Capital Region

Gluten free holidays

Offering treats for those with special dietary needs shows love the way few other gifts can
Gluten free cookies available at Villa Italia.
Gluten free cookies available at Villa Italia.

Categories: Food, Life & Arts

December holidays without sticky buns, challah and festively frosted cookies would not really be true holidays, would they? For the gluten intolerant, it is a gut-wrenching decision that often ends in the choice to forgo some of the most timeless and tasty recipes that the holiday season brings. 

Unless you try your hand at gluten free baking. Recent advances in baking sciences – paired with the trend towards gluten free diets – has lead to grocery shelves stacked with no-gluten options for premade packages, baking mixes and flours made from alternative grains and nuts. Overly complicated formulations for making all-purpose flour substitutions are gone, and now going gluten free is as easy as grabbing a specialty bag at the market on your way home from work.

At least 3.1 million people in the U.S. adhere to gluten free diet – a number that has tripled since 2007 although the prevalence of celiac disease (a gluten intolerance syndrome) has had a flat rate of growth over the same period –  according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

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Numbers like that mean a chance to expand the customer base for local bakers. Some well-known and established bakeries, like Villa Italia in Schenectady, have expanded their line of products to include gluten free products. Some of which are gluten free traditionally just by the nature of their ingredients. Amaretti cookies and almond crescents, an Italian classic, rely on almonds in the form of flours and paste to create  gluten free treats, while Villa Italia’s signature chocolate mice use rich chocolate mousse piped into a cone which is then decorate with glossy melted chocolate to resemble the namesake furry critter. 

Macarons are another gluten free gem that make a perfect gift when elegantly wrapped. A staple in most bakeries, a perfect macaron (which uses almond flour and egg whites to make small meringue cookies that are sandwiched with buttercream fillings) is the mark of a skilled baker. Villa Italia offers four flavors: lemon, pistachio, strawberry and chocolate.

Other bakeries have emerged because of gluten free demands. In Schuylerville, Saratoga Gluten Free Goods specialize in not only gluten free items, but also some vegan products. Vegan apple pies with gluten free crusts and fillings are a staple at the holidays and show how even the most traditional pastry item can be transformed into a gluten free success. Baguettes made with rice flour, dinner rolls, scones, quick breads and doughnuts are regular items on the bakery’s menu.

But achieving the mouthfeel and taste of gluten-typical products, which is often the downfall of gluten free baked goods, can be a challenge. Melanie O’Malley, owner of O’Malley’s Oven which sells at the Troy Farmers Market, works exclusively in gluten free products ranging from English muffins to maple-filled cream puffs to gougeres, the cheesy, doughy puff of French legend. She has developed her own special blends of baking flours for each product she makes.  For at-home gluten free baking, she recommends cup for cup gluten free baking substitutes for cakey doughs (like cookies and muffins) but says Bob’s Red Mill brand of gluten free baking mix is better for flakey doughs, like pie crusts and rustic breads. She warns against adding more stabilizers like xantham gum and lecithin – common natural products in gluten free items – to the mixes, as the ratios are already properly proportioned.

If a pastry dough feels too loose and does not hold its shape, O’Malley says to add an egg to the recipe – even those calling for eggs already – to help increase the protein level in the dough and bind everything together.

Looking to make gluten free treats in your own kitchen? Holiday classics like yule log cakes and sugar cookies are a good starting point for the effort because of their low fat, high protein and easy adaptability for glutenless flours. Local blogger and cookbook author Elizabeth Barbone lists plenty of tips for baking without gluten on her website December is the season of giving, and offering up a treat from your kitchen for those with special dietary needs shows love the way few other gifts can.

Villa Italia Italian Bakery
226 Broadway
Schenectady, NY 12305

Saratoga Gluten Free Goods Bakery
176 Broad Street
Schuylerville, NY 12871

O’Malley’s Oven
Troy Farmers Market
(518) 768-7579

Deanna Fox is a freelance food and agriculture journalist. Find her online at or on twitter at @DeannaNFox.

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