The Gluten Free Milwaukeean: It's Not as Hard as You Think
3 April 1:20pmCaitlin Knudsen • Milwaukee
I have been gluten free, except for the breaded fry incident back in December, for about four months. Before you groan and stop reading because you don’t want to hear about somebody else’s diet for the millionth time, I want you to know I was you a few months ago. I was adamant gluten free living was a scam and maybe it will be revealed as such a few years down the road. Who knows? What I know is that multiple medical professionals suggested I cut it out of my life to see if it improved my anxiety and depression symptoms.
I decided to cease my judgment for a hot second and give it a try. How can I truly judge the efficacy of a lifestyle change if I don’t try it for myself? Here’s my disclaimer: this is not meant to provide medical advice in any way and is merely an anecdotal account of what it’s like living gluten free in a Midwestern city strongly influenced by all things wheat. This is my story and it’s okay if my story doesn’t mimic yours. We can be different people, I promise.
I felt like garbage for a couple weeks after I cut gluten out of my diet, but this was followed by feeling much more energetic, decreased aches and pains, and a sort of lightness inside my head; it definitely helped with my depression symptoms and habits, but hasn’t done much for my anxiety thus far. With what it has helped with so far, I will not abandon ship and I sort of get it because my anxiety is a beast — I had a hard time believing cutting wheat out would cure decades of conditioning and dysfunction.
I enjoy food. A lot. I love it. I love cooking it myself. I do cooking projects to relax. It’s a sometimes religious experience enjoying a well-prepared meal at one of Milwaukee’s excellent restaurants. It’s how I bond with people. It’s how I would screen dates back when I was a regular on OKCupid. It was a turnoff to me if somebody didn’t enjoy or want to talk about food since it’s such a big part of my life. I had a friend in Charlotte, NC that gave me a speech one time about how food is fuel and he ate solely to fuel his body and I never found him as boring as I did in that moment. I didn’t understand the blank stare on his face as I gleefully dug into a container of Trader Joe’s Sea Salt and Turbinado Dark Chocolate Almonds aka drugs conveniently packaged in plastic. As a childless, marriageless adult, cutting out gluten was one of my major milestones this past year. Don’t be jealous.
When you don’t eat gluten, entire sections of menus are now forboden to you. Like sandwiches. Burgers. Burgers are not sandwiches and don’t you dare try to tell me otherwise. Pasta dishes. Pizza. Dessert. Ah, dessert. How ever would I treat myself going forward? My favorites in the past were the towering red velvet cupcakes from C. Adams Bakery in the public market, tuxedo cake from most local grocery stores, and basically any pie from Honeypie Cafe. All of these would exist as memories going forward. Fond, fond memories.
I had to step out of my comfort zone and find new favorites. I did because I love a food challenge and I’m here to share them with you, not just in case you eat gluten free as well, but because they are just solid desserts and are worth being in the rotation regardless of their gluten status. I didn’t look at desserts on the menu at sit down restaurants because the dessert menus often change depending on the season and I want to provide you with reliable information at the time of publish. Here’s my second disclaimer: I cannot vouch for levels of cross-contamination at any of the places mentioned, so if you have Celiac’s I recommend you do your own research and ask your own questions. Two disclaimers in one article? I feel a strange sense of accomplishment.
The first place of note I want to mention is Batches. Batches is in the Third Ward and it’s a lovely little coffee shop/bakery and it’s an aside, but they make an awesome cappuccino, a beverage I’m super picky about the execution of. They have a gluten free double chocolate cookie that is ridiculous. It’s rich with a salty and savory note and the appropriate amount of chocolate chips infusing the dough. Chocolate chip balance is an art form. This cookie is no joke; it’s thick and decadent. It’s one of my favorite chocolate desserts I’ve ever had, besides a chocolate cake slice from a bakery in Asheville, NC. It’s gluten free, but you wouldn’t know. It’s slightly chewy and crunchy at the same time: the perfect balance. Get one. Get one now.
Batches also has a vegan and gluten free dessert called the Caramel Delight, what I assume is a play off of the BEST Girl Scout cookie ever and don’t you dare disagree with me. I’m right. This slice has layers of chocolate cake, gooey coconut, a chocolate mousse-like layer, and caramel sauce. It’s the one to get if you want something cakelike and sweet. It’s wonderfully balanced and the textures are impeccable from the soft cake to the chewy coconut to the smooth caramel. It’s topped with a crunchy chocolate covered cereal element that I love to pluck off and eat first. I really hope they develop some additional gluten free items, because I have full faith in the abilities of Jaceleen Latin-Kasper, pastry chef with a knack for modified recipes (they have a ton of vegan options available as well). If you are looking for something a little closer to a traditional baked good, C. Adams does have a couple gluten free options.
