Adventures in Gluten-Free Baking: Talking with Erin McKenna of BabyCakes

Gluten-free baking is easier—and tastier—than you'd think.
Gluten-free baking is easier—and tastier—than you’d think.

It’s been almost a decade now since the vegan, gluten-free cupcake from BabyCakes was hailed as the best cupcake in the city by New York magazine, and, in that time, a lot has changed. For one thing, New York doesn’t bother with a cupcake category in its annual “best of” list—cupcakes are now thoroughly passé. And for another, gluten-free eating has left its niche marketplace and entered the mainstream. However, common as it now is to know someone who avoids gluten, it’s still relatively hard to find quality gluten-free options when dining out—save, that is, for BabyCakes, which still reigns supreme from its candy-colored perch on the Lower East Side, serving up vegan, gluten-free confections both sweet and savory (though mostly sweet!) to its many fans.

I recently spoke to BabyCakes founder/owner Erin McKenna about her new cookbook Bread & Butter which, besides having a pretty damned cute book trailer, is an incredibly useful guide to making gluten-free versions of some of the most essential kitchen staples—things like, you know, bread and butter. Of course, there’s more to this cookbook than just bread and butter—McKenna also offers up delicious versions of everything from vegan Caesar dressing to pillowy focaccia to savory samosas. And while I can honestly say that I was always intimidated by gluten-free baking (what even is sunflower lecithin anyway? don’t worry, McKenna explains all unfamiliar ingredients in great detail), what I realized after perusing Bread & Butter is that the hardest part of gluten-free baking is really just stocking your pantry with the right ingredients, a process that has become easier and easier with the proliferation of well-stocked grocery stores.

As I quickly learned while whipping up a batch of the best sesame pancakes I’ve ever had (crispy and light, and so, so good dipped in sriracha), once you’ve got the right ingredients, the baking is a breeze. It’s never been so easy to eat so healthy without feeling like you’re missing out on any of the flavors that you love. So even if you’re not gluten-free, I’d recommend you try this book, but if you are? It’s kind of miraculous, much like the experience that McKenna says gluten-intolerant children have when they enter one of her shops (there’s also a BabyCakes in LA, as well as a brand new one in Disney World): “Kids come in and they’re just freaking out that they can get anything that they want. They’ve never had that experience before!” That’s the thing about the whole BabyCakes experience—it’s designed to make you happy and full and satisfied, like all good food should. Read on to find out what McKenna’s favorite recipes from the book are, what food she couldn’t master, and for a recipe for her Strawberry Lemon Zest Bagels.

Erin McKenna
Erin McKenna

To borrow the opening question from your book trailer: Why bread? Why now?
I think that after having done sweets for so long and really feeling like I covered everything that I wanted to, the next big challenge was bread and puff pastry and things of that nature. I had always wanted to expand the menu of the bakery—expand what we do—and bread was one of the most common things people asked for at the bakery—bread and bagels. And so, in business, I tend to just go where the demand is, so it made sense to branch out that way.

I think that even if you’re not gluten-free, but most definitely if you are, bread is one of the touchstones that everyone wants to have in their lives, and I guess, in their stomachs. But these are usually the hardest things to faithfully recreate, because everyone has such specific memories of their tastes. How did you master them?
Well, it was interesting, because once I started experimenting, I found myself making a ton of mistakes. And as I did that, I realized that the mistakes are where I learn the most, where I accidentally fall into a recipe for something else. Like, oh, this doesn’t taste like a bagel, but it tastes something like XYZ. These were all the things I was really missing, and luckily, whether it was a direct road to the recipe or a roundabout way that I got there, it all wound up working.

Was there anything you couldn’t master?
The hot dog bun was the one thing I was never able to do. Hot dog or hamburger bun.

What I love about this book is it’s full of all the kind of food that makes you happy, that makes you want to eat! 
Yeah, it’s why I started making them for myself in the first place, and then started making them for other people. They were all things that made me feel good. And luckily one of my missions at the bakery was to make things with the ingredients that actually do make you feel better and propel you toward better health.

What are your favorite recipes in the book? I hope this isn’t too much like asking you to pick a favorite child!
Focaccia. Bagels. Rye and white bread. And the puff pastry. The puff pastry you can make into so many different things. It’s so versatile!


Strawberry Lemon Bagel
Strawberry Lemon Zest Bagel

Strawberry Lemon Zest Bagels
makes 14

¼ cup (33 GRAMS) cornmeal, for the baking sheet
2 cups (200 GRAMS) gluten-free oat flour
1 cup (140 GRAMS) brown rice flour
1 cup (120 GRAMS) arrowroot
¾ cup (144 GRAMS) potato starch
¹⁄³ cup (70 GRAMS) vegan sugar
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon (15 GRAMS) baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups (339 GRAMS) rice milk
¹⁄³ cup (70 GRAMS) coconut milk
¹⁄³ cup (70 GRAMS) melted unscented coconut oil, plus more for brushing
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup (152 GRAMS) strawberries, sliced
1 tablespoon (2 GRAMS) grated lemon zest


Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, sprinkle generously with the cornmeal, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, arrowroot, potato starch, sugar, yeast, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, and salt. Pour in the milks, coconut oil, and lemon extract and, using a rubber spatula, stir until a sticky dough forms. Gently fold in the strawberries and lemon zest. Place the dough in the refrigerator and let it chill for 1 hour, until firm.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and, using a large ice cream scoop, measure out 14 heaping portions onto the prepared baking sheets 2½ inches apart and roll into balls. Wet your fingertips and form a hole in the center of each ball of dough to create the shape of a bagel. Cover the dough with a dish towel and let it sit on the countertop for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Uncover the bagels and bake for 10 minutes. Brush the bagels with a little coconut oil, rotate the baking sheet 180 degrees, and bake until golden brown, 6 minutes. Let the bagels cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before serving.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here