Her homemade cinnamon rolls seemed so irresistible that Betty Lake staked a baking business on them.
Just as Lake expected, the rolls sold well at local farmers markets. She was surprised that not a few customers, however, turned down a sample, blaming their intolerance to gluten.
"There were all these people coming by saying 'I can't even have a bite.' "
Unfamiliar with celiac disease, or the inability to digest gluten, Lake, 58, went on an Internet search, turning up gluten-free recipes to try. While she found her first baked goods lacking, the Central Point resident built up a knowledge of ingredient combinations that mimic gluten, the protein in wheat and other grains that gives dough elasticity and the ability to rise. Before long, Lake had perfected a "cinnamon square" for gluten-intolerant customers.
But her fans threw still more challenges at Lake.
"They said, 'We can't find a bread that we like,' " Lake recalls.
So the lifelong baker experimented some more, adapting gluten-free recipes to her own tastes. Gluten-free food products and cooking methods have become increasingly available amid awareness of the 1.5 million to 3 million Americans with celiac disease. Yet Lake finds that recipes from old cookbooks, some dating as far back as the 1800s, are most easily transformed into gluten-free versions, perhaps because they lack precise, modern-day measurements in the first place, Lake says.
"You just have to forget everything you know about cooking and start over again," she says.
Part of what makes gluten so hard to avoid is that it is an essential component of so many everyday products and a common additive in processed foods, often used as a thickening agent. The easiest way to avoid gluten is to stick with unprocessed foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as produce, most dairy, nuts, beans, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, rice, corn, potatoes and grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and millet.
Following her first gluten-free successes, Lake heard that some sufferers of celiac disease couldn't even tolerate bread baked in the same oven as mainstream goods. That's when she decided to ditch cinnamon rolls in favor of gluten-free endeavors.
"It's more fun," Lake says.
Once they get to know Lake's products, customers are smiling, too — a far cry from the occasional tearful introduction at her market stall following a recent diagnosis of celiac disease.
"They say, 'What can I eat? I can't eat anything!' " Lake says.
In answer, Lake's Sweet Aroma Bakery offers about 20 products. The most popular, Lake says, are rice, buckwheat and flaxseed breads, crescent rolls, cinnamon squares and lemon bars.
Selling 50 to 60 loaves of bread per week at Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market and Food 4 Less, Lake charges $7.50 for a single loaf. Despite the steep price in comparison with standard wheat-based bread, Sweet Aroma's sales, Lake says, have quadrupled since rolling out its first gluten-free products in July. A fair number of customers, she says, aren't even gluten-intolerant.
Lake admits a preference for baked goods containing gluten. But her family actually prefers Sweet Aroma's rice bread for making toast. Because it freezes well, most customers portion it into freezer-proof containers and use it a slice at a time, Lake says.
"Bread is a staple in our lives," Lake says. "Every culture has bread."
Consult these tips and try the following recipes for gluten-free bread, pizza and cookies.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.