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08 March 2006

the best gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free food you will ever eat

babycakes chocolate cake, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

As I walked the streets of the Upper West Side during my trip to New York, I was disarmed to see so many Starbucks.

Now, don’t misunderstand me — I don’t see Starbucks as the evil empire. Hell, one of my best friends works at the corporate office here in Seattle, and she has informed me that Starbucks spends more money on health insurance every year than they spend on coffee. Impressive. They provide a service to the world, functioning as everyone’s third place, that space of comfort away from home and work. They installed comfy couches and fake fireplaces, and the people came flocking.

But does there really need to be a Starbucks every five blocks between 116th and 34th Street? And why are they all full, all the time? Doesn’t anyone in New York have jobs?

(And why does Starbucks have to over-roast their coffee?)

One of the only disappointments of my recent trip to New York was finding how corporate the place has become. A block in the 90s looks like the same in the 80s looks like a block near Lincoln Center: Starbucks; Gap; Barnes and Noble. Throw in a nail salon, a sushi restaurant, and a pizza place, and there’s the entire block.

There are twenty more times independent bookstores and local music stores in quaint little Seattle than there are in all of Manhattan.

Even the grocery stores feel as though they are shaped from the same enormous cookie-cutter mold. D'Agostinos, Gristedes, and the Food Emporium -- they lurk on every other block, all with rather dispritingly limp produce and ill-lit aisles. Whole Foods has clearly invaded Manhattan, and that's an improvement over the other chains, in my opinion. But they also stalk like giant behemoths, a dazzling warehouse, a mini-mall of organic food, every one the same, and every one too expensive. My friend Kari and I stopped in the Whole Foods at the Warner Center on 57th Street to stock up on groceries for dinner that night, and I nearly fainted from the sensory overload.

Times Square (godawful)

Is it any wonder that this neon-blinking atrocity, which Hershey has continuosly blaring in the middle of Times Square, feels like a metaphor for me of how corporate parts of Manhattan are?

Of course, there are still independent food producers left in Manhattan. It's such an enormous place with a thousand little pockets of concentrated blocks, that there will always be a tiny store selling one item. Murray's Cheese Shop on Bleecker. Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Orchard Street. Yonah Shimmel, the Downtown Knish on Houston Street. It's always the independent food producers who interest me most. And frankly, their food always tastes better than the food of even the most enlightened chains.

I have discovered, since I had to go gluten-free, that most of the people who make gluten-free foods make great food. They all started with a sense of urgency, a real desire to make food that lingers in the memory with unexpected pleasure. Those foods come with fervency. A woman starts baking gluten-free cookies in her home kitchen. Everyone remarks, "These are fantastic. I wouldn't even know they are gluten-free!" Driven forward by the sense of joy her food is giving people, she starts delivering to local coffee shops. And then she decides to open her own bakery.

babycakes outside IV

I'm so glad that Erin McKenna followed that winding path, following the fervor of needing a memorable gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free cupcake. If she hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to eat at Babycakes.

Babycakes is simply the best little bakery I have ever stood inside. Tiny as a mini-muffin, Babycakes is just around the corner from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, on Broome Street. It makes sense that Ms. McKenna opened her daring little bakery in this neighborhood, historically the land of immigrants and enormous hopes. (And also some of the best food in New York.)

It's an improbable story. Told three years ago that she can no longer eat gluten or dairy, Ms. McKenna decided to cut out sugar as well. Most of America, of course, would immediately cry: "What else is there to eat?" Well, so much more. Determined to still eat comfort foods after a lifetime of birthday parties and baking with her mother, this feisty young woman started experimenting with agave nectar and cold-pressed coconut oil as ingredients. A whiz in the kitchen, she impressed her friends with how genuinely fabulous it all tasted. And thus, a bakery was born.

Ah, but not so easy. The loan she tried to take out for her small business fell through. And even though the little shop is no bigger than a thimble, really, this is still Manhattan. So she and her co-workers have been pulling twelve-hour days, working for little pay, and essentially just praying that people will come in.

People are coming in.

When I was there with my friends Monica and Gabe, people strolled and sauntered into the place at a steady pace. And how could they resist? The place is just so darned adorable -- there's no other word for it. There's a certain kitschy, girly sensibility to the bakery. The women behind the counter wear pink, candy-striper aprons. The walls are a pleasing pastel palette. And everywhere are nostalgic signs from the 1950s, talking about frosting shots and the inability to please everyone.

babycakes sign

As an indpendent woman in 2006, I feel blessed that I have choices that my grandmother and mother never had. They were obligated to be in the kitchen, cooking away all day. But me? I choose it. I have that luxury. For me, the signs and sensibilities of Babycakes were a way of paying homage to that generation, winking at them as we bake.

