Everyone! Tonight I experienced a minor triumph in the kitchen. To be quite frank, I’m more than a little giddy about it.
I’m not, as they say, the most orderly and organized of people. I don’t always read instruction manuals and if there’s a guided tour, forget it. Snooze city. Chances are I’ve ducked out after the second sentence and am off admiring some piece of art in a room that’s – oops! – not part of the admission you purchased, miss.
But when it comes to baking, and to a lesser degree cooking, I have always been by-the-book. To a fault. Scouring stores to find exact ingredients, worrying over whether the tester had a single crumb, begging friends to help me buy a KitchenAid standing mixer so I could get my egg whites whipped just right, pining over scales I still can’t afford so I could get more precise measurements. So right, a total joy in the kitchen. We all know baking is precise and exact, but come on.
I’ve been cooking and baking for most of my life. When I was 11 I got sick of not being able to buy char siu bao in our little mountain town and decided to try and make them, an endeavor that took me two days because I insisted on making not only the dough and the buns, but also the barbecue sauce and thus the pork. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At some point, it was time for me to let go of the proverbial apron strings and start baking outside the recipe box for once.
Lately, you may have noticed me tossing ingredients and measurements in and out almost willy-nilly. I mean, how nonchalantly did I mention fussing around with that tuna salad recipe? OK, fine, tuna salad is sort of different from, you know, a cake, but work with me here. An uptight girl’s gotta start somewhere!
Changing things around in a recipe for a baked good though? Hold up there, turbo. Are you sure you’re ready for that?
No. But guess what. It worked!
The other week, during Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl’s virtual book tour, I discovered her recipe for gluten-free chocolate financiers on Smitten Kitchen. I got so excited at the idea of those little almondy chocolatey nuggets of joy that I ran out and used the last of my Sur La Table gift card to get mini muffin tins. I had almond meal in my freezer already, since my mom taught me how to use it sometimes for a cheesecake crust (I’d give that entire recipe to you, but I think that would be the last post I’d ever make, if you get my drift). One-two-three, those financiers came together, easy as anything. And oh boy.
Suffice to say I made them again within a week. Even better? A certain someone who rarely eats sweets stole extra ones when he stopped by to say hello – leaving me wondering as to his real motive for stopping by – and then indirectly requested more. You know, one of those, “Oh, um, hey, any more of those chocolate financiers around?”
As amazing as they are – and don’t take my word for it, make them – I got to thinking about how I felt after I ate sugar. Which was not in the “great” category. One little financier (or two, because they’re little right? so you kind of have to eat two? or three?) wasn’t so bad, what with the powdered sugar being balanced out by the almond meal – the fat slowing the absorption of sugar and keeping things relatively mellow. But I still wondered how I’d feel if I reduced the sugar, or replaced it with something like agave nectar.
For those who are new to agave nectar (and I’d never even bought it before today), it is just what you think – the nectar of the agave plant, which also gives us tequila. It’s a natural sweetener that has a lower glycemic index than most other sweeteners out there. Sure, a sweetener is a sweetener, and if you’re trying to stay away from sugar altogether, it’s not going to do you any good. But if you’re trying to stay away from sugar completely, then what are you doing reading about chocolate financiers in the first place? You’ll drive yourself insane, honey.
I decided to try remaking Shauna’s recipe using agave nectar, to see what would happen. I hope she doesn’t mind – her recipe is wonderful, I just wanted to find a way to enjoy it even more given my fussy tummy. So I substituted. And lo, a miracle occurred. I changed a baked goods recipe, and it turned out great. The little financiers baked up just right, maybe cracking a bit more on the top than before but still staying moist and like a slightly fudgy cake on the inside. The crumb was tender but retained plenty of body. The chocolate richness came through loud and clear, the sweetness balanced the cocoa and the espresso, and that familiar almond undertone was rounded out nicely by the agave.
I confess: I can’t take all the credit. When I was on my solo date on Saturday, I talked to my friend Jenny, the chef and owner of 118 Degrees. She cooks and bakes with agave nectar a lot, so I took advantage of her expertise and asked for her advice. Brilliant woman, that one.
So now I’m excited to try using agave in all sorts of recipes. I don’t think I’ll replace the sugar in every recipe – I know I’m branching out here, but let’s not go too crazy. I don’t know that the old-fashioned baking stickler in me could handle changing certain standards. Others I’d like to make first the original way, to get familiar with the consistency of the batter, so I know how to accommodate for the extra liquid of the agave. And with other recipes, like those for larger cakes, I’ll have to test how the agave changes the overall consistency and appearance. For instance, I have two different recipes that create what are technically larger versions (with icing!) of these financiers, in an old Maida Heatter cookbook and in a recent Splendid Table e-mail. The agave worked well with these itty bitty bite-sized chocolate wonders, but I’m not sure how it would work on a larger scale with only almond meal. I’m dying to try those recipes as is, anyway, and then report back (see how willing I am to suffer for you guys?).
Nevertheless, I highly recommend you try these financiers, either in their original incarnation or with the agave nectar. Just so you know, I drove them over for quick quality assurance to that certain someone, who pronounced them as good as the last batch, even though he had to keep sampling them before he was able to say that with certainty. I don’t blame him. One must be precise, musn’t one?
Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers
Adapted from Gluten-Free Girl
Notes from Leah on baking with agave:
1) Agave nectar is liquid, so the amount of almond meal is increased slightly from the original version to compensate for this. The batter will be slightly looser than the original, and you will end up with more cookies (darn).
2) The oven temperature has been lowered by 25 degrees F to compensate for the fact that agave nectar tends to evaporate and burn a little more quickly than sugar.
3) If you use agave nectar, definitely make sure to use Dutch-process cocoa.
4) I add espresso powder or instant coffee to nearly every chocolate recipe; I highly recommend it but feel free to make this optional.
5) If possible, use a wider and more shallow mold or mini muffin tin. I used the taller one (the more “mini cupcake” one) I have, because of the number of financiers this recipe produces, and I think this recipe would do better with the other.
6) Do not overfill your tins (like I did) and do not overbake! You may have a slight crust on the top of your financiers due to the evaporative quality (see #2) if you bake a minute or two too long, but it will be basically unnoticeable (and some people like a little crust).
Makes 20-22 one-inch cookies
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup almond flour (or almond meal)*
4 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon light agave nectar
1 tablespoon lukewarm water
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
1/3 cup egg whites (approx. two large)
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease financier molds or mini-muffin tins. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set it aside until it reaches room temperature.
2. Mix the almond flour with the cocoa powder, salt, espresso powder, agave nectar, and water. Stir the egg whites and almond extract into the almond mixture, then gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated and smooth. Spoon the batter into the molds, filling them three-quarters full. Do not overfill.
3. Bake the financiers for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly puffed and springy to the touch. Do not overbake. Remove them from the oven and let cool completely before removing the financiers from the molds.
4. Once cooled, financiers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.
*(Available at health food stores and at Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find it, you can grind blanched almonds in your food processor.)
**Thank you to that certain someone for lending me his camera! More financiers coming his way…