What you need: medium mixing bowl, food processor, whisk or hand mixer, spatula, parchment paper, baking sheet, fork, cooling rack

1.  To begin, add coconut palm sugar to food processor and run until you reach a finer consistency.  You want it to be somewhere between the consistency of caster sugar and powdered sugar.   This will promote a crisper, more tender texture.
2.  Cream ground sugar and softened vegan butter with a whisk or hand mixer until fluffy and lighter in color.  I used the organic coconut Earth Balance.
3.  Add all dry ingredients to the food processor and run until well incorporated.  This acts in place of a sifter, aerating, sieving, and blending simultaneously.
Note: The temperature of your components is quite important.  For shortbread, you definitely want them to be cool to discourage melting of the fat.  So if it's hot in the kitchen or you're at all in doubt, allow your butter and dry ingredients to chill in the refrigerator for a few minutes and then resume working on your dough.
4.  Gradually fold dry ingredients into creamed butter with a spatula until just combined.  A shaggy, slightly crumbly dough is what you're after.  Form into a ball with your hands.
5.  Cover and chill dough for at least 2 hours. 
6.  When ready to bake, remove dough from refrigerator to temper and preheat oven to 325 degrees.
7.  When the dough is still cold, but workable, form into roughly tablespoon-sized balls and flatten to about 1/2", spaced about 2" apart, on a parchment lined baking sheet.
8.  Perforate the top of each cookie with the tines of the fork and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
9.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until just solid to the touch and matte in appearance.  The brown color will also deepen from caramel to milk chocolate.  If you err on anything, bake less, and if needed, return to the oven to bake longer.  
10.  After removing from oven, allow to cool for 5-10 minutes on baking sheet and then transfer to a cooling rack to continue cooling completely.

Creamy to crumbly.

Chilled dough ready to make mouths happy.

In the process of garnishing.

Ready for their closeup.  

So taking into account the differentiation between light and heavier flours, my shortbread ratio is:

1.5 parts whole grain/heavy flour : 1.5 parts starch/light flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part sugar

Again, the ratio within the ratio can definitely wiggle depending on how you like your shortbread.  If you want it lighter and crisper, adjust your flour ratio in favor of starch, and if you're after something sturdier, vice versa.

I love ground black sesame.  Beyond great texture and a sizable list of nutritional benefits, it also offers amazing flavor.  And the combination of it with the teff and cinnamon creates a dynamic depth on the palate, giving you all their flavors individually, but also their flavors in synergy.  I remember a coworker trying one and being unable to pin point all the flavor notes she was experiencing, there were just so many.  Proud papa moment.  And while ground black sesame, or black sesame powder, is a staple in my kitchen, I know that that is not the case for most.  You can find it in many Asian supermarkets or groceries, often in the breakfast or hot tea sections.

Flavor you can't help but savor.

And there you have my return to the Gluten Free Ratio Rally.  Thank you again to our magnificent hostess, Meaghan, of The Wicked Good Vegan, and please check out the links of all my fellow Ralliers below.  

Mary Fran / FrannyCakes / Jammie Dodgers
Meaghan / The Wicked Good Vegan / Lime Shortbread with Juniper Berry Glaze
Meg / Gluten-Free Boulangerie / Lemon Bars with Lemon Shortbread Crust
Morri / Meals with Morri / Earl Grey Shortbread Cookies
Rebecca / Salts Kitchen / Shortbread Two Ways

You can never have too much shortbread.  You can quote me on that.


  1. [ Smiles ] Ah, vegan cookies. Quite lovely!

  2. I'm not going to lie: I've missed your Rally entries. Why? Because everything you make is, for lack of better words, EPIC.

    I love the usage of darker flours and sesame for this recipe. It looks like it could be enjoyed with Lapsang souchong. :)

    Welcome back! Also, Operation "Feed Me" was a wonderful read.

    1. That is such an awesome compliment, Morri! Thank you so much. :) It is good to be back.

      And I agree - I think it would pair wonderfully with a good Lapsang or perhaps a Yunnan or Keemun tea.

  3. You can never have too much shortbread, indeed! I never realised that ground black sesame seeds could be used as a flour. (Before you mentioned picking it up at an Asian grocer, I was calculating how expensive it would be to order more seeds and grind them myself…) It sounds like a magnificently early cookie.

    And props for having the coworkers dig in! I know the pride of having others go back for seconds of vegan, gluten-free goodness.


    1. Seconds? That's the baseline for most of my coworkers. We're usually talking thirds and fourths. And speaking of thirds and fourths, that would definitely be what I'd doing with your gin & tonic cookies. Just saying... :)

      Thank you again for hosting this month and sticking with the Rally! It's so nice having another gluten-free vegan in the ranks. :)

  4. I really like teff flour! This is such a unique cookie recipe...I've never tried black sesame before, maybe I should ;)

  5. Oh, these look lovely. I've ground white sesame seeds from time to time to use as a flour, but never black. I'll bet it's a great complement to the teff and cinnamon. Also, I'm not going to lie - it's so nice to see *vegan* gluten free recipes in the Rally! I haven't participated in months, hopefully I'll find the time this summer.

    1. Likewise! Us gluten-free vegan must stick together, right? I hope you will find more time this summer to participate in the Rally. Definitely the more the merrier!

  6. These look so good! I always forget about using teff flour, I cannot wait to try this.

    1. I can't wait for you to try it, too! I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!


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