Going Where The Gluten Is Not

Lilikoi Burst cake

Editor’s note: For a related story on gluten, please see Susan Page’s column on page 19.

On the East side of the island there is a tiny bakery that puts out big flavors. People travel from as far away as France to enjoy Sweet Marie’s baked goods that are not only delicious, but also gluten-free.

Marie Cassel, owner of Sweet Marie’s Hawaii Inc., is a genius when it comes to making cakes, cookies and muffins without gluten, a key ingredient so fundamental to baking.

“People hear gluten-free and they think, yuck! But I know I have a good product and I love what I do,” says Cassel. “A lot of people don’t even know that they’re eating gluten-free!”

Gluten is a protein, and when combined with liquid, its elasticity traps air bubbles that give breads and cakes their classic spring, or bounce. “We don’t have the ‘glue’ from gluten, so there’s a lot of experimenting,” says Cassel, who bakes dairy-free, egg-free and soy-free products and is working on a line for diabetics.

Chef Marie Cassell and employee Billie-Kay in Sweet Marie’s 138-square-foot kitchen. Daniel Lane photos

Cassel is a classically trained chef, and when she learned that she had celiac disease – which causes the immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten is consumed – she began to research.

“Gluten-free diets help with a lot of autoimmune diseases,” she says, noting that patients with Crohn’s disease, autism and Alzheimer’s also are able to find relief.

In her 138-square-foot shop, which she says is the only dedicated gluten-free bakery in the state, Cassel turns her condition into an asset by giving bakery orphans something to live for.

“I met a girl who was allergic to all the flours I use in gluten-free baking,” says Cassel, who primarily uses brown rice flour. “So, I made her muffins and brownies using chia seed flour. She loved it!”

The author’s favorite: Triple Chocolate Explosion

One bite of the Double Mocha Fudge Cookie ($6.50 for four), and I understand that gluten-free can be good – really good. The tender, moist brownie-like center seems to ooze chocolate syrup, almost like a pudding. And the cookie tastes fresh.

“Everything is baked fresh daily,” says Cassel, who is at the bakery by 4 a.m. “I usually sell out by 11, but today I have seven muffins left.”

The Morning Glory Muffin ($4.25) weighs in at nearly a half pound. It’s loaded with carrots, apples, raisins, walnuts, pineapple and coconut. When I eat a muffin this big, it usually feels like a gut bomb when I’m done. This one leaves me feeling light and energetic.

If you’re in a decadent mood, try her Triple Chocolate Explosion ($8.75). After one bite, I almost jumped up and clicked my heels! Cassel bakes the chocolate cake in a steam bath, layers it with white chocolate espresso mousse and drenches it in chocolate ganache. It’s the perfect size for a small celebration, and my new go-to dessert when I’m craving something sweet.

As a member of Zonta Hanalei (an international organization for the advancement of women and girls), Cassel is working with Stacy Sproat-Beck of the Waipa Foundation for grant money to put employee Misty Kaiwi into the Culinary Arts Program at Kaua’i Community College.

Snickerdoodles, chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies. Daniel Lane photos

“I mentor seniors from Kapa’a High School. Students spend 30 hours in the bakery and I teach them baking skills, we talk about dietary issues, nutrition and business skills. They write about their experience for an English credit, which they must pass to graduate,” says Cassel, who mentored five students this year including Daphne Sanchez, a competitor in this year’s Miss Hawaii pageant.

Cassel also caters meals for special occasions and bakes wedding cakes. “A bride came in this morning and wanted a wedding cake tomorrow,” she recalls. “And guess what I said? Yes!”

A coconut cheesecake will satisfy the groom’s tastes and will be the top tier. The second tier is the bride’s favorite, carrot pecan cake brushed with a cinnamon syrup made with cinnamon from the Big Island. The whole thing will be covered in white chocolate cream cheese frosting and garnished with orchids and a ti lei.

Employees Billie-Kay and Misty Kaiwi

If it’s a rainy Saturday, buy some gluten-free muffin mixes from her shop and spend the afternoon smelling the muffins bake. If you can’t make it to the bakery, the mixes can be found at Savage Pearls in Hanalei, Vim and Vigor in Lihu’e, and Banana Joe’s in Kilauea. You also can find Sweet Marie’s desserts on menus at the St. Regis in Princeville.

If you’re looking for something special, or maybe a comforting chocolate chip cookie, give Sweet Marie’s a try. If you have dietary restrictions, she’s there to help. “We want people to eat, we want people to be healthy and we want people to be able to absorb the nutrients! Come, I’ll take care of you the best I can.”

Sweet Marie’s Hawaii 4-788 Kuhio Hwy. in the historic Awapuhi Building, Kapa’a, across from Foodland; cash or check only. Open Monday -Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. 823-0227