Erin McKenna + Gluten-Free/Vegan Baking Science

So I’m pretty excited about this post. We are switching it up! Today I’m featuring two of my favorite things: an amazing female entrepreneur, and baking science! Can you think about anything better? How about the fact that this female entrepreneur is Erin McKenna. The gluten-free/soy-free/vegan bakery empire maven herself. She agreed to take some time out of her crazy busy schedule to do an (email) interview with me.

Oh you say you’re not familiar with Erin? That’s insane. You should be. She opened her first bakery in 2005 (formerly known as Babycakes, now Erin McKenna’s Bakery) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She had a vision of creating a place for those who normally cannot indulge in baked goods—the gluten, dairy, egg, and soy intolerant. But she also wanted an environment full of fun and, of course, cute uniforms.

Erin now has another store in LA, and a location at Disney World in Orlando as well! That makes three. She also writes cookbooks with the most recent being Bread & Butter—a savory exploration of vegan and gluten-free baking. On Radio Cherry Bombe (Heritage radio network), Erin talked about how difficult this venture was. Savory is a whole different beast from sweet baking, as I’ll explain shortly, and she wasn’t quite ready for that. But she’s amazing, so she pulled it off. Two recipes from this book are featured below. But first you must watch the promotion video. You’ll understand why I’m obsessed with her. Oh and she was also on Martha once. She’s a pretty big deal.

I’ve explained before how I spent a few weeks last summer in New York here and there, so of course I made Babycakes one of my top priorities. I originally read about Erin McKenna in issue number two of Cherry Bombe (if you can’t tell from the millionth mention of Cherry Bombe, I’m a tad infatuated with them…it’s a problem), and I just knew I had to visit her bakery while I was there. I luckily have no need for gluten-free or vegan baked goods, but the technique is extremely difficult to master. Baking is hard to get right every time. Period. Let alone when you have to use unusual ingredients! If only for my scientific curiosity, I needed to taste this. And I fell in love with everything. I probably looked like a toddler at their birthday party because I kept buying stuff. The cookies. And the cupcakes. And the outfits! I have a commemorative mug now, and it’s definitely my favorite. It even wins out against the Audrey Hepburn mug. It is that good people.

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So, without further ado, here is my little chat with Erin! She was in the middle of getting the Disney location up and running, so I am extremely thankful to her for taking some time to speak to a fan.

What exactly clicked in your mind when you realized that you wanted to own your own bakery? Did you know right away the particular concept that you wanted your bakery to be? Did that concept change as you developed the bakery?

It was a flash of inspiration and a vision of what the bakery was and what it would mean to people. I never veered off the path from that because I knew that in it was where the magic was. Lots of people tried to put in their opinions of what it should be but I would not listen.

***(Also listen to her talk from Cherry Bombe Jubilee this year on Radio Cherry Bombe about how meditation helped her realize her potential)

How did you begin to approach recipe development? I know that not many recipes existed for gluten-free baked goods (let-alone vegan and soy free as well) even just five years ago, so where did you start?

It was all very intuitive and through trial and error. There was no direct point A to point B method. It was messy, reckless and inspired.

How has your approach to this style of baking changed over the years?

Less messy! More in control because I know how ingredients perform.

You mentioned on Radio Cherry Bombe that your style is very experimental toward new recipes. Is this still the case?

 Always

How did you begin to tackle and source the lesser-known ingredient world of vegan/gluten-free?

It was really a trial and error thing, I knew nothing about these ingredients so through countless failures I began to understand what they brought to the table.

Is there something that you have wanted to create for the bakery or for a cookbook that you have not mastered yet?

Brioche.

What’s next for Erin McKenna?

I’m not sure, I’m never sure! Another store? Ice cream? Writing a book on meditation? I am going to let life guide me there. I’m always paying attention to cues.

Where can I get one of those absolutely adorable outfits?

We don’t sell them but I actually think that we should!

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So there you have it folks! Erin McKenna. But upon conceptualizing this post, I wanted to get a little more scientific. Regardless of your opinion of or need for gluten-free, soy-free, and vegan baking, the technique involved is obviously intense. Do you want to know a little more about how to approach this mysterious realm? Check it out! Or you can skip ahead to the recipes. That works too.

