Karen Amarotico wants everyone to see that baking — even gluten-free — can be "easy as pie."

Karen Amarotico wants everyone to see that baking — even gluten-free — can be "easy as pie."

The motto is particularly meaningful to the Ashland resident known locally for baking a pie a day for a year and giving each away as a random act of kindness. Amarotico still bakes, donates the desserts and then blogs at pieadaygiveaway.com.

The culinary-school graduate and caterer who shares gratitude for friends and strangers alike also has plenty of kitchen wisdom to share. Her first cooking class, planned next week at Ashland Food Co-op, won't be the store's first on gluten-free baking. But it will bring Amarotico's unique view of the concept to students, says Mary Shaw, Co-op culinary educator.

"Hearing people's stories about it is very helpful," says Shaw.

As readers of Amarotico's blog would expect, stories she has in spades. Many are heartwarming, including her experience cooking for people who must avoid gluten, a protein naturally found in wheat, rye and barley. Amarotico's credo of cooking for alternative diets is inclusivity, not singling out diners with special needs.

"It's not that big a deal, and it doesn't take that much," she says.

Instead of making lasagna for clients' main meal and separate portions with gluten-free pasta, Amarotico just makes polenta casserole for everyone. Assembling a cheese plate for a church reception, she automatically puts rice crackers out with the bread.

Gluten-free members of the group — accustomed to "hummus and carrot sticks" as their only options — usually are surprised that someone cared, then deeply appreciative of the gesture, says Amarotico.

"More and more, people are finding out that gluten does affect them."

Gluten-free foods have seen nothing but growth over the past few years, and their popularity shows no sign of waning in 2013, according to recent reports by McClatchy News Service. The National Restaurant Association recently listed gluten-free among the top 10 "hot" topics for chefs this year.

"There's so many more products that accommodate gluten-free," says Shaw.

Among those are baking mixes, which Amarotico uses on occasion. But her favorite wheat-flour replacer is a blend of 2 cups brown-rice flour, two-thirds cup potato starch and 1/3 cup tapioca flour (also known as "starch.")

Combining gluten-free ingredients with a little common sense, however, is the real key to success. Instead of converting recipes that contain a lot of flour to gluten-free, Amarotico chooses recipes with just a little flour. Her chocolate-raspberry cake with sour cream-chocolate icing is one example. The cake so impressed Shaw, who sampled it at the one-year anniversary party for Medford Food Co-op, that she invited Amarotico to teach.

"She is a phenomenally good ... family-style cook," says Shaw, calling Amarotico's cake "stunning."

With a professional's training, however, Amarotico doesn't sweat kitchen mishaps.

"Messing up is just life," she says. "It happens all the time."

When gluten-free cakes, which don't have as much lift, come out of the oven with a small depression on top, Amarotico fills it in with garnish, such as shaved chocolate. When a pound cake breaks into six, big pieces, she simply cuts the rest into chunks and concocts a trifle with whipped cream and sauce from berries stashed in the freezer.

Whole, uncomplicated foods are behind the flavor in Amarotico's dishes, says Shaw. Her knowledge of gluten-free foods, says Amarotico, has been gleaned over several years from a neighbor, and she's been putting it into practice more and more often for catering clients. Eating differently, not relying on processed, gluten-free versions of mainstream foods, she says, is the way to put gluten-free in perspective.

"You just make lemonade of lemons."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.