No Gluten? No Problem!

by Rebecca Cohen
Aliza Elizarov
March 2015

Gluten free. The dread phrase strikes fear into the hearts of even the staunchest pastry chefs, eliciting responses from horror to bafflement, disgust to indignation. So just imagine the emotional turmoil sparked by a celiac diagnosis in one poised on the cusp of a promising new pastry career. Sound like a nightmare? It’s just what Monica Glass, of Boston’s Clio, grappled with back in 2009, as she was undertaking her first-ever pastry chef gig. But while many would’ve rolled over and admitted defeat, Glass dug in and determined to master pastry above and beyond the constraints of traditional gluten-reliant techniques.

Coming from a background in PR, Glass first stepped into professional kitchens more out of a desire to hone her skills in a beloved craft than an intent to transition careers. But the world of professional pastry swept her up, and soon she was working at NYC’s Gotham Bar & Grill, followed by Le Bernardin. When consulting Chef Michael Laiskonis charged her with heading up the pastry department of 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge in Philadelphia’s Ritz Carlton, Glass was ready to spread her wings and fly—until a bump in the runway brought everything to a grinding halt. Glass’ doctor diagnosed her recent recurrent illnesses as arising from gluten intolerance, and suddenly disparate ailments made sense in the context of celiac disease. “That turned my whole world upside-down,” says Glass. “[I thought] ‘what do I do now?’ I got very lost for a little bit.”

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Glass is one tough cookie. While she initially feared she would have to give up pastry, her newfound love, she soon realized this obstacle wasn’t insurmountable. “I really tried to figure out a way to incorporate [gluten-free] more into my style,” she says. “It became my challenge, my goal.” She set to researching alternative flours and grain substitutes, reading up on the science behind baking in order to take her tinkerings to the next level. This was all before the gluten-free craze of the last few years, so Glass’ culinary scholasticism was delving into largely uncharted waters. “There was a lot of trial and error, not everything I made was delicious.”

Five years later and Glass has achieved a level of gluten-free skill which few can claim, and found her unique pastry voice in the process. “Back in Philly they’re used to eating and wanting heavier, simpler foods. Doughnuts, bread pudding, cakes. Instead of that being my basis I’ve moved towards fruits, citrus,” she says. “That’s what I prefer to eat anyway, so it was just a matter of figuring out what I gravitate towards” Glass starts with an inspirational flavor, from perennial pastry favorites such as strawberries or passion fruit to those you’ve never heard of, like linden blossom, kinako, or kalamansi. She then designs elements to complement and highlight that central focus.

Childhood memories of her grandmother’s garden were the jumping off point for the dish La Rhubarbe, a fanciful arrangement of green and white domes and rich ruby red which evoke a whimsical ecosystem. Creamy labneh mousse with tart poached rhubarb and Meyer lemon-sake kasu curd, crunchy Meyer lemon meringues and pine nut-quinoa granola, cool cucumber sherbet, and vivid rhubarb soup come together for a romp across textures and bright and subtle flavors, all without a hint of wheat flour. “Always, whenever I’m creating a new dessert, I start by making it gluten free.”

While some desserts end up making more sense with the addition of flour-based components—say, doughnuts or a sponge—Glass finds that initially approaching all her creations with a gluten restriction in place forces her creativity to explore new paths. “It helps to build new flavors.” Her desserts often incorporate nontraditional grains and seeds, from buckwheat and polenta to quinoa and mesquite flour. Fried and puffed buckwheat combined with cocoa paste makes for an addictively crunchy, nutty garnish. Mesquite flour also pairs well with earthy chocolate, while blue corn flour makes for colorful cakes and macarons. But this path is not always a straightforward one, and she acknowledges that “sometimes it takes a while to get a gluten-free dessert on the menu. They don’t always come out right the first time.”

For an old hand like Glass, gluten-free has become status quo. But how about vegan gluten-free desserts? “We get a lot of vegan and vegetarian diners, so rather than a last minute fruit and sorbet plate I really wanted to offer them something better.” That something might be the stunning La Nuit Rouge, combining native strawberries with black sesame sauce, kalamansi-coconut “crème fraîche”, coconut dulce de leche, and black sesame-kinako mochi. Or it might be an upcoming dish featuring soy milk, yuba (tofu skin), urfa pepper, and miso. Even while acknowledging that “flour is one of the four pillars of pastry, but eggs and butter are two more!” Glass takes the challenge in stride, demonstrating that true pastry love is greater than the love of its glutenous parts.

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