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Young cook goes gluten-free

By Staff | Oct 2, 2009

Erin Brooks, 11, holds the logo design she created for the business she and her mother, Leslie Petri, run in Pocahontas. The pair started selling desserts at farmers markets and are developing their business into a year-round locally-produced foods market.

POCAHONTAS – Whether they are shared with friends, family or anyone who could use a quick indulgence, desserts are all about fun. Erin Brooks, 11, and her mother, Leslie Petri, are two Pocahontas cooks with a family sweet tooth and a knack for reinvention. As locally recognized confectionists, they have gained the attention and admiration of the entire community.

“We’re always trying new stuff what we can do and how to make new recipes work,” said Petri, about the experimentation that happens almost daily in her kitchen. “The same substitutions don’t work every time, so we have a lot of fun figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”

Petri and Brooks have to work by trial and error because the delights that come from their kitchen may never have been recorded, or perhaps attempted, before. The mother and daughter team experts on making familiar favorites gluten free.

From staples like banana bread, pumpkin bars and carrot cake, Petri and Brooks have perfected dozens of gluten-free recipes for their favorite desserts and other baked goods. Learning to cook without baking staples like wheat flower is a challenge, they admit, but a challenge they’ve willingly undertaken.

“From the time she was little she would ask tons of questions,” Petri said of her daughter. “She wanted to know why this recipe has eggs and another doesn’t, or why we cook things at different temperatures.

“She’s been asking questions since she was just small and cooking since she was four or five, so to answer her questions I had to learn a lot about the chemistry of cooking and find out things I didn’t know before.”

Gluten-free baking became a priority because Brooks’ 13-year-old sister, Taylor Brooks, was born with a gluten allergy. Because of Taylor’s allergy the family has to closely monitor what it eats and find ways to substitute for the gluten in everyday foods.

From an early age, Brooks and her sister, who is also an accomplished cook, but is more interested in art and technology, took turns making desserts for the family. Brooks’ interest in cooking quickly grew beyond her regular obligations.

“I’ve pretty much always been interested in cooking,” Brooks said. “I have always liked being able to do something other people aren’t as good at and I think it’s a fun pastime, especially for working with my mom.”

Brooks said her favorite dessert to make is lemon bars, because of the mixture of sweet and tart lemon flavors. But with just a minimum of help she can make goodies from applesauce bars, brownies and blondies, plus a myriad of cookies, muffins and other tasty treats – all gluten-free.

“I really like doing it and a lot of people say it’s nice that I make things for people that need it,” Brooks said. “It can be a lot of work, but my mom helps me. My sister usually only helps if I promise to give her a bar.”

In July, Brooks took a big step forward in sharing her talent with the community, by selling her creations at the farmers market in Pocahontas. During their first visit to the Tuesday market, Brooks and Petri brought three different kinds of gluten-free treats. The applesauce bars, which were an immediate hit, have become a staple of the weekly event, but an ever-changing menu of celiac-friendly confections came to follow as the master cooks perfect their art.

“We’re just learning what the standard tricks are for gluten-free cooking,” Petri said. “Buttermilk and eggs are good for making things rise and stick together without gluten. Baking soda is also very useful. We start by looking in a regular cookbook then try to figure out how to make things gluten-free.”

Sundays, and some Mondays, are busy cooking days for the Brooks-Petri team, but there is more work than cooking required to keep the fledgling mother-daughter business going. The family cultures its own buttermilk, orders organic ingredients in bulk over the Internet and receives farm fresh eggs regularly to make the best possible finished product.

The rest of the family has contributed to the venture as well. Petri’s husband, Cecil Brooks, volunteers as unofficial taste tester to catch the odd mistake, like when Erin Brooks forgets to add the sugar to a recipe. He also came up with the name for Brooks and Petri’s table at the market “Bear’s Spreads & Brownies.”

Taylor created the teddy bear design logo to decorate the display.

For Brooks, all the hard work has paid off with profits few 10-year-olds allowances are likely to match. She said she spends a lot of the money on her favorite pet Bitsy Bobo, the youngest of the family’s four dogs.

“She likes a lot of attention and a lot of treats,” Brooks said.

With all their positive experiences from the market and making something sweet for people that have trouble satisfying a difficult diet, Brooks and Petri have big plans for the future.

Petri is preparing to move her day job business, a yarn and crafts shop, to a new location – one with extra space to host an indoor locally produced foods market through the winter.

And, as always, the pair is working on new recipes to share with the family and their customers. The trickiest challenge so far, simple white bread.

“We’ve been working on it awhile now and we have it so its tastes right, but we don’t quite have the texture down,” Petri said.

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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