Food for Thought

Gluten-Free Goodness

New specialty bakery in Cumberland really takes the cake

Sarah Vallintine is filling a need with her new business, <a href=

buy viagra Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery, in Cumberland. “I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.” Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> Sarah Vallintine is filling a need with her new business, Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery, in Cumberland. “I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.” Photo by Lisa Graham

Cupcakes and cookies and pies—oh my! We all love the taste of baked treats, but for a growing segment of our population with gluten sensitivities, treats made from wheat don’t spell delicious, they spell disaster. That’s why Sarah Vallintine decided to open Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery in Cumberland—so everyone can enjoy tasty baked treats without worrying about getting sick.

Vallintine, 37, remembers being sick for most of her life, but it wasn’t until she was 27 that she finally found out why. The culprit was wheat—or gluten, to be more precise. “I remember a lot of pain while I was growing up,” recalls Vallintine. “I knew there was something wrong and over the years I saw a lot of doctors. Finally, after years of wondering, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease.”

Celiac disease is a common autoimmune disorder where those affected react to a substance called gluten. When one has Celiac disease, repeated exposure to gluten damages the villi and the micro villi of the small intestine. The villi are fingerlike structures that line the wall of the small intestine. These villi increase the surface area of the intestine, helping the body absorb nutrients. When the villi are damaged, proper breakdown of food is prevented, and nutrient deficiencies occur. This damage causes a wide array of symptoms, such as diarrhea, anemia, osteoporosis, joint pain, chronic fatigue, skin lesions, infertility, and dementia, to name but a few.

Gluten, which in Latin means ‘glue’, is a protein found in all forms of wheat, as well as other grains such as barley, rye, triticale, and sometimes oats. Gluten is what makes baked goods rise so nicely and what makes those baguettes so chewy. But for those with Celiac disease or with gluten sensitivity, gluten just makes them sick. Even just a tiny particle of gluten can mean hours of agony. “That’s the hardest thing when you have Celiac disease,” says Vallintine. “You always have to be vigilant about cross contamination.”

Living with undiagnosed Celiac disease causes many people to become severely malnourished, though it seems they eat normally. “I was always pretty skinny,” says Vallintine. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t put on muscle. It seemed I was always sick too. It wasn’t until after I went off gluten that I was able to get healthy again and finally put on some muscle.”

Thankfully, now that Celiac disease is on the radar of more doctors, less people are suffering for years wondering what’s wrong with them. Unfortunately, studies show that gluten intolerances are on the rise. The incidence of Celiac disease is four times as common as it was 50 years ago and it’s believed that people with gluten sensitivities make up seven per cent of the population. There are a few theories for this, but most attribute it to problems with over-hybridized wheat varieties or simple over-consumption of gluten products.

Sillycakes’ most popular item is their cupcakes, which many customers say are better than ones made with traditional wheat.  Photo by Lisa Graham

Sillycakes’ most popular item is their cupcakes, which many customers say are better than ones made with traditional wheat. Photo by Lisa Graham

Though a growing number of people are being forced to live a life without gluten, more and more people are voluntarily choosing to avoid gluten because they think it’s a healthier way to live.

“Most of my customers don’t even have Celiac disease,” Vallintine says. “In fact, I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.”

As a result, sales of gluten-free products have tripled during the last five years. “Gluten-free living isn’t a fad,” Vallintine says.

For those who must avoid gluten, though, saying goodbye to popular foods like bread and cakes can be quite burdensome. “When I was first diagnosed with Celiac disease it was really difficult,” she says. “It felt like I was missing so much. I remember that birthday parties were especially difficult because I couldn’t share the birthday cake with the others. I wanted to eat what my friends were eating. So after a while I started dabbling in gluten-free baking.

“My first experiments didn’t go exactly as planned,” Vallintine adds with a laugh. “In fact, it was quite the disaster at first. I made a few hockey pucks and what my mom called doorstops.”

Actually, anyone who has tried gluten-free baking will agree that baking without gluten is not easy. In fact, successful gluten-free baking is almost an art form.

According to Vallintine, things baked without gluten are very fragile. Gluten-free baked goods are also affected by environmental considerations such as altitude, temperature, and humidity—more so than normal baking. “There isn’t much structure for the dough to hold onto with gluten-free baking,” explains Vallintine. “It’s definitely more difficult than normal baking.”

After years of experimenting and much trial and error, Vallintine has mastered the art of gluten-free baking. Instead of hockey pucks and doorstops, Vallintine now bakes delicious gluten-free breads, hot dog and hamburger buns, gluten-free cakes, and everything in between.

