As the number of Americans reporting some level of gluten intolerance — an estimated 3 million — increases, so does the confusion about what to serve these guests at a party and where to buy it. Gluten-free savory items aren't hard to find, but sweets to punctuate a luncheon or dinner party are more difficult. New Orleans bakeries are meeting the challenge with gluten-free pastries to please everyone's sweet tooth.
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat. All wheat contains gluten, and almost 95 percent of all gluten comes from wheat, but there are surprising sources in the average diet, including processed meats and meat substitutes like veggie burgers and imitation bacon or crab.
In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued rules for product labels and established the definition of "gluten free." According to the FDA, a food may be labeled "gluten free," "free of gluten," "no gluten" or "without gluten" if it contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of the substance. Many doctors, scientists and celiac disease advocacy groups agree that 20 ppm is a safe threshold for gluten-intolerant people, although some independent third-party organizations (such as the Gluten Free Certification Organization, or GFCO) will endorse a product only if it contains less than 10 ppm. The FDA maintains that testing equipment does not reliably detect less than 20 ppm of gluten in food products, and recommends consumers consult a doctor to determine the amount of gluten each individual can consume.
Some grains can be processed to remove the problem protein, but those grains — as well as naturally gluten-free products processed alongside gluten-containing grains — may have trace amounts of it and still receive the FDA's certification if levels remain below 20 ppm. Labeling still is voluntary, and the FDA does not sanction or accredit any third-party organizations' claims or regulations (like the GFCO). Despite increased precautions, it still is difficult to call any product 100 percent gluten free.
Commercial bakeries carry a risk of cross-contact between gluten-free and gluten-containing foods, but cooks can take steps to minimize those risks, like using dedicated equipment for gluten-free baking. Some customers request gluten-free sweets because of disorders like celiac disease, while othets want to explore the nutritional effect of excluding wheat from their diets.
Many bakers require at least 48 hours notice for party-sized batches of gluten-free treats, longer for cakes and larger items.
Jean Schroeder, wedding coordinator at Maurice French Pastries, notes an increase in requests for the bakery's gluten-free cupcakes for a couple of reasons."It's about half and half: half health concerns, half gluten sensitivity," she says.
Maurice's has a few naturally gluten-free baked goods on its regular menu, including its chocolate decadence cake. Almond meal replaces wheat flour in gluten-free pastries and cakes. Pricing for these specialty items is about 25 percent higher than regular menu pricing, so a two-layer cake that serves 20 guests will cost about $60. Maurice's also is exploring options for gluten-free wedding cakes.
Sucre's macarons are naturally gluten free, as are its chocolates (except the malted milk variety) and the flourless chocolate torte. Macarons and chocolates are available in box sets, with the 15-piece box costing around $30; a 9-inch torte that serves 12 to 16 guests costs $55. For special events, Sucre offers a macaron tree: several tiers of colorful macarons stacked in a tower resting on an inedible base, starting at $125.
For hosts craving petits fours for their next soiree, Drip 'N Sip's Kim Perrot has created a proprietary blend of flours to create the treat in a gluten-free format. She reports a dramatic increase in the number of requests for gluten-free sweets and has expanded the shop's offerings to fill the void left by the closing of The PeaceBaker, a Metairie business dedicated to baking for customers with food allergies.
Drip 'N Sip's staff takes several precautions to avoid cross-contact in their kitchen, which also bakes goods containing flour, and they use dedicated pans and utensils for gluten-free baking, Perrot says. The most frequently requested items are cupcakes, which come in an array of flavors including red velvet and carrot cake, and cost about $3.50 each, less for large orders. The shop's large selection of cake and cheesecake options is available gluten free.
"We strive to create gluten-free items that everyone can enjoy, not just those with food allergies or celiacs," Perrot says.
Girls Gone Vegan also is experiencing a boost in orders from customers with food allergies.
"Some of our customers have issues with both gluten and egg or dairy, so sometimes our cakes are the first dessert they have had in years," co-owner Hayden Aley says.
Girls Gone Vegan's kitchen is completely gluten free. The company uses its own blend of certified gluten-free brown rice flour, white rice flour, oats, sunflower seeds, cornstarch, tapioca flour and two flours that are hand-milled by the bakers. Best-sellers include blondies and brownies, especially the shop's Wedding Cake Bars, which cost about $24 per pan and have a lengthy shelf- and freezer-life. A 9-inch layer cake starts at $36 and can be customized. Aley and her team also sell donuts by the dozen for $24, and delivery is available.