Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Gluten-free Austinite turns dietary despair into bakery, cookbook

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
You can avoid gluten and have pancakes, too.

Never underestimate the motivational power of the moist crumb.

For those of us who don't spend much time thinking about gluten, biting into a fluffy, tender morsel of cake or bread isn't something we take note of.

But for millions of people like Austinite Karen Morgan who are gluten intolerant, the idea of going without a springy slice of pound cake or warm bite of freshly baked banana bread is devastating.

"The beauty of life was gone," Morgan says. Gluten-free foods available at the grocery store were "deplorable." "I was really depressed for a year." It might sound dramatic, but gluten isn't just found in breads. Stabilizers used in everything from ice cream to soy sauce often contain ingredients derived from wheat, rye or barley, which contain the gluten protein that triggers symptoms.

Morgan is one of an estimated 3 million Americans who have celiac disease, the most severe form of gluten intolerance, which damages the small intestines and prevents the body from absorbing nutrients. (Another 28 million Americans don't have celiac disease but are still sensitive to gluten and suffer symptoms like abdominal pain, gas or bloating when they consume it.)

For Morgan, the only way to escape the despair she felt was to bake her way out of it.

Without a culinary degree or food science background, Morgan got to work in the kitchen, testing and retesting gluten-free recipes for the foods she missed most. She started developing recipes that used flours made from whole grains other than wheat as well as nuts and tubers like yucca and sweet potatoes to make cakes, cookies, tarts, bars and even pancakes that tasted as good or better than the gluten-filled originals.

She didn't have the money to open a brick-and-mortar bakeshop, so she created one online (www.blackbird-bakery.com). Blackbird Bakery and her corresponding blog, The Art of Gluten-Free Cooking, quickly become a gluten-free eaters' sweet paradise.

As orders piled up from around the country, including from notable health-nut celebrities like Courteney Cox and Laura Dern, so did a book deal. Now, you can find 75 of her original creations in a new book, "Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free" (Chronicle Books, $24.95), which is available online and in bookstores nationwide. (Each recipe features stunning images created by Austin photographer Knoxy , who shot many of the pictures at the boutique Hotel Saint Cecilia in South Austin.)

Gluten creates a signature texture that can be hard to duplicate, but Morgan has found the right combination of flours to make just about any baked good as light as any you'd find made with traditional flour. It might have taken her 87 tries, but no more gritty chocolate chip cookies from gluten-free mixes for her.

Many of the recipes call for as many as six different kinds of flours, but Morgan says some of them, including garbanzo bean flour and almond meal, are available in the bulk section at grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Sprouts Farmers Market and Natural Grocers. Asian markets are a good place to find inexpensive glutinous rice and tapioca flours. Unlike many gluten-free bakers, Morgan prefers guar gum over xanthan gum, which she says caused baked goods to become dry.

Although the commercially produced gluten-free products have improved and multiplied dramatically in the past five years (the market is growing by about a third a year and is expected to be worth 2.6 billion in 2012, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness), baked goods are still hard to get right. "It's so patronizing that you're making me pay so much for something of such poor quality. (The cost of gluten-free baking) can be higher because you have to buy more ingredients," she says, "but you are making a trade, but you are trading up."

For Morgan, this first book is more than just a compilation of recipes. "I want to help people who are newly diagnosed to know that their life isn't over," she says. She hopes to connect with more Austinites who are going gluten-free by teaching cooking classes and, eventually, baking gluten-free desserts for local restaurants. (She has temporarily suspended sales of baked goods online in order to work on her next book, which will feature recipes for yeast breads including pizza dough, rolls and artisanal loaves.)

"It's an exciting culinary adventure to say, 'These are the limitations I've been given; how can I make something fabulous?' "

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Lemon and Rosemary Buttermilk Cookies

1/4 cup millet flour

1/4 cup tapioca flour

1/4 cup sorghum flour

1/4 cup glutinous rice flour

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup almond meal

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. guar gum

Zest of 1 lemon, plus more for garnish

1 Tbsp. minced fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish

7 Tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 cup organic buttermilk

For lemon icing:

3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the dry ingredients. Add the grated zest of 1 lemon and the rosemary and mix on low speed to blend. Add the butter and mix on low speed for about 3 minutes, or until blended. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat in the egg, then immediately add the buttermilk and beat until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. The dough will seem thin, but fear not; this is exactly what you want. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To bake: Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Using a 11/2-inch-diameter ice cream scoop, place balls of dough 11/2 inches apart on the prepared pans. You should have about 24. Bake one pan at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned on the edges.

Remove from the oven and leave the cookies on the pan for 5 minutes to set, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

For icing: In a medium bowl, whisk the lemon juice into the sugar until smooth. If the icing is too thick, add a few more drops of lemon juice and whisk to incorporate. Repeat until you have the consistency you desire. Makes 1 cup.

To ice: Using a small off-set spatula, apply the icing to each cookie in a circle. This icing sets fast, so immediately decorate each cookie with a pinch each of rosemary and lemon zest. Store in an airtight container in one layer for up to 3 days. Makes 2 dozen cookies.

Sunday Morning Pancakes

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. almond flour

1/2 cup millet flour

2 Tbsp. glutinous rice flour

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. guar gum

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup organic buttermilk

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Safflower oil cooking spray

In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and stir with a whisk to blend. Add the eggs, buttermilk and melted butter and stir until smooth. Heat a large skillet or a griddle over medium-low heat. Spray the pan with safflower oil spray. Run your hands under the faucet to wet your fingertips and then shake them over the hot griddle. If the water dances across the pan, the heat is just right to begin making your pancakes. For each large pancake, pour 1/4 cup batter into the pan; for small pancakes, use 2 Tbsp. of batter. Cook until bubbles form on the top of each pancake; turn and cook until golden brown on the bottom. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in a 200-degree oven while cooking the remaining batter.

To save time, mix all the dry ingredients in advance and keep in an airtight container in a cool dry place for up to 3 months. Makes 8 big pancakes or 16 small ones.

— Karen Morgan, 'Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free' (Chronicle Books, $24.95)

Karen Morgan book signing

Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Morgan also will be part of Edible Austin's Eat Local Week kickoff party from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at BookPeople.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives dough elasticity, helps it rise and gives bread a chewy texture. In some people, gluten can cause an auto-immune response in the small intestine that damages its ability to absorb nutrients. Celiac disease, a genetic disorder, is not the same as a wheat allergy, which triggers a histamine response. Symptoms can range from abdominal discomfort and bloating to migraines and malnutrition. Because no drugs have been found to successfully treat celiac disease, a change in diet is the only treatment.