I've probably walked by the Erin McKenna's NYC bakery about a small thousand times before realizing they served only gluten free and vegan products. However, these facts are not what stopped me from trying the bakery. I don't need to go to a gluten free bakery because my wonderful friend Caleigh Stokes makes the most excellent gluten free baked goods. Caleigh is driven, clever, and kind—and totally rocks the pre-"1989" Taylor Swift curls. She has stocked the counters at past birthday parties and school group events with the most dreamy cupcakes that taste so delicious, you wouldn't know it was gluten free if she didn't tell you.
Then Caleigh started working for Erin McKenna's NYC bakery. I finally made it over to the cute, pink bakery and tried one of their cupcake tops. It was just the right amount of sweet to complement a day out at Disney Springs. My only complaint was that I wish there was more, but that's what I get for only ordering the top of a cupcake.
Caleigh's typical day at the bakery begins a five in the morning. When she arrives, she is responsible for preparing the batters; baking their products like doughnuts, brownies, and banana bread; and decorating any cakes or special orders for the day. "We do everything by hand, no mixers!" she exclaimed. This meticulousness is just part of the care and attention each baker puts into the pastries.
Speaking of care, Caleigh is dedicated to the quality of her work which shows in how much time she spends at the bakery. She said that time management has been her biggest challenge. On average, she must bake ten dozen cupcakes in her eight hour shift in addition to all the other wonderful baked goods—like cinnamon rolls, bagels, and coffee cakes. "I would have to stay late three hours every shift just to get everything done."
When Caleigh was thirteen years old, she discovered she had a gluten allergy. She was discouraged that there were so few gluten free food options readily available for her. "I wanted to continue eating cake," she said. Since gluten free goodies weren't as common eight years ago, Caleigh taught herself to bake. She started out by researching recipes and reading articles about gluten free baking. She also utilized YouTube videos to learn different techniques. "I experimented and baked a ton of not so successful things to create my own recipes," she laughed. Eventually, she was able to take baking classes in college, and although these were not exclusively for gluten free foods, they still helped her hone in her skills.
Before the bakery, Caleigh baked mostly for family and friends, as well as freelance projects and requests. In high school, I always looked forward to her Facebook posts about her projects. Her and her siblings' birthday parties were especially delicious in the cupcake department since she was her family's personal gourmet baker. Now, she must balance her freelance and bakery work. She completes these other projects on her days off, proving that the hustle truly does never stop.
After Caleigh receives an assignment or thinks of an idea, she has to make sure she has all the necessary ingredients. Gluten free baked goods contain more ingredients than others due to the obvious omission of gluten. Gluten in food helps keeps it together, without it, the goodies become more fragile and the process much more delicate. "You have to find strange replacement ingredients that will give you the same result as gluten," Caleigh said. Some of the things she uses are rice and garbonzo bean flower as well as potato starch.
A pre-bakery job of Caleigh's was in food service at an amusement park. Here, she learned how to handle cooking in large quantities and leading her team for success in the shift and the overall business. This experience, coupled with her at-home baking, set her up for further success at the bakery.
"I was extremely nervous on the first day," Caleigh admitted, "because I didn't want to mess anything up." Her first day at Erin McKenna's NYC Bakery, Caleigh assisted her trainer, Sam, on the main bake of doughnuts, cookies, and brownies. "Sometimes I'm not a quick learner. I was really quiet and focused on every little task." This focus paid off, however, as she is now more confident and recognized for her work.
Caleigh's ultimate career goal is to open up her own gluten free bakery. While this is a huge career to which to aspire, she knows which practical steps to take in its direction as she attempts to build a customer base. She wishes to make it known to those without gluten sensitivities that not all gluten free foods are "crumbly and tasteless." She said the stigma around gluten free baking has, "inspired me to be proud of what I make no matter what negative things people think. To work harder to create a delicious gluten free product that even gluten eaters will enjoy and won't be able to tell the difference."
Recently, Erin McKenna visited her Disney Springs location and Caleigh was about to meet and speak with her. She even saw personality traits in her that the two share as she inspired her to continue pursuing her dream of owning a bakery. "Even though she owns the company, she doesn't just sit in an office. She is always baking with her employees and misses it when she isn't. She didn't have a high horse attitude and wasn't afraid to ask questions. She gave constructive criticism but it wasn't degrading. I really respect her because she is a mom of three and owns a business with three locations all across the country. It encouraged me that my dreams can become reality with a lot of hard work, passion and dedication!"
Caleigh's favorite cake to make at the bakery is called "Fat Pants"—chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and cookie crumble between the layers and covered with cookie pieces on the outside. Her favorite thing to make at home is her fabulous blueberry cheesecake, which is also her favorite thing to eat!
Knowing Caleigh has taught me so much about gluten intolerances and the many options available if you just look for these alternatives. Her expertise and willingness to share her knowledge and experiences has helped me to be more informed about gluten sensitivities not only in baked goods, but also in other foods. She shattered any stigma I've had about gluten free foods and encouraged me to try these options when I see they are available. So now I encourage you to try her works of art at Erin McKenna's NYC bakery. You won't be disappointed!