Navigating the wheat free, gluten free diet

Posts tagged ‘Sarkara Sweets Cafe’

Sarkara Sweets Cafe shares gluten free baking tips, proves quite inspirational

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.

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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.

To hear the Brownings discuss their baking tips, listen below, then read the transcript of our conversation.

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.



Talkin’ gluten free cupcake business with Sarkara Sweets Cafe

Fresh baked GF chocolate cupcakes

We’re lucky here in our humble city of Gainesville, Fla. to have our very own cupcakery, Sarkara Sweets Cafe, newly moved to a permanent central location downtown across from the Sun Center.  We’re even luckier that the owners, 23-year-old twins Claire and Stephanie Browning, are familiar with various alternative diets, and offer raw (meaning not cooked above 104 F), gluten-free and vegan cupcakes on a daily basis.

I was lucky enough to go and visit the Brownings yesterday morning as they baked their daily selection.  I got some insight into the inception of Sarkara Sweets, as well as some great tips to baking without wheat flour.  One thing I learned off the bat?  The girls are on a GF diet, so they’re super serious about the product.

I also got to taste the latest incarnation of their ever-changing chocolate cupcake. (So moist! So much like glutencake!)  Read the first part of my chat with Claire below.

Me: So you said you guys are on a gluten-free diet now?

CB: We were raised in California and our mom is definitely what you would call “California lifestyle”, so we’ve been on all kinds of diets, mainly through her – macrobiotic, raw, paleo.   Never for weight, she just figures it’s healthy.   A lot of times she would be gluten-free anyway naturally.  And my dad, who was the average American diet, was always ruining her plans so it was kind of wacky.

We’ve always had a lot of health problems and over the last year we were trying to remove wheat and sugar mostly just because we thought it would help with the more serious issues that have risen lately.  But very very recently we’ve been talking to a lot of people who are either gluten sensitive or full-blown Celiac and some of the problems we’ve had since we were like 3 are some of the really uncommon symptoms of gluten allergies.  So basically we don’t eat wheat anymore,  which  is kind of difficult because we have to taste the cake.  But then again, technically it’s better.  Most chefs say not to eat the things you’re making because if you’re not hungry your taste buds are sharper.

Me: Was it always your plan to open a bakery?

CB: No. My sister and I kind of suffer from having too many interests. When we were younger,  instead of playing we would draw plans for a bookstore.  And it’s not like we were super serious but we would take each experience for the week seriously.  We wanted to go to pastry school, but we had bright futures so our parents said no. So we didn’t know we wanted to do a business for sure but it had always been floating around as a complete possibility.

Me: When did you guys first decide you wanted to open a cupcakery?

CB: My senior year of college, I could have graduated early but I decided to stay because I like school.  In the middle I fractured my back and I had to withdraw, but I had enough credits so I was just kind of sitting there, doing grad school applications, and decided, ‘I don’t want to do this.’  I guess that was around January of ’09.

Claire realized starting the business would cost just as much as graduate school.  Further inspired by her boyfriend’s own successful business in Gainesville, as well as their mother’s writing business, the twins decided to go for it.  They opened Yum! Cupcakery in April 2010 in a small location near Archer Road.  But when some customers offered them a rental opening in a building downtown, they jumped at the opportunity.

Me: Since you’ve had all those diets in the past, was gluten free always gong to be on the menu?

CB: Oh yeah.  Gluten-free, vegan and raw.  Our mom was like, “If you don’t have raw cupcakes I’m going to be so angry.” She lives in LA where you can go to any co-op grocery store and get raw Oreos even. They’re very good about offering that sort of stuff there, whereas here not so much, so she’s like, “You’ve got to start spreading it.”

Me: Did you see a good market for those alternative diets?

CB: Yes, especially in the old location.  There we had to be hunted down so carefully because it was hard to find.  Most people who came in were actually looking for some sort of allergy-free, whether it was dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, citrus, you’d be amazed. Our gluten free cupcakes are almost completely allergy-free.

When we first made them we had an acquaintance who had never had cake in his life because he was allergic to nuts, soy, coconut, wheat, eggs, milk, like everything. So we had to make the allergy free cupcake.

Me: I hope you wrote down that recipe!

CB: Yes, well, you’ll find that it’s very difficult with gluten free to reproduce the same thing repeatedly, and then you learn something new and you start working with it and of course it doesn’t start working the first time.

Me: I’m going through that right now...How popular are the GF cupcakes here by comparison to regular cake?

CB: Really, the only people who get the GF are the people who have the allergies, which is kind of silly because really you can’t tell the difference – because it doesn’t have rice flour.   Rice flour is what makes gluten eaters not like it because they think everything tastes funny.

The gluten free customers come back a lot more often because they’re obsessed and excited, so you’ll see them usually 4 or 5 times a week.  And they often come by after we’re closed and we’re not going to turn them away because they can’t go get something somewhere else.

Me. Aw. Special treatment. Is chocolate or vanilla more popular?

CB: Chocolate, and I’ll say that used to be because our vanilla recipe was not as good. We’ve tweaked it so now the vanilla’s better.

We were considering making everything gluten free, but the cost of sorghum flour is so expensive.  We have a fabulous  gluten free carrot cake recipe – no one would ever know the difference.  It’s just too expensive to sell it in place of our regular cake, but if we can ever supply it cheaply we’re going to replace everything.  It’s just a matter of time.

Me: So you have plans, then, for different flavors and maybe weekly specials?

CB: We’re gonna definitely have specials sometime soon.  It’s taking a while to get the systems in place and running properly, but we’ll slowly be adding things. Gluten free cinnamon buns…

Me: Obviously you guys are really serious about your own diets, but I was going to ask about how safe you think the kitchen is. I’ve never gotten sick, and I know you always offer to switch gloves.

CB: Now that we don’t have gluten free on the custom bar, there’s less chance of contamination, which is why we stopped doing gluten free on the bar as much.  One reason was because gluten free customers actually wanted straight chocolate or straight vanilla, oddly enough.  But usually we have more in the back and if someone really wants it we’ll do it back there.

I’d say the kitchen itself is not a worry.  We always try to gluten free first in the morning before anything else has been done. We clean, wash, sanitize between.  I have as much fear as anybody!


Look for the other half of my chat, where Claire and I discuss baking secrets and the miracle of sorghum, in the next couple days.


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