Find yourself in the Milwaukee Public Market and feel the magnetic pull of C. Adams Bakery. It’s a classic. You can’t avoid it. It’s like a bright light and we are all flies, drawn to our demise. Too dramatic? I don’t mess around with baked goods. They are drama. It’s hard to resist the beautiful cookies, cupcakes, and cakes displayed in their cases, but by and large they are full of gluten. Luckily, they have a flourless peanut butter cookie that I can happily recommend.
Typically, I prefer cookies that are barely baked, gooey, and possibly harboring some salmonella — this is not that cookie, but I love it nonetheless. Instead of flour substitutes and workarounds, it’s a classic flourless peanut butter cookie. It’s chewy and crunchy at the same time and chock full of peanut butter flavor. It’s got that savory sweet thing going on and it is massive. It took me two days to get through the cookie. Granted, I was also “sampling” the other desserts mentioned in this article, but STILL.
They didn’t have any of their parfaits when I went to pick up the goods, but I have sampled the pot de creme and the chocolate mousse in the past, both of which should be inherently devoid of gluten and they are a tasty option if you want something chocolatey, smooth, and creamy. Both are quite rich and come in a Wisconsin serving size (large), so I’d recommend sharing or rationing. If you are concerned about dairy and sugar intake in addition to the gluten, I wouldn’t recommend either of the aforementioned bakeries.
If you find yourself off North Avenue, give Blooming Lotus a try. Their entire menu is gluten free. Yes. The ENTIRE menu. They also use natural sweeteners and abstain from the use of dairy. If you are not accustomed to plant-based eating, I imagine some of their treats might taste odd to you. Just like if you’ve never had nut milk before and you take a big swig of almond milk, it must come as a shock. It is not and will never be dairy milk. I find it best to go into the consumption of such products by viewing them as their own thing; don’t expect these baked goods to taste like the goods from a French Patisserie.
I love Blooming Lotus. I don’t know if it’s technically their signature, but the Cashew Indulgence bars are awesome and always available. It’s a nutty, salty, subtly sweet bar topped with a fudgy chocolate frosting. They are so, so good. The frosting is thick and serves as a nice juxtaposition with the crumbly bar portion. Whenever I eat one of these baked goods, I don’t get sugar sweats (don’t even lie and tell me you don’t know what sugar sweats are) and don’t crash into a pool of lethargy within a few hours. I don’t get bloated. I don’t get nauseated. I almost feel good. I had largely cut out sugar for a few months prior to cutting gluten and I’ve found when I do eat something really sugary, I feel it and not in a good way. Blooming Lotus’ treats taste way less sweet than conventional baked goods.
On Saturdays, they make donuts. The varieties depend on the day, but for a while there they had both a chocolate and a spiced version with multiple options for frosting/toppings. They resemble a cake donut in taste and texture and satisfy a donut craving when you can’t have the conventional variety. The chocolate ones have a nice bitter chocolate undertone that I like and when they top it with their toffee-style frosting, it’s a true treat. You can find the toffee-style frosting on the carrot cupcakes as well, which is another one of my favorites. You can actually taste the carrot in the moist cake, filled with spices and raisins. The toffee frosting is smooth and thick, providing a nice contrast to the dense and variable cake texture. It’s a winner.
Blooming Lotus is great because there are so many options. I’ve tried a good amount of them and I could probably write an entire article about it, but it’s one of those menus where I bet most people could find something they like. The cookies are good. They are somewhat known for their scones. They have pie. They make bread and rolls. Their rolls are my go-to when I want to eat something “bready” with my soup for lunch. Plus, the people that work there are always incredibly helpful and friendly and I find this to be a huge incentive to keep going back. I want to support them.
This change has affected a lot for me. I have to have more lengthy discussions with friends about where we can go out to eat so I can be sure I can find something gluten free. I don’t eat as much dessert. My meals at home are more carefully thought out. I can’t just pop some toast in the toaster and call it a day (one of my favorite easy meals in the past was toast and either avocado, butter, or peanut butter). I think a lot about protein. I think a lot about fiber and how I can incorporate more into my diet. I swear I’m not 65 just yet. If this is the cost for feeling better physically and mentally, it’s well worth it. Plus, there’s no shortage of wonderful options in our city if I get a hankering for gluten free baked goods.