In my kitchen I look to more unusual, exciting and flavoursome ingredients to add depth and interest to my cooking. This is especially the case when it comes to baking. The spelt flour in my ginger and molasses cake adds structure and a deep toasted malty flavour and is naturally easier for us to digest. The honey I often use instead of sugar offers a different kind of sweetness. Often I’ll use toasted nut butters in place of butter in cookies, and coconut oil for buttering toast. Using an ingredient where it fits and tastes amazing, not solely for its nutrients, makes me push myself to step outside the reliable old recipes.
While I love a loaf of sourdough or the odd treat made with straight-up white flour, I try to use variety in all my cooking and baking. You’ll find jars of these favourites on my shelf.
I love the nuttier, more rounded taste of spelt flour and it is my grain of choice for most baking
and pastry. It’s an ancient grain eaten by the Romans that is making its way back into our
kitchens. It’s a more nutrition-packed cousin of wheat and is higher in protein. Buy it at any supermarket. Light spelt flour is the one to use in baking.
I love the creamy note that oat flour adds to baking and the sustaining power of oats. Using oat flour in baking means that the energy from a piece of cake will be released into your body a bit more slowly and more gently. I usually grind my own oat flour (see below, it’s really easy) as oats have a higher oil content than most other grains and so the flour loses its freshness very quickly.
Chestnut flour has a delicate, nutty, light caramel flavour and is known in Italy as farina dolce,
sweet flour. It’s made from dried milled chestnuts. It works well in most cakes and particularly
well with chocolate. Buy it in any good heath food shop or Italian deli.
Coconut flour is a soft powdery flour made from dried coconut. It adds a very subtle coconut flavour to
baking, which I love. It is high in protein and healthy fats. Coconut flour absorbs much more liquid than regular grain-based flours, so it’s hard to substitute. Instead, look for recipes which specify coconut flour, like my Coconut Loaf in my first book. Buy it at any good health food shop.
I love the strong nutty flavour of buckwheat in baking. Buckwheat is in fact not wheat at all but a relative of two my very favourite things: rhubarb and sorrel. It works so well in pancakes and blinis. Buy it at your local whole food shop.
Rye flour has a deep, almost malty character. I love using rye flour in chocolate cakes and cookies and especially in brownies. Rye is high in a special type of fibre which helps you feel satisfied, which I find particularly useful when trying not to reach for another brownie. Rye flour is available at most supermarkets.
I bake using a lot of nuts. I like the way they keep cakes from drying out and the fact that they bring their own healthy fats and nutrients with them, allowing you to use a little less of the less healthy fats like butter. I don’t buy pre-ground nuts as I find them lacking in flavour; I grind my own in the food processor as needed for each cake. Pistachios, almonds, pecans, macadamias, hazelnuts, walnuts and pine nuts all work well in cakes, pancakes and muffins.
A word on keeping flours
Don’t keep them for too long; buy in smallish quantities – enough to keep you going for a month or so – and store, well-sealed, in a cool, dry place. Wholegrain flours in particular should be sealed and refrigerated if you’re not using them within a few weeks, because their natural oils can turn quickly in a warm kitchen.
Making your own flours
All you need is a standard home food processor and a couple of minutes. I find making a jar of something you thought you had to buy from a shop so satisfying. You can make your own flour from pretty much any grain or pulse or nut. The ones which work best for me and that I like the taste of the most are oats, quinoa flakes, dried lentils, dried chickpeas, brown rice and any kind of nut.
To make your own flour at home, put about 400g of grains or dried pulses into your food processor. It’s important to put a decent amount in, otherwise the grains just fly around the bowl. You can get away with doing smaller batches of nuts, though. Put the food processor on high and blitz until the flour has formed a little wall around the sides and is no longer falling back into the centre. Remove the flour and sift it through a medium sieve for slightly more textured flour or a fine sieve for fine flour for lighter cakes and sauces.
Here’s why I like to make my own flour. It will be truly wholegrain. Most commercial flours are made with the germ of the grain removed. The germ is where most of the nutrition is stored. The germ is taken out in milling, as it contains oils and without it flour has a longer shelf life. The nutrients in flour also quickly deplete after milling, so freshly milled flour will allow your body to get the very best from the grain. It’ll taste better, just as freshly ground whole almonds do, and will smell and feel different from the flours you might buy in a packet. Freshly milled flour will taste miles better than stuff that’s been sitting on a shelf for weeks.
It’s really easy to make unusual flours at home. Interesting flours can be expensive and hard to find, so milling your own in the food processor saves time and is easier on the pocket. You can make unusual flours with dried beans and lentils, which add incredible flavour and healthy proteins as well.
The sweet stuff
Light and clean-tasting agave is a neutral sweetener that’s made from the juice of the agave plant, which is also used to make tequila. It comes in dark and light varieties. I mostly use the light one, but the dark one is good in rich, darker baking and actually has more nutrients. I love to use agave in cocktails and dressings as well as hot drinks. It is a particularly good alternative to honey for vegans. Buy it in any supermarket.
I love honey, and a jar lasts just a few days in our house. I love it in teas, in baking, on toast, stirred into yoghurt – any way I can involve it in my day is a good thing. What I love about it most is the fact that each honey is so different and reflects the character of the plants and flowers that the bees were surrounded by. I have a few honeys on hand at any time: a set honey for toast and to stir into icings, a mild runny honey for teas and dressings and a darker, thicker runny honey for eating with cheese. Look for raw honey if you can – it retains the most nutrients as it hasn’t been heated and tastes incredible. As a rule the darker the honey the higher it will be in antioxidants. Try not to stir honey into boiling water. I like to use honey in cakes and icings.
Amber nectar. I love maple syrup – it tastes of childhood trips to American diners for towering stacks of maple- laced pancakes. Maple syrup is high in nutrients and minerals such as zinc. It comes from boiling down the sap of the maple tree. Be on the look out for pure maple syrup, as many are a blend and have very little maple at all. There are different grades of maple syrup, and the flavour and darkness depend on when in the season the sap is harvested. In the UK maple syrup is usually sold with a number denoting the strength and depth of the syrup; generally the higher the number and the darker the syrup the deeper and more maple-y the flavour. I like to use maple syrup in cakes, dressings and biscuits and to sweeten fruit compotes. It does particularly well with apples, pears and any berries.
Unrefined/ natural sugars
Unrefined sugar to me means sugar that is as unprocessed as possible and retains many of its nutrients and much of its natural character. It is of course still sugar, but in the rawest, most untreated form. My favourite natural sugars are muscovado and demerara, and I use golden unbleached caster sugar sometimes too. Natural brown sugars retain their brown colour from the natural colour of the sugar cane, whereas other brown sugars are just refined white sugar mixed with low quality molasses. You can use brown sugar in place of white in most baking, though the stronger flavour of dark molasses doesn’t work in all baking.
This stuff is other-worldly – thick and black like tar. It is a full-bodied treacley sweetener. It is made from successive boiling down of the sugar cane, which preserves a lot of the nutrients. It’s particularly high in calcium and iron, which are both difficult to come by for vegetarians. Look for blackstrap molasses, which comes from the last boiling and is richest in nutrients. It works well with deep rich baking, winter fruits and ginger.
Coconut sugar has a round, caramelly flavour and a mellow sweetness. Coconut sugar comes from coconut palm trees. The sap of the tree is boiled then dehydrated, it is much lower in fructose than traditional sugar and so it’s lower on the gylcemic index. As it is a dry sweetener you can use gram for gram, as you would sugar, in most recipes.
Images: Laura Edwards, Brian W Ferry, Matt Russell