Style, Home & Food No gluten, but who cares

No gluten, but who cares

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gluten free pie

This recipe is from Bevin McNulty of BamBam Bakery in Portland, who bakes gluten-free pastries and bread for several local bakeries and is opening her own retail shop in Portland. According to McNulty, this recipe comes directly from “125 Best Gluten Free Recipes,” by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt.

When most of us think of gluten-free desserts, a sinfully good treat doesn’t spring to mind. In fact, pairing the phrase “gluten-free” with the word “decadent” seems like the classic oxymoron (like the expressions “sure bet” and “seriously funny.”)

But those traditionally dry, or too-dense icons of gluten-free cooking are fast giving way to desserts with a high decadence factor. Many local bakeries, some food shops and a smattering of restaurants have begun offering a wide variety of wonderfully fresh, amazingly edible gluten-free treats. People with Celiac disease (in which the intestines cannot process gluten) and a milder form of gluten intolerance (which causes bloating and other digestive problems) are the obvious beneficiaries. But a growing number of health-conscious people, who believe there’s too much chemically processed wheat gluten in the American diet, are also taking advantage of these increasingly viable alternatives.

Jill Dewitt, the owner of Good Eats Boutique in Portland, estimates that requests for gluten-free desserts have increased 50 percent since she opened her shop on Stevens Avenue four years ago. Her customers are often moms looking for cupcakes to include in the box of goodies sent to school with their children, brides looking to feed gluten-free guests, and, most recently, a 70-year-old man just recently diagnosed with gluten intolerance looking for treats to augment his new diet. One bride from Kennebunkport even asked that the whole top tier of a three-tier cake be made gluten free because of her intolerance of gluten.

She was able to slice the top layer and feed the groom and herself (with none the wiser),” Dewitt says.

But can these gluten-free desserts really be as decadent as the real thing? Gluten, after all, is the protein in wheat that gives yeast bread and cakes their elasticity. Barley, rye and some oats also contain this protein. Gluten-free products use flours made from brown rice, white rice, garbanzo beans, almonds, coconut, and other alternatives. Tapioca and a product called xanthan gum are also important additions to the mix.

“But you can’t just substitute a different flour into a recipe,” says Dewitt. “It’s important to get the consistency right. There’s a science to it.”

Indeed, what seems to have changed since the bad old days of gluten-free cooking is the willingness of bakers to experiment with different products, teaching themselves through trial and error how to get the consistency and flavors right. A look at Amazon.com’s list of gluten-free cookbooks shows an explosion of titles in the past three years, as bakers and food writers seek to fill the growing demand for good gluten-free food.

Bevin McNulty, the owner of Bam Bam Baker in Portland, is one of the bakers who supplies Good Eats Boutique with gluten-free products. She also sells her GF wares – including whoopeie pies – at the Wednesday farmers market in Portland, and she’ll be opening her first retail shop on Commercial Street this month.

McNulty says the need for gluten-free products has tripled since she graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City in 2008.

“Everyone seems to know someone who can’t have gluten, for one reason or another,” she says.

McNulty doesn’t have Celiac’s disease, but she considers herself gluten intolerant. She discovered how much better she felt when she gave up gluten to lose weight five years ago, and decided to banish gluten from her diet (except when she goes out to eat).

“I noticed how much more energy I had,” she says. “And I don’t have brain fog anymore.”

McNulty decided to specialize in GF baking as a result. Her home kitchen is completely gluten free now. (Some with Celiac disease cannot tolerate even a stray bit of cross contamination from wheat flour.) She’s invested a lot of time and effort into perfecting such hard-to-make products as breads and pies. She says that xanthan gum, a corn sugar-derived substance that has traditionally been used as a thickening agent in dairy products and salad dressings, is a big help in regaining some of the elasticity lost with the elimination of gluten. But she also uses apple cider vinegar to good effect in her pie crusts. For her breads, she lines her bread pans with parchment paper to give the dough something to cling to.

“You have to try different things to get the poof back,” she says.

While all this careful substituting sounds good in theory, the proof is – to use an overused phrase – in the pudding, or in this case, the cupcake. So, I brought two cupcakes home from Good Eats Boutique last week: a gluten-free chocolate with mocha frosting, and a regular chocolate with white icing. Adding to the test: the mocha cupcake was also dairy free.

Both cupcakes looked airy and light as I unwrapped them from their paper. Both exhibited a smooth, rich texture as I sliced them in quarters to share with my family. I didn’t tell my husband, son and his girlfriend which was which, but after several samplings, we all noticed that the mocha cupcake was more moist (not dense like a brownie, just a bit more substantial than the other one). We actually preferred this gluten-free sample, since it made the regular cupcake seem a tad stale in comparison. We decided they were equally as decadent, however, and that if we hadn’t known that one of the cupcakes was gluten free, we wouldn’t have guessed it.

Dewitt says most of her customers have the same experience, which is why she doesn’t worry about being able to sell the five to six gluten-free products she stocks on her bakery shelves each day. She says she usually can order anything that isn’t on her shelves as a gluten-free alternative for delivery in a day or two.

“It’s important that when ‘Robin’ brings cupcakes to school, her friend ‘Billy’ can have the exact same thing,” says Dewitt. “I love wheat, but I’m just as happy without it.”

A daily newspaper reporter for many years, she is now well into her second career, English teacher at Bonny Eagle High School.