It’s 2005. You’re sitting in your car in the Wegmans parking lot crying because your doctor called to let you know that your blood work came back positive; you have Celiac disease.
You take a deep breath and glance at the grocery list which, except for broccoli, orange juice and rice, is now totally moot because everything on the list contains gluten.
You steady your resolve and head into the store to find something to eat that will work with the new diet you are about to adopt. After walking up and down the aisles reading labels for nearly an hour, you find about 10 products that are labeled “gluten-free.”
You buy the best-looking cookies, pasta and frozen bread you can find and leave the store ready to give this new gluten-free lifestyle a try.
You get home and rip open the bag of cookies only to find yourself spitting them into the sink and asking yourself, “Did I buy styrofoam?”
Flash forward to the present. Wegmans, like most other grocery stores, has a gluten-free aisle in almost every store.
A gluten-free equivalent exists for almost any product imaginable. I eat bread, pasta and ravioli regularly; I just have to make them myself.
Just because gluten-free products have become easier to locate, however, gluten-free baking is an entirely different story because it’s an art few have perfected.
I have had my fair share of experiments when it comes to baking gluten-free. I’ve tried to make muffins, cupcakes and brownies from scratch, and while a few of them were tolerable, others were dense, dry, flavorless or gummy.
After numerous attempts (and subsequent failures), I came to the conclusion that I am clearly not the Picasso of gluten-free baking and that it’s probably best to not to quit my day job and instead, opt for packaged mixes.
I mean, who has time to bake from scratch anyway?
To learn more about gluten-free baking, I decided to reach out to three-time winner of Food Network’s hit show “Cupcake Wars” and owner of the award-winning bakery “Kyra’s Bake Shop”: pastry chef Kyra Bussanich.
Bussanich has not only mastered the art of gluten-free baking but she is also the first (and to date, only) gluten-free winner of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.”
Born and raised in Oregon, Kyra (pronounced “Keer-ah”) Bussanich was never a stranger to gluten intolerance.
“I always had stomach aches as a kid,” remarked Bussanich.
Like many of us with gluten intolerance, however, Bussanich didn’t think much of her frequent stomach pains as a child.
During Bussanich’s childhood, Celiac didn’t have the attention or funding that it does now, making it (for the most part) an unknown, rarely diagnosed disease.
“It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realized the pain was only getting worse,” remarked Bussanich. “It took about nine months of testing before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of 20.”
Unfortunately for Bussanich, the Crohn’s diagnosis did not mark the end of her pain.
“Even after my diagnosis, I still didn’t feel better. I was taking a list of prescribed medications to treat it, but they were unsuccessful,” Bussanich shared.
A few years later, Bussanich’s mother found herself struggling with similar stomach problems and decided to adopt a gluten-free diet which proved to be very successful.
Bussanich continued to suffer from regular stomach pains which hadn’t diminished despite years of taking various medications to treat her Crohn’s disease.
Finally, after years of missed parties and social gatherings due to chronic and debilitating stomach problems, Bussanich adopted the gluten-free diet at the age of 28.
At this point in her life, Bussanich was still unsure as to what she wanted to do for a living.
She had always loved to bake as a kid and used to joke about one day owning a bakery, but it wasn’t until hearing her husband read a quote from Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford University that the light bulb went off.
“My husband played Steve Jobs’ commencement speech and I just started to cry when he said the only way to do great work is to love what you do… I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu the next day to follow my dream of being a pastry chef,” said Bussanich.
Bussanich embarked upon her journey at Le Cordon Bleu where, nine months later, she graduated with honors despite not even being able to taste the products she made due to her gluten intolerance.
“I used to go home starving after classes and try to mimic what we learned using gluten-free ingredients,” remarked Bussanich.
Bussanich’s culinary training and education helped teach her how to effectively substitute ingredients without sacrificing taste. This formal education, paired with Bussanich’s creative thinking, resulted in some delicious recipes that were hard, if not impossible, to replicate.
“I wanted to learn the ways to successfully break the rules to make gluten-free pastries that taste delicious,” Bussanich said.
Soon after graduation, Bussanich opened up her own personal catering business while working at restaurants on the side.
“While I was working at various restaurants, I always wanted to make gluten-free dessert options to add to the menu,” Bussanich shared.
Just as she had done in pastry school, Bussanich would go home after work and perfect whatever gluten-free treat she had been dreaming up all day. Her expertise, creativity and bubbly personality are exactly what helped land her first job in catering.
“I was asked by my mom’s friend to make a gluten-free wedding cake and I jumped at the opportunity… Doing that wedding is what really got the ball rolling. People kept coming over to compliment me on the cake. They couldn’t believe that it was gluten-free,” said Bussanich.
It was at this wedding, her first event as a personal caterer, that Bussanich got her next job to cater a baby shower.
From there, her catering business snowballed through word of mouth and, soon enough, Bussanich was preparing her specialty baked goods for a number of events.
Her personal catering kitchen was booming and Bussanich was rapidly building a reputation for herself.
One night in 2010, as Bussanich was settled in at home watching “Cupcake Wars” on TV, her husband convinced her to apply to be on the show.
“I sent off a short paragraph about why I thought I would be good on the show, how I was different (baking entirely gluten-free, which they had never had before), and a few photos of myself and press clippings,” said Bussanich.
Bussanich’s gluten-free expertise and successful catering business earned her an invitation to appear on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” for the December 2010 Tree Lighting episode.
Bussanich’s invitation to appear on “Cupcake Wars” marked a big step for those with Celiac, as she was the first gluten-free baker to appear on the show AND the first (and to date, only) gluten-free winner.
“Cupcake Wars” December 2010 Tree Lighting episode is where Bussanich made herself known. She received glowing reviews from judges who were blown away by her ability to produce such flavor and texture in her cupcakes without using gluten.
