Posted On: 12/01/2008
Imagine not being able to eat anything that contains gluten. Anything. That includes not only baked goods, but pasta, soy sauce, many soups, some candies and other foods that make up a huge part of the American diet. Thatís what faces people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that impacts the intestines and interferes with proper nutrient absorption. After being diagnosed with celiac disease, Linda Daniels, an avid baker and pastry-lover, felt lost. But she found opportunity in her diagnosis and launched Free Range Cookies, offering breads, cookies and candies that are gluten-free, often vegan and thoroughly delicious.
What is it about cookies?
I just think itís kind of like a little microcosm of the whole world. It all kinda comes together and it can be just a little bit savory and hearty and a little bit sweet and sometimes slightly bitter. So itís kind of like, life comes together in a cookie. Is that odd?
No. It shows that you have passion.
If nothing else, I like to eat, but I really like to create.
What is your creative process?
I start with whatever it is I am trying to make. I go to the library all the time and just browse and see whatís seasonal, whatís fun, whatís new, what people are using. Itís not that I try to copy everything, but in a certain sense I do. Anything thatís out there that has wheat Ė thatís in the gluten world Ė Iíll make adjustments to the recipe. And you can. You can convert any recipe.
How do you convert these recipes from standard to gluten-free?
For cookies and things like cakes, quick breads and muffins, theyíre really easy. Theyíre low on the gluten chain. The success of those kinds of recipes doesnít rely on the gluten formation or the gluten network. The higher up the gluten chain that you go, and you get into breads and pizza crust and bagels, [the baked goods] rely more and more on gluten, so itís more of a challenge, but it can still be done by using the right combination of flours to get the right amount of protein to give it substance.
I think itís important to say that even though youíre making products that are gluten-free, they donít sacrifice flavor or texture.
That really is my goal. To Ö make it so that people who are eating gluten-free in the household donít have to feel like theyíre eating icky diet stuff.
Have you always been a baker?
Yes. Iíve always been a huge baker. Ö When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, first of all, Iíd never heard of it before. Ö I think that I saw something in a magazine that mentioned an allergy to pretzels and bread-type things and I thought, ďOh, thatís terrible! I couldnít live with a diet like that.Ē So, as anyone whoís diagnosed will say, at first you feel crushed. Things are very different now. You can go into Schnucks and Dierbergs and they have ďwhole lifeĒ sections and you can get ready-to-eat stuff in the frozen section. But the first time I went shopping after I was diagnosed, I was in Dierbergs and I was walking up and down the aisles and I was close to tears. Our society is so wheat-centric. Things that people eat every day Ö you just donít think about it.
I would think that it takes a lot of emotional energy to seek out wheat-free products, read all of the labels. Having products like yours gives people a type of freedom.
Yeah, I know that this is a bakery, but in a way I donít think of it like that [because of] exactly what you said. A customer of mine said, ďIím not buying baked goods, Iím buying a little piece of freedom.Ē My goal is to make things readily available.
You already have retail distribution of your products at places like Whole Foods Market, Winslowís Home and in the Ladue School District, so why open a store?
I need the space, and there are a lot of chains that want to offer a gluten-free bun or other type of bread.
So this is going to allow you to expand your production.
Definitely. I was surprised because I was [wondering if], in these times, restaurants would be looking to add a specialty item thatís more expensive. But the restaurant chains that have added gluten-free options have seen a big increase in their business, ícause these are customers who wouldnít have normally even been there. You know what you can order. You donít have to do the awkward thing of questioning every single ingredient and wanting to go back and look at containers and things like that.
Are the big chains in contact with you?
Actually, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness is working big time behind the scenes with their restaurant training program. They approach restaurant chains and offer them training on cross-contamination issues and education on this is wheat, this is not. And they also introduce them to companies that can provide specialty items.
What types of ingredients do you use?
Thatís my stack of flours over there. Iíve got fine rice flour, almond meal, amaranth, gluten-free oats, gluten-free oat flour, mesquite flour, quinoa Ö
And your baked goods not only taste like conventional pastries, theyíre so attractive, which is such a part of the appeal of this type of food.
Looks do matter. I used to go to regular bakeries before I was diagnosed with C.D. and I would want one of everything and sometimes I would treat myself to that. I just wanted to appreciate what it looked like first, the work that went into it.
I guess youíre destined to be a baker.
It doesnít feel like work to me. I almost have a little bit of Ė itís not guilt, I shouldnít say guilt. But last night I left, and I had this sponge [batter] that I mixed up and I thought as I was driving home, I canít wait to get back and see what itís doing.
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