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Matcha & Almond Desserts – Gluten-free and Dairy-free cookies

January 30, 2012
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Matcha

I love matcha. I still remember my first thrilling encounter with this delicate ingredient, Japanese powdered green tea. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was so enamoured by a visiting Japanese artist that they offered to build her a whole house of her own if she would only stay. So in the midst of cornfields and cow pastures, Japan House was built – an oasis of feng shui and exacting Eastern order and propriety. Students at the university could take courses in ikebana flower arranging, kimono draping and the Japanese tea ceremony, but those with less flexibility in their timetables could arrange to experience the tea ceremony as a once-off occasion. My friends and I knelt on the woven mats, watching with fascination as the host performed an elaborate series of napkin folds and unfolds to wipe clean every piece of pottery without reusing the same section of cloth. We obediently observed the delicate designs on our teacups, then respectfully turned the cup the opposite way so as to not sully the design with our lips. The hot water, kept in a sunken receptacle, was ladled into cups then with a magical flick of the wrist and an ingenious whisk, the matcha was lathered up into a beautiful frothy stupor. We were warned beforehand of the divided opinions evoked by this tea – what is commonly known in the UK as the “Marmite effect” – either you love it or you hate it.  I loved every warm, bitter, comforting sip. I felt a rush as the antioxidant-filled leaves travelled down my throat, leaving a delicate film of foamy joy in my mouth.

Since that first delightful taste, I have often plotted to buy a full Japanese tea set – whisk included – but, well, never really got around to it. After a brief love affair with matcha-flavoured soy ice cream, I haven’t indulged my taste buds enough in this lovely ingredient. So when we decided to cook an East Asian-themed dinner for some friends, I decided to slip my matcha powder out of its long hibernation in the freezer and have some fun with it. Ideally, I would make matcha ice cream, but without an ice cream maker I realised it could be disastrous. The next best, matcha sorbet, was possible but required an endless schedule of ‘stirring every 30 minutes’ so I decided to copy some TV cheffiness and settled on Matcha Granita. Almond seemed to me like a nice complimentary flavour, so I added gluten-free almond cookies and for a bit more of a challenge, some matcha cookies as well.

Here is the Trio of Desserts (said with some sarcasm as it’s not really that fancy…)

Trio of Desserts

Part 1: Matcha Granita – Vegan

Almond Cookie with Matcha Granita

(Recipe adapted from: http://www.houseofjapan.com/cuisine/matcha-green-tea-sorbet)

Light and fluffly, this could be an incredible palate cleanser, especially if you added a twist of lime. As a dessert, it’s too airy to eat alone but it delivers that lovely flavour with very little substance, so may be good for dieters who want to have a taste of dessert without overdoing the sugar. The initial prep is simple, but the shaving takes a bit of elbow grease, so beware! (Thanks to V who graciously helped out, despite being our guest!)

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp matcha (green tea powder)
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water

Directions:

Mix the sugar and matcha in a bowl.

Matcha and sugar

Pour this mixture, along with the water, into the saucepan. Warm gently while stirring until the mixture has dissolved.

Dissolved matcha mix

Remove from the heat and immerse the pan in a bowl of cold water until the mixture is at room temperature. Pour into a freezer-safe container and leave until frozen. (I left mine overnight.) Remove approximately 15 minutes before serving to soften. Using the back of a spoon, scrape the surface to obtain shavings. Serve immediately.

One drawback is the granita melts VERY quickly so if you’re not careful, you could end up with a watery mess! Chilling the plates beforehand would help. The other drawback of course is the exercise you get scraping enough granita for everyone! On a positive note, it helps you digest the main meal, leaving more room for dessert. As a wise man once said, “Always look on the bright side of life.” ;)

Part 2:  Almond Cookies – Gluten-free and Dairy-free (not vegan as-is)

Almond Cookies

(Recipe adapted from http://glutenfreeday.com/?p=96)

These cookies are delightfully soft and delicately flavoured. They don’t at all seem like a ‘compromise’ to gluten-free baking. As the ‘flour’ is ground almonds, you also avoid the ‘gluten-free flour’ trap of a very high GI, insulin-rush-inducing dessert. I’ve also substituted the sugar for agave nectar, and I imagine using Stevia would have a similarly pleasant result. The happy coincidence is that I hadn’t even realised that our guest N has turned gluten-free, so my own endeavours to minimise wheat have been useful!

