Bakery trims allergens, keeps flavor Lara Weihs believes all kids deserve a birthday cake that won't make them sick.
She’s made it her mission to provide that simple slice of happiness to youngsters of all ages – even octogenarians – whose dietary restrictions make regular baked goods a no-no.
Weihs’ Tacoma bakery, Granny Lala’s, is dedicated to crafting cakes and muffins that are free of the most common food allergens: nuts, wheat, soy, corn, dairy, and gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
Products are also devoid of another common allergen – eggs – except in her popular brownies.
Most ingredients are organic and vegan.
The year-old wholesale operation supplies nearly 20 coffee shops, restaurants, food cooperatives and grocery stores in the South Sound, Sequim and Seattle. “My goals are to make it easier for people with dietary restrictions to be able to eat out and feel safe,” said Weihs, who’s called Granny Lala by her 2-year-old granddaughter Brooklynn.
And Weihs doesn’t think people with food allergies or sensitivities should have to settle for less taste.
“I tested my recipes on people who didn’t have dietary restrictions. They either had to not be able to tell they were gluten-free or like them better than traditional recipes.”
Glancing at the fragrant amber-brown cakes she had just pulled from the oven, the Spanaway woman said, “You shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
Part of her secret is retaining the sweetness, flavors and richness that she believes manufacturers remove from allergen-free baked goods. Hers are not low-calorie foods.
“I use unrefined sugars but they’re still sugars. It’s not diet food. It is a treat,” she cautioned. “They’re not something you’re going to want to eat every day all day long.”
The bakery’s most popular item is a cake named after a preschooler who desperately wanted a birthday cake and a party hat after reading how Curious George, the monkey, celebrated his birthday.
Problem was, little Katie is allergic to 16 foods, ranging from gluten and dairy products to strawberries and soy.
Weihs’ response: the Katie Cake, a chocolate, bundt-like cake made of quinoa flour and glazed with a rich chocolate ganache. The 16 allergens are absent.
Robin Johnson, owner of Endicott Coffee Bar on South Hill, started carrying Granny Lala’s baked goods shortly after Christmas.
She’s been surprised to find how many of her patrons used to decline baked treats at her establishment because of food sensitivities; now they’re eating Weihs’ goodies. She’s even gained new customers who found the coffee house by looking at Granny Lala’s website that lists places carrying the products.
Johnson says the treats are as good as their traditional counterparts.
“I have the brownies and muffins on display for people to purchase. They’re a great product. They’re tasty. I’m not lying.”
Weihs, 44, knows the frustration of scouring grocery shelves and restaurant menus in vain for allergen-free foods.
The Spanaway woman has suffered from food sensitivities and allergies her entire life, but didn’t realize they were causing her health issues until she was tested for allergies 15 years ago.
She learned that the feeling of lethargy she never seemed to shake lay in the eggs she’d eaten. Her body couldn’t tolerate milk products. She discovered wheat and soy were triggering her headaches, body aches, digestive problems and “brain fog.” Once she completely banned the problem foods from her diet, her health blossomed. “I suddenly had much more clarity, focus and energy,” she wrote on her website.
Yet she found it’s no easy task to find prepared foods she can eat.
Though gluten- and wheat-free products are proliferating, many manufacturers have replaced the wheat with soy or whey, which Weihs can’t eat.
She remembers going to a health food store and reading food labels for 20 minutes, alongside other shoppers. “I couldn’t find any baked goods that were free of all those things. There were five of us. We all walked out with nothing.”
But in Weihs’ case, frustration sparked inspiration for a specialized bakery.
Weihs, who was working in corporate travel management at the time, spent months modifying traditional baking recipes and creating new ones using gluten-free flours made of brown rice, white rice, quinoa, sorgum and teff.
Since gluten binds ingredients and gives baked goods their substance, she tested xanthum gum and guar gum powders and other foods to see which would do the job for various recipes.
She learned that even basic ingredients may hide allergens.
Vanilla, for instance, often includes alcohol made of wheat; vanilla extract labeled as gluten-free can be made of corn alcohol. She contracted with a supplier on the East Coast to custom-prepare organic Madagascar vanilla extract using palm glycerine instead of alcohol as a flavor carrier. She uses low-sodium baking powder that contains no gluten, dairy, wheat or aluminum.
Last May, she opened Granny Lala’s Inc. With the help of family and friends, Weihs bakes the products in a commercial kitchen she rents in South Tacoma. A sign on the entrance warns no wheat, rye, barley, corn, soy , dairy, peanut, tree nut, fish or shellfish products are permitted on the premises.
“I don’t even let people bring it in their lunch or latte ... even soda sweetened with corn syrup,” she said. “I don’t want cross contamination.”
Andrea and Erik Fish of Spanaway are grateful for the extra precautions. They have custom-ordered Katie Cakes as birthday cakes for their two boys, Ryan, 7, and Kyle, 5. The brothers are autistic and suffer from multiple food allergies, Andrea said.
Once they learned about the boys’ allergies two years ago, the entire family stopped eating at restaurants and buying most of the prepared foods in stores, even items that were gluten-free.
“A lot of the allergen-free stuff is not very tasty,” said Andrea, who founded Special Families of Pierce County, a parent support group for special need children. “To have someone who does (allergen-free) baked goods that taste good, it’s kind of cool. And she’s a nice gal, too.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694