Melanie Hohman, a civil engineer by trade but a baker at heart, broke down crying Friday afternoon while recounting how some families with autistic children were telling her how hard it was to come by gluten- and sugar-free cupcakes and dairy-free birthday cakes for their little ones, whose behavior can be affected by their diets.
Because eggs, milk, butter and sugar happen to be the essential ingredients to birthday cakes and cupcakes, the Costa Mesa resident scratched her head and took her dilemma into the kitchen.
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen — but that wasn't the case with Hohman, who, for several months straight, started marathon baking sessions, using her husband as "the guinea pig."
It was right around the seven month that she finally hit gold, coming up with an assortment of special recipes that proved so successful she has since started her own catering business, Sensitive Sweets.
The business is operated out of the kitchen of Francesca's Restaurant at the Best Western Newport Mesa Inn on Newport Boulevard, across from the Orange County Fairgrounds.
"It's getting to the point where ... I've been so busy lately, and I happen to have a hard time turning people down," said Hohman, 36, who's sensitive to the needs of children with special dietary needs because she has one of her own.
Her son, Bradley, wasn't feeling right at 3 months of age.
Any time he ate wheat, dairy, soy, beans and a variety of fruits and vegetables, he'd break out in red from "head to toe."
As it turns out, Hohman's breast milk, which was used for nursing, wasn't quite right because she wasn't eating right. Bradley had severe food allergies and severe eczema.
"Yellow fluid would ooze from his body," said Hohman, adding that as her son got older, he'd scratch himself to the point of bleeding.
So Hohman had to rearrange her and her son's eating habits.
The changes made a world of difference for Bradley, who is now 2.
It became a passion that has now led to a full-fledged catering business that has even rubbed off on Francesca Gibson-Turner, an Italian whose grandparents hail from Sicily and who makes a mean Tuscan-style pie.
"I'm thinking about making some of my pizza dough gluten-free," Gibson-Turner said, adding that chicken nuggets are headed to the wheat-free portion of her restaurant menu.
The reality, the pair says, is that there isn't much of a difference in the way everything tastes if you take great care and mix it up a little in the kitchen.
For example, Hohman, in order to make a cake that tastes old-fashioned, uses rice flour instead of wheat flour.
Other substitutes include tapioca and sorghum flour, canola oil, bananas and carrots.
Myra Sonnenberg, who has a 4-year old with autism and another with food allergies, can attest to the great taste. She's been a customer of Hohman's since March, when Hohman just started to get her catering business up and running.
"I remember I needed a sugar-free birthday cake that was healthy for my twins' birthday in March," said Sonnenberg, a Huntington Beach resident. "The last cake I made for them was as flat as a pancake, and it just about tasted like one."
Enter Hohman, who worked her magic and produced a birthday cake that three quarters of the 70 people ate at the birthday party.
Since then, the demand for her "sweets" has been overwhelming.
To taste how a gluten-free or sugar-free cupcake fares, hit up the fundraiser Hohman is having inside the dining room of Francesca's from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Proceeds from the $5 cupcakes will go toward Generation Rescue, which helps autistic children.
More information or reservations, call (949) 371-6082 or visit www.SensitiveSweets.com.