Earlier this week I posted Part 1 of an interview with Claire Browning, co-owner of Sarkara Sweets Cafe in downtown Gainesville. By the way, the store is just a couple blocks south of University Ave., meaning anyone partaking in the city’s useful bus system can just ride the 5 on down to satisfy your cupcake cravings. Parking’s not really a problem either, as the store is right across the street from the Sun Center parking lot and various garages. Here’s a visual to help you get your bearings, and a little insight to the decor of the place.
After getting to know a little bit about the Brownings and the origin of Sarkara Sweets, I delved a little more into the secret behind their unique confections.
Me: You’ve talked a lot about it already, but just to clarify, your flour base is…
Claire Browning: Sorghum and potato starch, and that’s pretty much it. We used to use a really complicated mixture because with rice flour you have to do that, but we just hate rice flour.
Me: It’s hard to work with, it doesn’t taste that great…
CB: We’ve actually found that a lot of gluten free people were trying to avoid rice also. You’d have them walk in and they still can’t eat.
Me: And rice flour’s not as good for you.
CB: Yeah, grains in general I’m not too fond of. We’re about to have sugar free cupcakes, which are also high protein cupcakes. They’re grain free so they’re also gluten free. So that one is also very exciting ‘cause we have a lot of gluten free customers who are concerned because they’ve been consuming a lot more calories.
At this point Stephanie pipes in to remind Claire that the vanilla sugar free cupcakes have a little bit of sorghum in them.
Stephanie Browning: But the chocolate one is grain free entirely. A lot of people are excited about [sugar free cupcakes] because they’re diabetic, or the weight trainers at the gym. *Laughs*
The Brownings then proceeded to give me all kinds of (desperately needed) tips to baking without gluten:
CB and SB: Avoid rice flour number one.
-You don’t have to use xanthan gum. There are other binding agents that you can use (like whey protein). Stephanie: It’s a really good substitute for gluten, actually. That’s the whole principle – it’s a globular protein.
-If you’re not vegan then do use eggs.
-Don’t use soy milk. It really stinks when it’s baked.
SB: I’m a huge fan of pumpkin. It gives it structure. It’s not so sugary and in most cases it’s not going to interrupt the flavor – it might make it a savory vanilla, and you certainly can’t taste it in chocolate. It’ll give you structure and binding and moisture because a lot of gluten free baking is dry and crumbly.
Side Note: After a little clarification, the girls explained that pumpkin doesn’t necessarily have to be a substitute for anything. If a recipe seems to be lacking in something – structure, moisture, etc., just add it in.
CB: Oil is better than butter. There’s a reason they tell you add oil to brownies and things in box mixes. There’s a reason commercial companies use the things they do. Actually, a lot of people get really afraid of all the additives that are on the back of the box because of the fancy names, but most of them are natural ingredients. You just have to recognize what the chemical names mean and what they do.
Claire gave the example of soy lecithin, which is added to a lot of things to keep cakes from becoming flat or tough from overbeating. It’s still derived from soy – like soy milk or tofu.
-If you add a tiny bit of honey, that’ll help with moisture, stay fresher longer.
Me: So did you learn all this growing up or through the process of starting this business?
CB: A lot from the process of doing this, but I am very interested in the science and the history and the culture around food. I don’t like the experience of baking for the experience of baking, I like it for the experience of creating and understanding what’s going on. So basically I’ve been collecting cookbooks with the scientific information and the techniques since I was little. It’s been my hobby for a long time.
It’s good to go to the grocery store and read the backs of everything, write them down and then go home and look up what all those fancy words mean. You’ll learn a lot.
Me: So you’re still tweaking everything?
CB: Oh, yes definitely still tweaking.
Me: So I guess the “how many recipe variations did you go through” question is sort of moot.
CB: *Laughs*. Hundreds. When you try it, one issue will stick out. And you’ll tweak and tweak until you no longer notice the same issue. I guess it’s like re-editing a school paper. Every time you do you notice something else.
Me: Nice journalism analogy there.
When you first started to come up with your recipe, did you look at others or did you just start throwing things in there?
CB: We were looking for gluten free flour mix and we based that off a lot of advice online, but we tend to have a desire to do differently than other people tell us, so I suspect we threw in a lot of stuff for the hell of it. But what we tend to do is take our regular recipes, use gluten free flour with some minor tweaks and then go from there.
If you’re not as experienced with baking as the Brownings, I might not recommend the “tweak it til it’s right approach” right off the bat. It’s best to make sure you understand how to read recipes, then how each component of those recipes adds to the whole, before experimenting on your own. But one thing I did take from the Brownings is that baking should never be a chore. Creating food, for yourself and for others, should be fun and should be a learning experience, even if it’s your job.