Ingredients:

  • 1 heaping cup almonds
  • 50 g unsalted butter or butter substitute (Look for non-hydrogenated alternatives! They don’t melt well, but they’re much healthier than trans-fat-filled margarine!)
  • 1/6 cup agave nectar (or the equivalent of ¼ cup sugar) – just fill a 1/3 cup halfway
  • 1 egg (I haven’t tried egg substitutes yet, but this will be my next adaptation experiment. If you do make this recipe with an egg substitute, let me know how it turns out!)
  • 1/8 tsp ginger powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • a pinch of salt

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 170 C/340 F.  Grind the almonds into a fairly fine meal. They should give you 1 cup of almond ‘flour’.

If using butter, melt it then let it cool slightly. Mix all ingredients together. Place one heaping teaspoon of batter at a time onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until the edges are golden brown. Place cookies onto a cooling rack. Devour.

This is a fantastic recipe, and kudos to whoever initially dreamt it up. Unfortunately it wasn’t perfect with the granita, as the granita melted so quickly, but the flavours were lovely together. These cookies would make a phenomenal ice cream sandwich though!

Part 3: Matcha Cookies – Gluten-free and Dairy-free

(Recipe adapted from http://fortwoplease.blogspot.com/2010/11/matcha-green-tea-shortbread-cookies.html)

I went out on a limb and decided that since I had two perfectly good dessert options already, I’d make more of an experiment out of the next. So I took a normal recipe for matcha cookies and just switched out the flour. Unfortunately I left them in the oven for a touch too long (oops!!), but the unburnt middles tasted nice. They have a really strong matcha flavour and the flour seemed to make little difference as they held together nicely! To be perfectly honest, I’d still choose the almond cookies any day, but if you need a change of scenery these are a fun option.

Ingredients:

  • 1/6 cup agave nectar (or the equivalent of ¼ cup sugar)
  • 50 g butter or butter substitute (once again, avoid trans-fat-laden hydrogenated varieties!)
  • ½ heaping cup chestnut flour
  • 1 egg yolk (once again, I haven’t tried with egg substitute, but do let me know if you do!)
  • ½ Tbsp matcha powder (I added a touch more for extra flavour)
  • granulated sugar for coating

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 150 C/300 F (I put it at 170 C, but  I’d lower the heat to reduce the chances of burning!).

Mix the matcha and agave (or sugar) – agave takes some time to mix by hand but it does come ‘round and incorporate the green tea powder into it. Matcha is so light that a mixer isn’t recommended, but a closed food processor might work well.

Matcha and agave

Use a mixer (for me: a normal food processor worked fine) to combine the butter and matcha mixture until fully blended. Add the chestnut flour and egg yolk until fully incorporated. Put the dough in the center of cling film and roll with your hands into a cylinder about 2 ½” in diameter. Close up the cling film around the dough and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Remove the dough from the cling film and cut disks of about ½” height. Toss the disks in a bowl of granulated sugar to coat. Place these on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes until they are slightly golden (Not brown! Learn from my mistakes!) around the edges. (The recipe suggests forming a disk before refrigeration, then rolling the dough out and cutting out pretty shapes, but I have no non-Christmas-related cutters so I took a shortcut!)

Although I’ve never tasted the original recipe, I was surprised at how well the substitution worked! Not bad for my first gluten-free attempt at a normal recipe! The flour may have contributed to the burning issue, but judging by how well the centers fared, I’m sure a little less heat & time in the oven will fix that bug good and proper! One addition I’d like to make next time is to add a teaspoon of vanilla extract to boost the sweetness.

I’ve learned a few lessons along the way but it’s been a fun adventure – my first cookies in years, and my first foray into gluten-free baked sweets! I’m looking forward to more experimentation… any guinea pigs? ;)

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