“The ‘Cupcake Wars’ judges were so impressed with the light and fluffy texture of the cupcakes,” gushed Bussanich.
“I started getting dozens of emails from people thanking me for showing the world that gluten-free baked goods don’t have to taste bad. They don’t even have to taste different,” Bussanich remarked proudly.
Bussanich’s stellar mixes and unique flavor combinations led her to place second in “Cupcake Wars” 2010 Holiday Tree Lighting episode.
“I was really only using word of mouth marketing for my catering business. Then came ‘Cupcake Wars.’ That’s when things really took off,” Bussanich remarked.
Bussanich’s personal catering business started growing so much after her appearance on “Cupcake Wars” that she decided to open up her own shop in May 2011.
From the first day it opened, “Kyra’s Bake Shop” was a success.
“I had lines out the door waiting for me on my first day. I thought I would work alone at the shop. I ended up hiring my first employees on the first day we opened,” Bussanich remarked.
Kyra’s Bake Shop offers an enormous selection of gluten-free delicacies ranging from brownies to bagels, cupcakes to cream puffs.
The shop is well-known for being a “must see” when visiting the Portland area — but don’t worry, many of the delicacies are available online and can be shipped right to your home.
Bussanich’s cupcake mixes are delectable and extremely easy to make. Just follow the directions on the back of the box and you’ll have some mouth-watering cupcakes within 30 minutes.
I whipped up a batch of Bussanich’s chocolate cupcakes and was blown away by the moist and light texture of the cupcakes, as well as the sweet but not too rich chocolatey flavor.
Worth noting is that the batter is quite runny, so don’t be alarmed when you see how thin it is. It’s that thinness that results in the cupcake’s moist and fluffy consistency.
Bussanich’s quality products have transformed her from a one-time “Cupcake Wars” competitor into a five-time challenger and three-time victor on the show.
Just a few months after opening her own bake shop in 2011 Bussanich was invited back for the 100th episode of “Cupcake Wars,” which would feature chefs who had appeared on the show before but had yet to win.
Bussanich’s prior experience on the show, paired with her ability to think on her feet, allowed her to approach the competition with greater confidence than her first time around.
“Cupcake Wars” had its first gluten-free winner in Bussanich that year.
“I had told myself after I won that if invited again, I would respectfully decline. I loved doing the show but it was pretty stressful… Then one day the phone rang and it was “Cupcakes Wars”, again. I was so honored that I couldn’t say no,” remarked Bussanich.
In May 2012, just one month after her first win, Bussanich appeared on “Cupcake Wars” for her third time to compete in the All-Star Cupcake Champions.
Bussanich showed up ready to dominate the semifinals of Cupcake Champions and that’s exactly what she did.
Bussanich’s third “Cupcake Wars” appearance in May 2012 marked her second win, landing her the “Madagascar 3” movie premiere.
“The premiere was a great experience which got me excited for the Cupcake Champions Finale,” remarked Bussanich.
One month later, in June 2012, Bussanich competed in the “Cupcake Champions Finale” episode where she took second out of 16 other champions.
Bussanich has been quite the busy baker since then. Her fifth (and most recent) appearance on “Cupcake Wars” aired in November 2013, marking her third win on the show.
Despite the attention she has received from her multiple appearances and victories on “Cupcake Wars,” Bussanich is still extremely humble and down to earth.
“It’s still surreal…seeing my name in print is like ‘oh my god,’” remarked Bussanich.
As the only gluten-free winner of “Cupcake Wars” to date, Bussanich has succeeded in squashing the notion that gluten-free desserts can’t compare to their gluten-containing doppelgangers.
“At least 40 percent of my customers don’t need to follow a gluten-free diet and I think it speaks to the quality of the products,” said Bussanich.
Bussanich showcases her expertise and creativity through her cookbook “Sweet Cravings: 50 Seductive Desserts for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle” which was released in early October 2013.
“I just love experimenting and playing around in the kitchen. I want to make good food, not just good gluten-free food. I want my food to be good and gluten-free. Not gluten-free and good,” said Bussanich.
Bussanich isn’t just known for her creativity behind the blender; she is also known for her enthusiasm, passion and willingness to share her story and knowledge with others.
I gathered a few of Bussanich’s best tips for gluten-free baking which I’m excited to be able to pass on to you:
- Read labels: “You’d be surprised where gluten is hidden. If you read labels carefully, you’ll see that gluten is found in a number of products that you’d never think to check,” remarked Bussanich.
- Let yourself experiment: “Lots of people are afraid to experiment with gluten-free flours since they are so expensive. Don’t be afraid to waste a cup of flour. Even if it means throwing away a little bit of a product to see what you like and to see what works together…you can’t be afraid to experiment,” Bussanich suggests.
- Take your time: “You need patience. Take your time to let a mixture work; let the butter and sugar whip together to allow for some air to get in to the product for a light, fluffy texture,” urges Bussanich.
- Never use just one flour: While Bussanich prefers Bob’s Red Mill products, she urges everyone to make their own blends. “Each pastry that I make has its own blend which constitutes a mix of different flours,” said Bussanich. “Never ever use just one kind of flour. You will never get the texture you want. Try using a starch and something that is higher in protein like millet flour,” suggests Bussanich.
While Bussanich attributes “Cupcake Wars” to some of her success, there’s no doubt that she has worked tremendously hard to carve out a name for herself as one of the nation’s best gluten-free pastry chefs.
Bussanich has showed the world through her bake shop, cookbook, blog posts and multiple appearances (and triumphs) on “Cupcake Wars” that gluten-free doesn’t have to mean bad or bland; it can be good.
In fact, “gluten-free” doesn’t have to mean anything other than free of gluten.