Since Vallintine can’t use regular wheat flour she has to use other grains for her baking. “I try to keep my baked goods as healthy as possible, so I use flours such as rice flour, garfava, sorghum and coconut flour,” she says. “Rice flour has a milder flavor so I use that with coconut flour for the delicate baked goods such as cakes and pastries. Garfava and sorghum flours work well for buns or savory items.”

Though there are many people eschewing wheat, wheat alternatives are still on the pricey side. “The flours I use are more expensive than regular wheat flour, and I also have to use a lot of eggs in my baked goods,” Vallintine says. “Normal baked goods may not even have eggs. Those two things combined mean that gluten-free baking is normally more expensive.”

However, as more manufacturers of gluten-free ingredients enter the market, Vallintine hopes that the prices of her ingredients will come down.

Sillycakes Bakery offers the usual baked goods—golden loaves of bread, rows of cookies and muffins, glistening pies— but so far, Vallintine’s most popular item is the cupcake. “People say my cupcakes are the best,” Vallintine says proudly. “Even people who eat wheat say they can’t tell the difference. Actually, that’s the best compliment you can get when you’re a gluten-free baker—that someone can’t tell the difference between a normal baked good and my gluten-free baked good.”

Vallintine also makes gluten-free themed birthday cakes. Nicole Doucet is one of Vallintine’s regular customers and one of her biggest fans, especially after Doucet ordered a gluten-free birthday cake for her son’s third birthday. “I asked for a gluten-free chocolate zucchini cake. My son won’t eat veggies, so I try to hide them in baked goods. Everyone raved about how good this cake was. Not only did the car-themed cake look great, it tasted amazing!  By far one of the best cakes I have ever had!” Doucet says.

Though Vallintine’s cupcakes and birthday cakes are quite the rage, she’s also becoming known for her larger cakes, including wedding cakes. “Sillycakes is the only bakery in the Valley doing custom gluten-free wedding cakes,” Vallintine says. With gluten-free diets so popular, many wedding organizers have realized that gluten-free desserts need to be on the menu.

“Sometimes the bride gets a regular cake for the majority, then a gluten-free one for herself, a Celiac. Sometimes just a dozen cupcakes or a cake or pie are ordered for the gluten-free guests.” But according to Vallintine, sometimes the bride-to-be will taste the Sillycakes gluten-free wedding cake and decide it’s what she wants for everyone.

Though Sillycakes has only been operating for a few months, Vallintine already has a large following of regular customers. “Ninety per cent of my customers say they found out about me from my Facebook site. The Facebook site is good for continued communication too, as my customers get updates via Facebook that state what days I’m baking, what I’m baking, announcements, etcetera.”

Vallintine bakes from Tuesday through Saturday out of Carmie’s Cafe, located in downtown Cumberland. “Before it was Carmie’s Cafe this space used to be a commercial bakery,” says Vallintine. “However, Carmie doesn’t use the commercial ovens, so they’re mine to use. As a result, there are no issues with cross contamination, so I can call my baked goods completely gluten-free.”

And since Carmie’s is also a full functioning restaurant, even when Vallintine isn’t baking, the baked goods can still be purchased during Carmie’s regular hours, including Sundays and Mondays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm.

Sillycakes offers almost all the baked goods one can imagine. Vallintine makes bagels on Tuesdays, and other days she bakes breads, buns, cookies, muffins, scones, and of course, cupcakes. However, if someone pre-orders, Vallintine can usually accommodate any sort of baked item a customer may need.

“I try to accommodate special diet restrictions if I can. I can create sugar-free baked goods, and dairy-free items as well,” she says. “For example, the sugar-free breakfast muffin is very popular. It’s sweetened with apple sauce and it’s delicious.”

As well as getting the baked goods directly from Sillycakes, customers can also find Vallintine’s gluten-free goodies at Rhodo’s Cafe and Bistro, Amante’s Coffee House, and Benino Gelato.

Though Vallintine is enjoying the adventure of managing a gluten-free bakery, she has bigger plans for the future. “I’d like to open the only entirely gluten-free bakery/cafe here in the Comox Valley,” she says. “At an entirely gluten-free cafe you can walk in and order absolutely anything on the menu and know that it’s gluten-free. That’s heaven to me.”

Though baked goods such as cookies and cupcakes would never be considered health food, having the choice makes it easier for those with gluten sensitivities to cut gluten out of their diets, especially children. And like many others who have struggled with Celiac disease and serious gluten sensitivities, Vallintine knows that cutting out the gluten was the key to regaining her health.

“I just hiked the Comox Glacier with my husband,” says Vallintine with a smile. “There’s no way I could have done that when I was sick!”

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