The Path to Gluten Free
I often describe things in my life as happening organically referring to something that happens naturally over time, an organic process. For me personally Back to Eden’s transition to becoming a completely gluten free bakery is a very organic one, a journey near and dear to my heart (and stomach).
When I started out baking in 2005 gluten free was not even on my radar. Nothing I ever baked in the first two years of my baking career was gluten free unless by default and the whole concept was so foreign to me that it never even crossed my mind. I really didn’t see it anywhere. There were hardly any bakeries doing it, very few books about gluten free baking and not many gluten free items on the shelves. Nobody was going out of his or her way to directly accommodate this particular dietary choice. In 2005 quality vegan baked goods were hard to come by and now they are in abundance.
When Back to Eden started out doing wholesale in 2007 with New Seasons and local coffee shops we didn’t offer any gluten free baked goods and at the time people were fine with that. They were honestly just looking for great vegan baked goods. About 6 months into business we were approached by a small mostly gluten free cafe looking for some vegan, gluten free baked goods. Although I had no experience with gluten free baking I decided to give it a shot because I really liked the cafe owners and besides I really enjoy a challenge. I bought a prepackaged all-purpose GF flour mix and basically just replaced it one-to-one in my gluten-filled recipes. To my standards they weren’t great and had a much grittier texture than it’s gluten counterpart. But the cafe owners loved them so I continued to supply them with muffins for a few months until the cafe shut down. And that ended my gluten free baking journey, for the time.
One thing I learned right off the bat with gluten free flours is that some were neutral in flavor and some were quite the opposite. I much preferred the flavors of rice, sorghum, tapioca, potato and coconut flours over the bean flours like garbanzo and fava, which had an almost chemical or metallic smell and taste to me. I figured at some point I would want to just mix my own to get exactly the product I was looking for but that was down the road. At that time I just needed to focus on fine tuning my current recipes and getting the storefront open and ready for business.
When our storefront opened in September of 2009 nothing was being made with gluten free flour although items like nut truffles and amaranth bars were gluten free by default. At that point all of our pies, cakes, cupcakes and morning pastries relied upon using wheat flour. Now one of the many advantages (at least I think so) of having a storefront is the ability to respond directly to your customer’s requests and desires. While some requests are specific and infrequent it didn’t take long before the number one request we were getting was for “more gluten free!” So much demand was pouring in that it became quickly apparent that I had to do what I could to create a few gluten free baked goods that I could really stand behind and a flour blend I was happy to work with.
In the spring of 2010 I started playing around with a ton of gluten free flours. I was pretty much mixing anything I could get my hands on, whether it was economical or not. At times it was even fascinating to see the different possibilities that could arise from gluten free flours. I finally settled on my first “house blend” flour mix that consisted of white and brown rice flour, potato and tapioca flour, cornstarch, coconut flour and xanthan gum. It was a pretty good mix and everything seemed to be going smoothly. People were very pleased to now have muffins, cupcakes, and cheesecake now gluten free but I knew the mix was still evolving.
I too was starting to evolve. In the beginning, gluten free baking was no more than meeting a demand for me and I didn’t have any personal attachment to it. I knew that it was something people wanted and that it stayed within the parameters of my moral compass so I kept doing it. But in the fall of 2010 when my business and life partner John was told to follow a strict gluten free diet due to some digestive issues, it suddenly became personal. At about the same time my best friend Jessica moved to town for three months to become a personal chef and wellness coach for my mother who had contracted Lyme disease a few years prior. She immediately put my mom on an “anti-Inflammatory diet” which is free of all gluten, sugar, dairy and meat and has been known to minimize the effects of the disease. As an experiment and a show of solidarity we all committed to going gluten free together. And honestly, once again, I’d have to say it felt “organic”. Even if I was not directly affected by gluten the way others around me were it was clearly the next step in my dietary evolution.
Within a month’s time we were all feeling considerably better, my mother included. John was feeling a vast improvement with his digestion and an overall “lightness” that had been missing from years past. We all felt this lightness, which made the journey ahead seem far less daunting and yes, even exciting. During this time I became very inspired by gluten free baking and was expanding my horizons with gluten free flour and experimenting with gluten free breads and raw cheeses. It’s funny how sometimes you can gain inspiration from the removal of something. Somehow taking gluten out of the equation helped draw the inspiration back in.
Over time I realized that our “house blend” gluten free flour needed to change to become more allergy friendly and honestly just more versatile. When you are doing a lot of production it really helps to have a go-to all-purpose flour that truly works in every application. Given my deepening awareness around allergens in general I wanted to take out three of the major players in our mix that were easily removable, namely corn starch, potato flour and coconut. Corn and potato left the mix for allergy’s sake and coconut because it just wasn’t going to work in a savory application. At about the same time I was transitioning away from xanthan gum in place of a more natural option, guar gum, which is simply a bean, dried, hulled and ground to a fine powder. Out of the process of stripping down the original flour mix to make it more pure and digestible for everyone evolved our current “house blend” mix that is incredibly versatile. We use it in everything from pie and quiche crust to cakes, cookies and scones.
Around the beginning of 2012, after our mix was perfected and the product was turning out great I became inspired to start playing around with the wheat-based products to see what it would entail to turn everything gluten free. Cake was the first to make the transition and no one knew the difference. Still just an experiment and not something I was strongly considering I was increasingly curious to see just how far I could take it. After all, here I was someone with no noticeable issues consuming gluten but I felt great eating gluten free. Why not make something everyone could feel good eating? Luckily (and with a little effort) everything translated great to gluten free and the reception overall has been astounding. People who were not gluten free were referring to some of our new baked goods as the best they’d ever had, gluten free or otherwise. Inevitably this gave me the confidence to turn this experiment into something concrete.
I knew in order to make the transition I would be letting some people down seeing how some of the specialty pastries would no longer be gracing the pastry case (at least for now). But the trade off would be the greater satisfaction that everyone could eat at Back to Eden, vegan or not and now gluten free or not. The same way people light up when they learn that everything in our store is available to them because it is vegan we now get to provide our gluten free customers with the same experience. It just feels much more in line with our personal goals to make good nutritious food that is accessible to all diets. Vegan, gluten free just feels better to us personally and we know it will feel better to most if not all of our customers when they give it a chance.
Our baking facility made the official transition to all gluten free in July of this year. We no longer have any wheat flour in our baking facility and only produce 100% gluten free and vegan products. We are genuinely proud of everything we bake and everything we serve to you, our loyal customers. The support you have all shown us through the years is what has made our ability to evolve and better serve you possible. We love each and every one of you and are eternally grateful to you for being the cornerstone of Back to Eden’s success and for believing in us through this “organic” process.
Co-Owner and Executive Chef