TORONTO - If pastry making has you flummoxed, using a recipe featuring gluten-free and vegan ingredients might be just the ticket to drawing rave reviews for tender and flaky pie crust.
Ashley Wittig ought to know. It's just one of the recipes in the bake shop owner's repertoire.
"The pastry doesn't get tough. You know when you're making a pie with regular wheat flour, the more that you work the wheat flour, the gluten actually gets tougher. So when you don't have any of the gluten in it you can work it as many times as you want and it's going to stay really nice and tender," says the co-owner of Bunner's Bake Shop in Toronto.
Wittig and partner Kevin MacAllister launched Bunner's in the trendy Junction neighbourhood of Toronto at the end of 2010 and opened a second shop in June in Kensington Market.
"One of the things we hear a lot in the bakery is how delicious our pastry is," says MacAllister, adding they offer a savoury or sweet version depending on the product. "People really talk about it when they take a bite."
The two have also put their talents together to pen a book called "Bunner's: Simple and Delicious Gluten-Free Vegan Treats" (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.).
Wittig has enjoyed baking from a young age, but when the avowed sweet tooth became vegan for ethical reasons she found few available options to satisfy her cravings.
"There were a lot of favourite recipes that I had to learn how to veganize so I could enjoy again and just learn some new tricks. Now it's old hat," she says.
"I don't even think about eggs anymore in baking. But that's the No. 1 thing people are curious about. Like what do you replace eggs with and dairy and butter? The substitutions for veganism are actually so straightforward and simple. Gluten-free was the more challenging to get the texture right and the taste right."
Milk made from coconut, soy or rice can often be substituted for cow's milk, there are vegan butter substitutes on the market that are plant-based and she often uses applesauce or coconut yogurt instead of eggs for moistness.
"With gluten-free, every single flour has a different texture so it's not straightforward, it's not just wheat flour. Coconut flour, for instance, is really absorbent so it sucks all the moisture out of a product, I find," says Wittig. "We don't use it in the bakery because I find it can dry things out a little bit, make things a little more dense. Even though it's sweet and delicious.
"So basically every single thing here has a different blend," she adds, noting that there are different flours used for muffins, pastries, cupcakes and cookies.
Wittig made sure products called for in the book are available across Canada so that home cooks would be able to make the range of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, doughnuts and cinnamon buns, along with savoury items like vegetable pot pie, biscuits, pizza and macaroni and cheese.
"All of the recipes in the book are based on recipes at the bakery that we use. I made all of these things in my own kitchen at home with my non-professional oven and my non-professional utensils. Granted, I do live in Toronto where there's many health-food stores, but going into it I was extremely mindful to make sure that these (ingredients) are available everywhere."
She has included a comprehensive list of vegan and gluten-free ingredients with which she's had success. She also provides brand names in some recipes because she's tested them using a variety of ingredients and found those particular ones work well in the application.
MacAllister, the "official taste-tester" who shot all the photos for the book, says they've been gratified with their success rate with a technical and unique type of baking.
"Even though we're doing it vegan and gluten-free with kind of a new science around the whole baking concept, it still comes out tasting just like Mom made it, you know, 50 years ago or something. And I think that's really comforting to people because when they try the butter tarts or the muffin or whatever it's not this compromise type of formulation. It's exactly as they remembered it," he says.
With both of them following a vegan and gluten-free diet, they're aware of the limitations people with food sensitivities live with all their lives — especially when dining away from home.
"Food is such an innate part of being a human being, and it's really hard when you can't eat certain things," says Wittig. "It's really hard to be social, it's really hard to have big family dinners and it feels kind of like you're being left out.
"And these recipes make it so that you don't have to be. And not only that, they're so delicious that people who don't eat vegan or gluten-free are often quite dazzled by them. People get really curious and they try it, and usually, those dishes are gone before anything else is."
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