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The Hole-y Grail: A GF Bagel Worth Schmearing


No gluten here. (Joan's GF Great Bakes)

If you are on the gluten-free eating plan or live with someone who is, I bet there’s an empty space in your brunch buffet -- say, right where the toasted, chewy sesame seed bagel halves would be.

The staff here at AWCE has received enough samples of GF baked goods to tell that their overall quality is improving. Still, cardboard and sand come up way too often as accurate descriptors.

Leave it to a Jewish bubbe to fix things. Ten years ago, when Joan Popkin’s twin grandsons were toddlers, they gnawed on certain foodstuffs and got a little sick. The Long Island homemaker with a degree in health education felt as if she was watching a rerun of what had happened when their father (her oldest son) was young. The symptoms stopped for all three once their diets were wheat-free.

Although Popkin had never been much of a baker, she says, she began testing and developing breads, muffins, cakes and cookies that her family could enjoy. She quickly nixed the use of soy products (“hated the smell of them,” she says), and lots of trial runs went straight into the garbage can.

Now her grandsons are 12 (“they come and sweep the floor in the bakery!” she says), and Popkin’s an entrepreneur (“having the time of my life,” she says). Joan’s GF Great Bakes has its own commercial kitchen in Bellmore, N.Y., near her home in Merrick, but there’s nary a humming Hobart. She has a staff of seven who bake in small batches and use stand mixers like yours and mine to blend rice and tapioca and garbanzo bean flours; nonfat proteins such as whey powder; egg whites, and very little dairy.

Her bagels are her biggest sellers; there are six varieties that come in a package of five for about $8. Even cinnamon raisin.

Popkin, 64, and various relatives attend plenty of food/trade shows these days. I met her at the Gluten-Free Spree in early May and tasted samples that suggested neither cardboard nor sand.

But what would a real connoisseur make of GF Great Bakes, I wondered? I presented Joan’s frozen bagels, English muffins and Sicilian pizza to Erin Hartigan, D.C.’s own Gluten Freebird.

“I was wowed,” she chirped. “The instructions are a bit more finicky than typical GF breads (microwave defrosting before toasting or baking). But I think the end result is more than worth that bit of extra effort.” All the samples I gave her passed Freebird’s texture/moisture/consistency test. She ate them hot and buttered, and also cooled. Her verdict: two snaps up.

The ’za was her favorite: “I don’t really buy frozen pizza, so I split it with my gluten-eating boyfriend. He was equally impressed. I was excited that the cheese had dairy ... and that the crust had herbs in it.” Popkin uses a McCormick’s blend of Italian spices and some Parmesan cheese in the pizza dough (“one piece has 34 grams of protein in it,” she says).

Freebird did not quite sing a song of Joan’s English muffins, though their texture still made the grade. Our GF consumer missed a characteristic yeasty flavor and slight sourness she remembered from her days of eating regular English muffins. Popkin says hers are egg-, dairy- and soy-free; it’s tough to create lots of flavor with so much taken out (“put a little salty butter on it; that’ll take care of any flavor deficit,” she says).


Bagels come frozen, in packs of five. (Joan's GF Great Bakes)

And so the GF empire grows. Popkin keeps testing a challah bread (“can’t get it to be consistent,” she says). Her egg-, dairy- and soy-free Italian bread will debut in six weeks (“it still tastes like Grandma made it,” she says).

Joan’s GF Great Bakes ships across the country and is sold in 80 stores; mostly small family supermarket chains. Looks like the closest local store to carry her products is David’s Natural Market in Gambrills, Md.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  May 29, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, gluten-free  
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Comments

I have had Joan's Bagles, Muffins, Pizza and Chocolate Chip Cookies (my personal favorites). They are all OUTSTANDING!

Posted by: AHS3170 | May 29, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

If the bagels are as good as you say, I will be in heaven! Since having to go gluten-free two years ago I have found reasonable substitutes for most things except bagels, and I miss them so!

Posted by: Agfras | May 29, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Take it from someone born and raised in New York and very fussy about bagels. They are great. I thank Joan for giving my husband back his favorite breakfast food!! It does not taste just like a bagel, it is a bagel!!!!! He is the biggest critic of everything gluten free and he loves these bagels!!!

Posted by: jguaste3981 | May 29, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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