The most important challenge to overcome in breads is mimicking the gluten from the wheat flour that you’ll be missing with gluten-free baking. Gluten is a protein matrix that creates the structure of breads. It traps air and also allows for elasticity. Often a mixture of approaches is used to achieve this. A thickener combination is one such approach. Starch is the magical little part of flour that is responsible for thickening your gravies. And gums like xanthan gum are used in plenty of food products to thicken things like smoothies. Together, they can increase the viscosity of the batter just enough so that the air has a harder time escaping during baking. It also prevents any of the other ingredients from settling to the bottom of the dough. A second approach is to add a flour from a source other than wheat. Such flours add proteins that can mimic some of the functions of gluten. The proteins will help to trap air in the bread dough and set up a structure similar to normal bread dough. Together, the thickening strategy and the protein from alternative flours will get you pretty darn close to wheat-based breads. The protein will act as the middle-man between the ingredients and the air bubbles and keep them grounded in the thick dough. And voila! Gluten-free bread.

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As for the vegan component, that is really more of an issue in confectionery-type products like cookies and cakes. Cakes rely on eggs to create the airy structure and prevent them from falling. Gluten is more minimal in most cakes, so adding other proteins here is key. Alternative flours like sorghum or oat flour can create a loose structure similar to the albumins in egg whites. The gelatinization of the starch from these flours or additional starch ingredients create that soft crumb we are all familiar with, so optimization of the starch gelatinization is extremely important. Using sweeteners other than sucrose, or table sugar, can actually make it easier for this process to occur. Decreasing the amount of water in the batter can also help with ensuring that the cake does not collapse because increasing the ratio of chemical leavening power to the protein will optimize the structure formation and keep the cake light and fluffy. In addition, adding an acid like apple cider vinegar will increase the effectiveness of the leavening agents like baking soda by reducing the pH and creating more carbon dioxide.

Cookies rely a lot on the butter and eggs for their textbook structure. Beating sugar into butter creates holes that cause the dough to become light and fluffy by pushing air into it. Vegetable shortening can be used to mimic this, but some prefer the use of healthier fats like oils. These can work, but the natural emulsifiers in butter and eggs will not be present to help bind the dough together. The fat and water ingredients will not be especially comfortable with each other. The natural emulsifier in eggs, lecithin, can be extracted from soy and added to these doughs, but Erin has created the extra challenge for herself of not using soy ingredients. Often a gum can be added to help with this problem by thickening the dough and getting in between and all around the fat and water-based ingredients preventing them from separating. A replacement for eggs themselves has been tackled a bunch of different ways. The most successful approach seems to be using an ingredient such as arrowroot or flaxseed to create a similar texture to eggs. Finally, preventing spread of your cookies is very important! Addition of starches and alternative flours will bind the water and create a framework for the cookie’s shape and structure.

Here are two wonderful recipes from Erin McKenna’s brand new cookbook, Bread & Butter. You can purchase Bread & Butter and all of her cookbooks from Amazon or your favorite retailer. There are plenty of inventive recipes and ideas for your foray into gluten-free, vegan baking. Click on the recipe images to get a closer view!

 

Reprinted with permission from Bread & Butter by Erin McKenna. Photographs by Davide Luciano and Clarke Tolton. Cherry Bombe cover from Cherry Bombe. Featured photo from BabyCakes Covers the Classics, Tara Donne photographer.

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2 Comments

  1. Ella Miller
    June 21
    Reply

    Dose it take longer to bake something vegan than other baked goods because it does not rise/expand as much or at all? Because thre is no eggs or butter to catch all the air.

    • Kelsey
      June 22
      Reply

      Hi Ella! It really depends on what you’re talking about. With breads, it is the lack of gluten that threatens the rising potential. The gluten creates the structure that catches air. Because of this, you try to create as close of a structure as possible with other proteins, thickeners, and starches. As for baked goods like cookies and cakes that rely much more on egg proteins, optimizing the strength of your leavening agent is important. That would be your baking soda or baking powder. Decreasing the pH of your dough or batter by using an acid like apple cider vinegar can help to achieve this. Then, using alternative flours can get you a base structure to catch that leavening power.

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