The morning I was in Babycakes was magic. After a brittle cold winter week, we had a warm Saturday morning. Everyone who walked into the bakery began smiling. I have to say, though, I'm sure that the enveloping smell of warm chocolate cake and tart lemon cupcakes mingling in the air enticed the smiles to emerge. Everything smelled wholesome and decadent at the same time.

We ordered a chocolate chip cookie and two cupcakes. Somehow, we resisted the gooey chocolate cake resting on the top of the counter. I had to take a photograph and let that take the place of throwing my mouth down and gobbling it all up in one bite. I restrained myself. But it smelled that good.

My friends and I walked out of the store, and into the sunlight. We took photographs on the sidewalk and laughed at ourselves. We bit down into our treats and murmured about their goodness. The cookie was crisp and thin, filled with oozing chocolate. And the cupcakes? Well, since I had already been to another gluten-free bakery that morning with my friends, and I was headed for a plane that afternoon, I let Monica take them home instead of eating them on the spot.

She reported joy upon eating them.

I ate well and gluten-free in a number of places in New York during my whirlwind eating tour. But in the end, I like Babycakes best. I only wish that I lived in the neighborhood, so I could visit its warmth more often. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and I want to support my sisters. But it’s clear that these women are — in spite of the money worries, the small space, and the tremulous feeling of the unknown — having a great time. And in the end, isn’t that what we hope to do when we make food? Make a mouthful of joy for someone.

Give me a Babycakes over a Starbucks any day.

248 Broome Street
between Ludlow and Orchard

independent food awards

I have awarded Babycakes this honor as part of the Indpendent Food Festival and Awards, of which I am proud to be a part. Here is a precis of the idea behind the award from our host, Hillel of Tasting Menu:

Food can be a wonderful part of life. A growing legion of people in the world think of every meal as an opportunity for a great experience. And yet, sometimes it seems like an ever shrinking number of people actually make great food. tasteEverything is dedicated to the idea that the more people share their great experiences, the more likely it is that the people who make great food will prosper and increase in number.

For more great food and opinions about it, check out the awards all week at Taste Everything. Go and read, then support your local food producers.


At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like Babycakes is great and after catching up on all the New York posts that you had a wonderful time. It feels nice to be back to reading your words again.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger YouGuysKnow said...

wow. thank you so much for that post. and really, if someone could get a cupcake made with agave nectar, cold-pressed coconut oil, etc. instead of all the processed sugar, etc WHY would she (me!) not eat it instead?! I do not have gluten issues, but I LOVE your blog and all the cool things I get to learn here. next time i am in NYC Babycakes is top of my list.

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Tea said...

What fun it is following your adventures in New York! I'm getting great ideas for my next trip--and a great dose of Shauna exuberance and enthusiasm! Glad you had such a lovely and delicious time there.

At 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I wish Babycakes were here in Vancouver (BC)! Several family members, including me, have wheat, dairy and sugar intolerances. I was curious as to what sweetener they use and was very surprised that one of them is birch sugar (xylitol)! So good to see them not using chemical sweeteners! Now I wish I could get their recipes!

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a long-time wheat-free person, I've adjusted to a life devoid of "real" pizza, bagels, muffins, scones, cookies, breaded anything...but the kid in me has sorely missed cupcakes. My first visit to Babycakes occurred last weekend, and after standing for a while, teary eyed in the little space (which you describe very well), thinking and then saying out loud: you mean I can eat EVERYTHING IN HERE??? -- I proceeded to order one of almost everything in the store and eat it all right there and then. You are right, this place is a gem. And the biggest gem of all: the cupcakes. The carrot cupcake with creamy vanilla frosting was delicious beyond description. And it was really a cupcake, not a fake, ersatz cupcake thrown together by somebody with no soul who thought we wheat-free people would settle for anything.

God/dess bless Babycakes. As the Governor of California once said: "I'll be back."

At 10:54 PM, Blogger David said...

Am so jealous....of your trip to NYC! Makes me long to go there again. Especially to visit Il Laboratorio for gelato, and City Bakery, and Zabars, and Starbuck (ok, not for Starbucks...but I too wonder why there are so many too)

At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My 2 year old and 3 year old are now asking me to take them to New York after seeing the Babycakes site. Lovely.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger terry said...

i so wish i had found your site BEFORE my vacation in nyc last year! i can't wait to return and hit all the places you've mentioned.

At 5:43 AM, Blogger OneTiredEma said...

Unfortunately Babycakes isn't kosher, or it's the kind of place I would love to recommend to friends (a fellow playgroup mommy has Celiac). Glad you enjoyed.

