I baked my first cookie when I was 10. By the time I was in high school I was making choux pastry and eclairs just for shits and giggles while my sisters and I stayed up late watching whatever came on the 12 TV channels that were available back then. I’ve been making my grandmother’s banana bread so long it’s second nature. To me, baking has been comfort, entertainment and wonder. I’m still amazed at the chemistry of combinations that fulfill crust and crumb of all my favorite recipes.
But these days, we’re always reading about how a pound of butter in a dozen cookies will risk heart attack and sugar can send you to the hospital. Wheat allergies are rampant, and dairy and meat should be avoided. What’s a hobby baker to do?
I threw in the towel for about a year. But I missed the kitchen alchemy of mixing powders and liquids that transformed into glorious baked beauties in my oven’s dark heat. So I decided to take up gluten-free and vegan baking, but I wasn’t sure where to start. After cracking open a gluten-free baking book I got from an aunt, I realized I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary of ingredients and restock my pantry.
I went down to Hawaiian Moons and picked up a bag of xanthan gum and Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Flour. I noticed a chocolate chip cookie recipe by the famous “BabyCakes Bakery NYC” on the back of the packaging, so Googled them on my iPhone. Ten minutes later their brand new app (launched around December 2012) was on my phone.
I had never used a recipe or cooking app before, beyond searching online for recipes. But the app was definitely a different experience. With two books under her belt, Bakery founder Erin McKenna says she’s a visual learner. “[My app is] a bake-through of much of my first two books, a televisual cheatsheet for vegan and gluten-free baking, an indulgent and beautiful art project,” she said. “It is BabyCakes NYC without the subway ride or the parking ticket.”
You can tell McKenna has a very distinct aesthetic, her app is very artsy, every recipe has its own logo on the home screen, and the app has a custom soundtrack by the Bubbles, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, Bleached and Cults. It also uses a new platform called Atavist to tell its story of vegan baking.
McKenna is a self-taught baker and now runs the super popular Babycakes Bakery in New York and LA. At first I was almost turned off by her celeb following and hipster vibe, but it was her baking that brought me back.
Grasping my iPhone while donning reading glasses and lining up strange flours and unfamiliar ingredients in my kitchen, I looked over my first Babycakes app recipe: the brownie. Of course, it’s easy to loose the iPhone among your baking pans and potato starch. Also, trying to reload your recipe after your phone screensaver turns on every two minutes is a pain, but the app makes it up to you with videos.
You have your very own season of allergy-free baking with Erin Mckenna of BabyCakes Bakery on the phone–not even Food Network has that. There are sections on the ingredients, celebrity appearances and other chefs like Momofuku/Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi and Del Posto’s Brooks Headley.
So far, I’ve made the brownies, chocolate chip cookies and a banana chocolate chip teacake. Each one came out spectacular. Now I’ve been bringing baked goods to the office for years, and I know when something isn’t good: it gets left in the break room all day, untouched, forcing me to bring it home.
But these goodies disappeared as fast, if not more, than ones boasting dairy and wheat, even after I gave full disclosure about their contents. Sure, there was initial surprise. But questions like “What, these don’t have any butter or sugar?” soon gave way to comments like “These are fudgey bites from heaven.” Gobbling chocolate cookies, my editor said, “These are delicious but they could use more gluten to hold them together.” Another office mate asked me what was holding them together.
To be honest, I have no idea. I just moved on to the cupcake recipes and then to donuts. Each recipe is so completely different. Many use different flours, some have organic unprocessed sugar, some use agave, but all have been moist and so good you wonder why anyone would use wheat and dairy in baking in the first place.
The BabyCakes app will run you $4 but you get how-to videos for everything you make, as well as social sharing, FAQs, McKenna style points (she makes baking and eating cupcakes while being visibly pregnant look so hip) and a soundtrack. It’s the same price for the iPad version, which comes with a slightly better interface.
What the app is missing is a page dedicated to their Tumblr blog, which is updated regularly and a source of inspiration for me. Instead, it has a link to a fake app blog that only has one post dating back to December 2012.
Getting BabyCakes baking on your reading device like Kindle or Nook will run you about $13 but you will miss out on the videos. Instead, find Babycakes on YouTube. McKenna has videos of her mom making her recipes, eager reporters following her around her bakery while she bakes and plenty of other videos.
Still like the feel of an old fashioned cookbook in the kitchen? Go to Barnes & Noble in Lahaina and spend $25 for her beautiful hard cover editions. You’ll still get lots of tips on gluten-free baking, and the ingredient info chapter is very thorough. Though you’re missing the videos and music, you will get more pictures and recipes plus classic advice from McKenna.
“Always use proper measuring spoons,” she says in one of her books. “The teaspoons and tablespoons in your silverware drawer won’t cut it, and eyeballed or otherwise touch measurements will result in baked goods so terrible and ugly I don’t even want to discuss it.”