People who avoid gluten will say they're grateful for the dozens of new products that have enabled them to eat bread, cookies, snack bars and other baked goods. They'll also sometimes say that many of those products are not very good, and contain ingredients they'd rather not eat.
Enter the upper echelons of bakers, people like Valerie Gordon, who has been experimenting with gluten-free cakes and cookies for her Valerie shops and cafes in Los Angeles. She has a variety of gluten-free baked goods these days: blue corn muffins, chocolate cake, brownies, chocolate chips cookies and a snack mix. And more is on the drawing board.
According to industry estimates, as many as one in three people are trying to eat less or no gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. About one in 135 people are thought to have celiac disease, which means that even the smallest amount of gluten will make them ill. Others may have less severe issues, or have decided that they are happier without gluten.
Whatever the reason, Gordon says she has seen a surge in requests for gluten-free choices.
"I just keep growing our gluten-free offerings because the demand is so huge," she said one morning at a table in her Echo Park cafe. "It's quadrupled in the last few years, and I don't feel it's going away."
She recently traveled the country on a tour for her cookbook, "Sweet," and everywhere she went people asked about gluten-free desserts, she said. "It shocked me."
Not gluten-free herself ("I'm all about wheat flour"), Gordon said her standards are high for the foods she makes without gluten. She tested the commercial alternatives to all-purpose flour, which can be found in supermarkets and health food stores; they are usually combinations of such things as potato and tapioca starches, and rice, almond and chickpea flours.
She found the taste to be "grassy, with an agricultural aroma," not what she wanted for baked goods.
She cooks some with almond and rice flours, but she said she has found a flour she uses frequently in place of wheat: buckwheat, which despite its name has no gluten. It adds, she says, a caramel flavor. Buckwheat and chocolate, she concluded, "are best friends, and even better friends with salt."
That led to a chocolate chip cookie with fleur de sel. She first tried making it with a popular commercial all-purpose flour substitute. But the recipe did not work well, and the results were difficult to control, she said. The key was that different flours absorb fat in different ways, leading to a different finished cookie.
Now she also makes a gluten-free chocolate layer cake with buckwheat flour. It's delicious and birthday-party rich. She's considering a rice flour shortbread cookie, and is testing some toasted brown rice cookies. "I love the aroma and the texture," Gordon said.
Gordon is not trying to make diet desserts: She uses chocolate and butter and other lucious ingredients.
One of her recent concoctions was the result of an ongoing collaboration with the design firm Commune. Commune's Roman Alonso doesn't eat wheat — though he makes an exception for baguettes in Paris — and asked for a grain-free granola. The result was something called Good, a mix that includes chocolate and seeds and nuts.
Gordon "created a monster. People love that stuff so much," Alonso said, "some of my friends call it 'chocolate crack.'"