The first part of your entry reminded me why food shopping in NYC pretty much constantly pisses me off. Yet another reason why summer is SO much better, and why I will drag small children to farmers' markets in three states starting in June.

At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your gluten free restaurant suggestions and the bakeries. Since they don't make gluten free matzos during Passover, I guess I can go to Babycakes on the lower east side and eat my sweet tooth off.
Looking forward to Risotto and the others

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Shauna!

Your blog is really engaging and informative. Good for you for getting so involved in baking your own foods - I'm involved in a gluten free bakery and cafe (Panne Rizo in Vancouver, BC) and talk to people all the time who compromise and limit what they eat because they think it will be too much hassle to actually make food from scratch.

Of course, there are plenty of celiacs that DO make their own food, and they end up being incredibly knowledgeable!

This 'problem' isn't limited to the gluten/allergen-free crowd... having lived in Europe, I am well aware of what a huge compromise we in North America make when it comes to breads and baked treats, and even a lot of restaurant foods. All of us would benefit from being more aware not only of which ingredients we're consuming, but also the quality of those ingredients.

I applaud you for taking the time to make gorgeous foods and for inspiring others to do the same.

All the best,

ps. Have you visited Panne Rizo? If you're interested, send us an email at and we'll share some treats with you :)

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dearest, I want to let you know that since reading this, I have been to Babycakes twice, and I thought of you each time I walked through the door. :) Keeping in mind that I am not wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free or sugar-free, I am still, nonetheless, hooked. And I have you, and your superb post, to thank for it. :)

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wondering if you have been to the new GF bakery in Greenwood. Everything is gluten free. It is called Davinci's and is run by the same women who owned Kaili's Kitchen up in Edmonds.

I love her egg/dairy free bread even though I can eat both. & her cakes are to die for! I haven't tried her pizza yet, but it is next on my list ;-)

Take Care

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information. I was disappointed to find that babycakes still doesn't have their online sales up yet. However, I will be visiting NYC in the fall and will have to check it out. If you know of any other good dairy free haunts (gluten free too), I will be adding them to in our restaurants section in the near future.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From one gluten-free girl to another . . . THANKS! Babycakes is the best find ever, I might have to move to New York :) Let me know if you're coming to LA again anytime soon, I know some great spots.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Anonymous said...

Thanks, this was very helpful! I was looking for somewhere in NYC to find this kind of bakery to send to a friend who is trying sugar-free foods. I will be stopping by BabyCakes this week!

At 9:31 AM, Blogger DeePee said...

Can someone help me find websites to order gluten, sugar and dairy free foods.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Maro AKA Celia said...

The website, has fantastic sugar free gluten free cookies and muffins. They are baked by Rheinlander Bakery in Colorado whose owner is a cancer survivor and found out that she was celiac as well. Baking mixes are available that you can make gluten free and sugar free cakes or cupcakes in your kitchen, all made in a dedicated gluten free facility in Boulder Colorado.
The retail location is in Arvada,CO. Three showcases are dedicated to all natural sugar free gluten free cakes and desserts. If you are ever in Arvada, you will flip over this place.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Donna S said...

DO you have a place to get GF challah that does mail orders?

At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease a little over a year ago. I will be traveling to Chicago next month and I am looking for gluten free places to eat while I am there. Anyone with suggestions? I live in Minnesota and if anyone needs suggestions for gluten free places here let me know.


At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

quick note on Starbucks- Starbucks has an entire line of gf bakery items in their Latin American market. Starbucks is going to try and roll out some of those gf items in the stores in NYC. It would be nice if they would have gf products in all their U.S. stores just like Latin America. Why is the U.S. so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to Celiac Disease?

At 6:29 PM, Blogger HTowle said...

OMG!!! I can't even begin to tell you how excited and thankful I am that you posted this. I too was told a month ago that I am not aloud to have Gluten, Dairy or Sugar, plus a mountain of other things! For this whole time all I have been craving are cakes and bread and CUPCAKES!!! And now because of this wonderful little bakery I get to eat it!!!!!!!!! I don't even live in NY and I totally plan on spending what ever it costs to purchase the cupcakes and have them shipped to me ASAP!!!!! And the next time I am in NYC, I don't have to sit around the table with my friends at Serendipity eating a cup of fruit! Were going to Babycakes!!!!!!

At 8:43 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

You are my HERO. Thank you so much for blogging. Just found out I have a severe gluten, wheat, dairy, nut and soy intolerance. This blog gives me hope and helps me tremendously.
Please visit me at

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Amhurst1 said...

This is such a great dessert option - I hope they don't mind shipping cross country! But if you're looking for an awesome main course attraction on the west coast - you can check out Nourish restaurant in Scottsdale!


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