By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
I’m not much of a sweet tooth and I can’t bake for squat. Nor do I have issues with gluten, eggs, dairy, soy and nuts. Yet I somehow fell under the dessert spell of Starry Lane Bakery, which tackles the impossible with a range of colorful baked goods that are free of such common food allergens. No artificial dyes or sweeteners are used either.
Jaime Schwartz is the brains behind these safe-to-eat confections. With the support of her sister, she opened the bakery in Santee seven years ago and then moved it to Hillcrest last August, into the Fourth Avenue building that housed Tapas Picasso Restaurante and a short-lived Asian bistro.
The change of location afforded her an enormous kitchen fronted by a roomy retail space that she designed with homey flair. With a few wooden tables leading to display cases stocked with cupcakes, tarts, cookies, cakes and breads, you feel as though you’ve stepped into a bakery from a bygone era on Main Street America.
Schwartz is a native of New York and grew up in Pennsylvania. She holds degrees in biology and evolutionary anthropology from Rutgers University. She also completed the culinary management program at the Art Institute of California in Mission Valley — and without any food allergies at the time.
Though while working for The Keating Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter, she ended up in the emergency room because of an allergic reaction she suddenly developed to almonds and cashews. The nuts were key ingredients to a marzipan wedding cake she was constructing.
Sympathetic to dessert buffs with multiple food allergies, she launched the business and named it after the street she lived on back East. Her working days ever since kick off before the crack of dawn.
With the exceptions of a fabulous sour-cherry tart and a fresh pretzel roll, everything I tried tasted a notch sweeter compared to their conventional counterparts. That’s because sugar — white, brown and powdered — play important molecular roles in terms of texture, binding and airiness, qualities achieved normally with gluten, dairy and eggs.
Schwartz’s time-tested tweaks to the recipes involve the replacement of wheat flour with flours made from oats, potatoes, tapioca, sorghum, and rice.
“We design different flours to mimic what gluten does in specific confections such as chocolate cake. There are different flour blends in every recipe, even if it’s a 2-ounce difference from one product to another,” said Schwartz.
Replacing the complexity of gluten, she added, was fairly easy. But finding viable substitutes for eggs, not so much. Over the years, she’s turned to ingredients such as fruit purees, baking soda, yeast, and a gelatinous form of flaxseed to supplant the performance of the whites and yolks.
As for dairy replacements, Schwartz relies on house-made rice milk as well as different oils and margarines to bring moisture and creaminess to the baked goods.
For her carrot cupcakes, hand-grated carrots unite with white and brown rice flours, dark-brown sugar, pineapple puree and high levels of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. The spices radiated wondrously through both the cake and the mock buttercream frosting. It was my favorite item.
“Prepare for the chocolate,” Schwartz warned of her dark-chocolate brownie, which features a ganache-like foundation of cocoa powder and Earth Balance margarine. Much like the chocolate chunk oatmeal cookie I also tried, I’d never know it lacked gluten, eggs or butter. Perhaps dessert aficionados won’t be so fooled.
I was appreciative of the faint hints of salt countering the sugar in most of Schwartz’s recipes, including the one for her star-shaped sugar cookies. Though overall a bit too cloying for my palate, it carried the classic traits of those made by family members when I was a kid.
The bakery’s daily offerings are vast — a rarity for consumers with food allergies who are normally cut off from such treats as fruit tortes, lemon bars, chocolate silk pie, fudge sandwich cookies, assorted muffins and more. On any given day, you’ll find about 50 types of dazzling desserts and pastries to choose from, along with fresh breads and rolls.
Custom-made cakes decorated in fine detail are also available. Given the bakery’s central Hillcrest location, Schwartz is adept at piping out rainbows made of natural vegetable dyes. She recently applied one to a single, round “sunshine cake” ordered by a lesbian couple. It was inscribed with: “To the girl who brings all the color into my world.”
Similarly, for people who have to approach every confection with great caution, Schwartz brings joy, color and comfort into their worlds like no other San Diego bakery does.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.