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Top bakeries making high-end gluten-free treats

August 09, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Gluten-free foods
Gluten-free foods (Mary MacVean )

Some of the best bakeries in Los Angeles are heeding the call for gluten-free desserts. Short Cake, Sycamore Kitchen and Huckleberry have all developed more than just a flourless chocolate cake or a macaroon to satisfy the strong demand for baked goods without wheat, barley or rye.

“You can’t deny there’s  a huge demand for gluten-free pastries,” said Karen Hatfield, owner and baker at Sycamore Kitchen, on LaBrea Boulevard near 1st Street.

Hourie Sahakian, baker at Short Cake, has lived grain-free, and that’s lucky for her customers who don’t eat gluten. She makes sure they are taken care of with such treats as a cheddar-corn-chili bread pudding and a chocolate banana muffin.

“I wasn’t going to make a muffin unless I knew it was going to taste like a regular muffin,” she said one morning outside the bakery in the Original Farmers Market. And she wanted products that were different from those already in the glass case.

For these bakers, coming up with baked goods that any customer would be happy to eat is the goal, and it often takes lots of trial and error to get there. Bakers at Huckleberry in Santa Monica and the Culver City bakery Red Bread are trying to come up with a gluten-free bread they like, but so far they haven’t.

But Huckleberry’s pastry sous chef, Laurel Almerinda, says she’s committed to having gluten-free pastries available for her customers every day. And she’s enjoying the challenge.

“It’s been pretty fun to play with it, and pretty popular. People don’t have to feel bummed out. They’re so happy. It’s gratifying,” says Almerinda, also the pastry chef at Huckleberry’s sister restaurant Rustic Canyon – which always has at least one gluten-free dessert.

Almerinda said she and Huckleberry owner-chef Zoe Nathan started experimenting with gluten-free baking and found that many of their recipes could be made gluten-free with minor adjustments. So they make, on a rotating basis, carrot muffins and cakes, banana muffins, vanilla pound cake with fruit and others. And they always have a lemon-poppy tea cake.

“I just am getting started,” she said. “For me, mostly it’s about texture. It works for me when there’s a texture” from nuts or vegetables or fruit. A delicate olive oil cake, for example, “just collapses.”

Anyone who orders the pretty lemon cake at Sycamore Kitchen will get a rich, moist cake filled with delicious lemon custard. It’s essentially a filled financier. “I knew I wanted at least one thing gluten-free. I worked on it for quite a while,” Hatfield said.

There’s also a brownie “that is just a great brownie that happens not to have wheat flour,” she said.

“I want more, for sure. I want something coconuty, macaroon meets cake,” she said, adding that she “loves” coconut flour, one of the dozens of flours used by people who avoid gluten.

Several bakeries sell macaroons and flourless chocolate cakes – inherently gluten-free products. Susina, for example, has a delicious macaroon half coated in chocolate. No one could complain.

The talents of these bakers are obvious in the taste of the gluten-free items they produce.

Everyone in my office and home who tried the chocolate banana muffin was happy, and a gluten-free friend was positively giddy over Short Cake’s bread pudding. And that’s not meant to dismiss the cheddar corn muffin. A chocolate banana bread pudding is coming soon.

And Sahakian makes another, unusual gluten-free item that she calls Nutty Marshmallow Treats. They’re a takeoff on an Armenian dessert that she made with her grandmother. The consistency is like nougat, and the flavor is wonderfully rich with hazelnut, almond and pistachio.

One problem is that not everyone who works in the bakeries knows enough to satisfy the question, “What do you sell that’s gluten-free?” I got several uncertain answers, and occasionally a different answer in the shop than on the phone.

And one caveat: These bakeries generally make things with wheat flour, so customers with celiac disease, who need to avoid even the tiniest exposure to gluten, probably won’t be able to eat these gluten-free baked goods. Flour in a kitchen, for example, could deposit a bit of gluten anywhere.

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Mary.MacVean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter

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