Do you know how scary it is to be diagnosed with celiac disease or a life-changing food allergy and have your life turned upside-down?
That’s the way I felt when I got my devastating celiac diagnosis in April 2012.
I remember the day so clearly.
I was sitting in my car in the airport parking lot. I was waiting for my parents to call me and tell me they were ready for pick-up. I was eating a Subway sandwich and minding my own business.
The phone rang. It was my doctor. I had just been there for my annual visit.
She called to tell me that my blood work came back and that I tested positive for celiac disease. She told me I couldn’t eat anything with gluten it in any more starting now.
I put down my Subway sandwich and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Food, as I knew it, was going to be different from now on. It was scary. I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t know how to bake. I didn’t know which gluten-free products were good, bad, etc.
Around the same time, The Gluten Escape opened (at its old location off I-225 and DTC Blvd.).
When I went into the bakery, I felt I had a safe home there. I could order anything I wanted off the menu and enjoy a few sweet treats without worry. It was a place where I could enjoy a few treats while I figured out how to navigate this a gluten-free diet and learn to make things myself.
I believe every city needs a gluten-free bakery so that those who are newly diagnosed with celiac disease or a food allergy can have a safe place to go. That’s why if you suffer from food allergies, you MUST support your local bakery however you can.
So when The Gluten Escape (7255 South Havana St. #110, Centennial) invited me to try some of its St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes in exchange for a blog post about the bakery, I said, “Yes!” I want to do all I can to ensure The Gluten Escape is here for a long time, helping people who can’t freely eat at regular bakeries and cafes.
The Gluten Escape gave me three kinds of beautifully decorated gluten-free cupcakes to help me celebrate St. Patty’s Day: Green Velvet, Irish Cream and Funfetti. Clever!
I brought home the cupcakes, snapped a few photos, and then enlisted the help of my kids for an all out taste-test.
The kids loved the Irish Cream cupcake the best. It was a moist, chocolate cupcake and, well, who doesn’t love chocolate?!? The Irish Cream cupcake was topped with a green frosting and some shamrock-shaped candies and green sprinkles.
I loved all of the cupcakes. The Green Velvet is so delicious. It’s a green cake with white icing and green sprinkles. The Funfetti is a vanilla cake with colorful specks in it and it is topped with white frosting and a large shamrock candy.
I thought the cupcakes were all moist, sweet and really fun to eat! (Yes, it’s possible to have fun when you’re gluten-free – ha!)
All food made at The Gluten Escape is free from gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts and eggs, and the staff can fulfill special dietary needs upon request too. This place does it all!
Over the years, the staff has experimented with different flours. They use things like arrowroot, sorghum, sweet rice flour, brown rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch in their gluten-free treats.
The Gluten Escape makes beautiful birthday cakes, brownies, bagels and, you name it, they probably can make it! I think the Denver gluten-free bakery has come a long way in improving its recipes and techniques. The cupcakes the staff provided for me to sample were some of the best baked goods I’ve had there in all my four years as a patron.
The owner of The Gluten Escape is Kathy Letson. I’ve met Kathy a few times in passing. You can find her working at the bakery on any given day. She works hard and does it all – baking, cleaning, marketing, customer service, cashier, etc.
I asked Kathy a few questions about her journey to start her own gluten-free bakery and what are some of her biggest challenges to date. Here’s what she had to say:
Q. What prompted you to start your gluten-free bakery?
A. One of my sons was very small when he was an infant and was not growing. It was scary. Initially, I was motivated to have him grow and be healthy and strong. As he got older (and stronger and healthier) these recipes and techniques became part of the fabric of our family. I wanted to help other families, especially kids with food restrictions. It’s a tough road. I always wished for somewhere social to have a ‘mom date’ with my son. The Gluten Escape came from that wish.
Q. What is the most common requested item / best selling item?
A. We have two products which appeared in 5280 Magazine, one in the “Best Of” class and one as a “Bonus Bite.” Our dark chocolate brownie won best gluten free brownie and our cinnamon rolls received the Bonus Bite write up. Because of these awards, many customers come in seeking brownies and cinnamon rolls. Equally popular are the red velvet cupcakes, pecan Mexican wedding cookies, everything bagels, ciabatta bread and, of all of our gluten-free cakes, the chocolate is probably the most popular.
