Against the grain
Local businesses join the gluten-free movement, offering a large variety of tasty treats
Kyra Bussanich used to spend as many as eight hours working to fill a single order of cupcakes at her gluten-free bakery, Crave Bake Shop, because the small, from-scratch operation could only fit two dozen cupcakes in the oven at once.
A burgeoning gluten-free food movement - along with an appearance on the Food Network's 'Cupcake Wars' last December - has pushed Bussanich's business over the top, leading her to open Crave's first bricks-and-mortar shop this month, at 460 Fifth St. in downtown Lake Oswego.
At the new store, Bussanich turns out racks upon racks of cinnamon rolls, cookies, cream puffs, scones, cakes, donuts and other sweets, feeding the public's desire for gluten-free treats.
'Everything we make is gluten-free,' said Bussanich. 'In fact, we don't even allow gluten to cross the threshold into our shop. This is to keep our kitchen safe and to protect those who are extremely sensitive to gluten.'
A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu's patisserie and baking program who has worked as a pastry chef at restaurants like Clarklewis and Bluehour, Bussanich also enjoys experimenting with flavors and textures.
'I test and retest recipes,' she said. 'I make my gluten-eating friends try everything before I put it on the menu, just to make sure it is top notch. Our goal isn't just to have the best gluten-free treats, but to make them the best treats period. It has to wow and delight and tantalize the tastebuds and make people immediately crave more.'
As a result, many customers who don't have allergies still come back for the light, fluffy texture of Crave cakes and exotic flavor combinations. Her special-order business offers more than 50 flavors, many of which could be featured over time at the shop: Think orange vanilla cake topped with orange mascarpone whipped cream, vanilla cake soaked in espresso syrup and topped with toasted marshmallow meringue, and cardamom-pistachio cake topped with cardamom Italian meringue buttercream.
Jill Craven and Jane Slingsby recently left the shop carrying a variety of sweets, including cinnamon rolls, tiny cupcakes and cake balls, small rounded bites of cake enrobed in chocolate.
Neither of the Lake Oswego residents has trouble eating gluten, but they know people who do.
'It's good,' Slingsby after tasting one of Bussanich's cinnamon rolls. 'Certainly better than Cinnabon.'
Craven, a baker herself, also spoke highly of the new bakery.
'I think it's exciting,' Craven said. 'She could have opened the shop in the Pearl or on Hawthorne or in Northeast Portland. I'm thrilled they decided to have it in Lake Oswego. It's a good fit.'
You could call Crave Bake Shop a sign of the times.
As more and more people avoid gluten - whether for medical reasons or general dietary concerns - businesses are catering to the gluten-free crowd, and offering a greater variety of products for those intolerant of the protein, which is found in grains like wheat, spelt, rye and barley.
For the gluten intolerant, who have long avoided items like pizza, beer, bread and other baked goods, the gluten-free boom has opened a whole new world of options.
'Sure, some people eat gluten-free as a fad,' said Bussanich. 'But for those of us who have to eat gluten-free, it's nice to have more options. A year ago, I couldn't walk into Safeway and find gluten-free crackers. Now I can.'
Lamb's Palisades Market on McVey Avenue offers a 'Free From' labeling program to educate and inform customers who can't eat certain foods. The trend has carried over to restaurants as well. Many local establishments have at least one gluten-free entrée and dessert on their menus nowadays.
Alice Seeger, owner of Upper Crust Bread Co. at 41 B Ave., has for years offered breads made with spelt, which has less gluten than many grains. But she developed recipes for gluten-sensitive customers in the past year.
'I was getting questions almost daily about it, and on farmers market days I'd get multiple requests,' she said.
So, Seeger came up with a classic sandwich bread, a super-seed version and a zucchini bread - all wheat-free.
'We also are just coming out with an angel food for the berry season,' she said. Another item for those with a sweet tooth: A wheat-free chocolate walnut chewy cookie that tastes like a brownie.
But though Seeger doesn't use glutinous flours in these newer products, she hesitates to call them 'gluten-free,' instead opting for a label declaring them 'wheat-free' and 'no gluten added' because of the possibility of cross contamination in a kitchen that also churns out products using flour.
'About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, and they need to get stuff from a gluten-free bakery, which is a gluten-free environment where there is no possibility of flour dusting,' Seeger said. 'But a whole slew of people also are intolerant to wheat but can have some gluten exposure. We fall into that category.'
Awareness on the rise
Crave Bake Shop opened in May, which also happens to be National Celiac Awareness Month.
An estimated 3 million people have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and prevents nutrient absorption. And as many as 18 million are sensitive to gluten, meaning they have trouble digesting it.
Others might avoid gluten because of lifestyle choices, finding they feel better after eliminating it from their diets. While that could indicate gluten sensitivity, some health experts believe the improvement has a simpler source: Most people would benefit from consuming a healthier, well-balanced diet, regardless of whether they eat gluten.
But for those who must adhere to a diet that is strictly gluten-free, giving up many foods can be frustrating.
Bussanich, of Crave, has been eating gluten-free for almost six years, since she was 27 years old, for medical reasons. As someone who has experienced the challenges of making such a huge lifestyle change, she appreciates hearing stories about how grateful families are to find they can now enjoy the same foods as others.
Some customers haven't eaten cinnamon rolls for 15 years when they step into Crave Bake Shop, she said. Parents express relief when their gluten-intolerant 3-year-old daughter can finally 'eat the same cake that all the other kids enjoyed at the birthday party.'
'She got to feel included and 'normal.''
'Whenever I think of these stories, it touches me,' Bussanich said. 'There is such an emotional component to food in general; we all have memories of our favorite family meal, and scents of those foods can evoke strong nostalgia for the feeling of being safe, loved, happy and crowded around the table.
'When you introduce a serious food allergy or intolerance into the equation, the sense of nostalgia is even more powerful, because it's often combined with a sense of loss. … I'm just grateful that I am able to help.'
Crave Bake Shop is located at 460 S.W. Fifth St.,Lake Oswego; 503-212-2979; hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Upper Crust Bread Co is located at 41 B Ave., Lake Oswego; 503-697-9747; hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends.
Want to try eating gluten-free?
Crave Bake Shop will co-sponsor a free all-ages gluten-free community barbecue with Rudi's Gluten-Free Bakery, a Colorado-based company heading to Oregon on a road trip.
The event, featuring food and live music, will take place at Millennium Plaza Park from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. June 12.