Q. I understand you cannot taste test many of the items you make because you have many allergies yourself. How do you know the food is good or quality control the items going out?
A. When I design a product, the first thing I do is work for a good texture because textures are SO important in allergen-free baking and they are challenging too. I will review the texture by cutting, breaking, freezing, reheating and tasting a small piece. I confess, I don’t always swallow the pieces! If the texture is correct, the taste is easier. I generally cook by smell and I always have. It’s a good thing because of all my food issues. (I can tell if the frosting is sweet enough by smelling it.) I rely on my staff, customers and friends and family for feedback. We generally make a product three, four or five times before putting it out for sale.
We do weekly quality control in two ways. As an added layer of protection for our customers, we perform testing for gluten randomly in our products each week. The bakers do not know what is tested and I don’t either. (In five years we have never found even a trace of gluten.) In addition, we taste test products regularly, especially if something does not break, crumb, slice or hold properly, or if it bakes or looks different.
Q. Where do you get your recipes? How have they evolved?
A. My recipes come from listening to requests and I have a strange gift. I look at a recipe and my brain will adapt it to be gluten-free and dairy-free. For the egg-free and vegan options, I generally have to work a little harder. There are some products that I’ve managed to make and they look fine, but they are not good in texture or taste so I won’t sell them.
My all-time favorite cookbook remains, The Joy of Cooking. Carol Fenster put out a fantastic cookbook a few years ago and I love her work. She and Betty Hageman were the first to blend different flours to manage textures, and they revolutionized gluten-free baking. I’m grateful for their work and inspiration!
Q. What are your three best tips/hacks for baking gluten-free goods?
A. #1: Avoid white rice flour. It is less expensive but it’s gritty and has no nutritional value. #2: While you are learning, bake in the mornings if you can. Our altitude, dryness and changes in air pressure impact gluten-free baking. #3: Ask questions and read labels, even labels you’ve read before. Manufacturers change ingredients and don’t advertise it.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face professionally?
A. We have two big challenges. One is overcoming people’s’ prior bad experiences with allergen-free foods. There’s a stigma about lack of taste and poor texture. We see people who have essentially given up on having good nutrition and fun tasty foods. And there are so are so many products flooding the gluten-free and allergen-free markets now that are not healthy, tasty or in line with good nutrition. For instance, we don’t use white rice flour anywhere in the bakery. It’s gritty and has no nutritional value. But it’s everywhere in gluten-free mixes and products. I know why it’s there: It’s inexpensive. But ultimately if you throw away half of a loaf of bread because you don’t like it, then not only have you wasted money, but also you have no bread. It’s a vicious cycle. We are here to make products that you will enjoy and you will finish.
Our other challenge is having people understand the amount of time it takes to make our products. People are used to going to the market and having food instantly available. So we have an immediate cultural tension because we make each cake, cookie, cupcake, loaf of bread, cinnamon roll and brownie by hand. There’s a person making each mix, blending the ingredients and baking and packaging each item. I cringe when someone calls and wants a dozen dinner rolls or a cake for a dinner later that day. It’s hard. It takes hours to make a loaf of bread. So we laugh and we try to overproduce a little each day for those times that people get caught unprepared. Our customers have learned to call and order ahead. We know they appreciate the care and attention we give to their food. And they know we appreciate their business and their trust.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face personally?
A. The biggest challenge I have is capturing new recipes. I make most things up without a recipe and I love the flow of creating. The joke here is that I can make anything once. But replication is the key to quality. I’ve gotten better at recording measurements and techniques, but I admit that many recipes are scribbled on small scraps of paper!
Head over The Gluten Escape to get these fun St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes (actually, pre-order them to make Kathy’s life easier 🙂 )
The Gluten Escape also will have fun spring-themed cupcakes, Easter cakes, heart-shaped cakes for Mother’s Day as well as giant decorated cookies for your favorite gluten-free graduate!
And of course, no birthday would be complete without a birthday cake. The staff at The Gluten Escape will help you create a beautiful birthday cake to celebrate your big day gluten-free style!
If you want to learn more about The Gluten Escape, visit them online at www.TheGlutenEscape.com.
Disclosure: The Gluten Escape provided six gluten-free cupcakes in order for me to write this post.