Kyra Bussanich knows there’s still lingering skepticism surrounding her win as the first gluten-free baker on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” It’s a claim she often has to fight off. “There are a few people that think, ‘Oh, you won ‘Cupcake Wars’ but it was a gluten-free episode so it doesn’t mean as much,’ and I say, ‘No, I’ve never been on a gluten-free episode,” says Bussanich, 35, who has appeared on the show four times. “I’ve always been the only gluten-free baker competing against traditional cupcakes. Right there, that lends some credibility to it.” The chef is now teaching others to bake delicious treats in her new book, “Sweet Cravings: 50 Seductive Desserts for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle.”
Q. You started baking professionally rather late, at 30. What took you so long?
A. I had a desk job for nine years that I didn’t enjoy and I’d joke and say, “Oh, one day I want to own a bakery or be a socialite, one of the two,” but I didn’t really consider baking a real job. One day, my husband was reading the Steve Jobs commencement address where Jobs said, “You have to love what you do because you spend so much time doing it that if you don’t love it, you’re going to be absolutely miserable.” And I was in tears. My husband said, “If you were going to do anything right now, what would you do?” And I said I would go to pastry school. He said, “Go and we’ll figure it out.” Because I love to bake and I’m always bringing food wherever I go, as soon as I told my friends, “Hey, I’m going to pastry school,” they all said, “Of course, that makes perfect sense.” I wanted to shake them and say, “Why didn’t you tell me this 10 years ago when I was saying I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” It seemed so obvious to everybody else.
Q. Since you’ve been gluten-free, have you noticed an uptick in the options available and quality?
A. Just in the last two years there have been tons more in terms of availability and quality of gluten-free products. People are becoming more familiar with good gluten-free stuff. When I first went gluten-free almost eight years ago, the quality of what was out there was not something that I would have been proud to serve. And I remember doing research and people would say, “Well, you can’t expect a gluten-free cake to taste like a real cake because it just won’t happen. The absence of gluten and the presence of other grains and starches are going to really negatively affect the texture and flavor of the cake.” I thought that was a cop out. There’s no way it shouldn’t taste as good as a real cake. I thought they just gave up too early.
Q. What was it like to win “Cupcake Wars” not just for you but for the gluten-free community?
A. It was incredible. I felt like I was representing everybody out there who has some food allergy where they can’t have what everybody else has and other people are saying, “I don’t want to eat your ugly little muffin because I can eat a real cupcake or real muffin.” So I was trying to show the world that gluten-free doesn’t have to mean the end of good taste, for one, and that it can beat regular cupcakes, but that everybody can enjoy the same thing. Even the people that have the food allergy can have a treat that other people would choose to eat. It was a lot of pressure but once I won, it was this really incredible experience.
Q. Where is the best place to start baking from your book?
A. Cream puffs. I think part of why they’re so wonderful is it’s portion-controlled, so it’s little, it’s super impressive to serve, it’s something most people love, and it’s so versatile in terms of the flavors you can offer. But it’s also a really easy recipe to pull together. It doesn’t take that long. I’ve had little kids bake it. As long as they can read, they can follow along with the directions and have a good result.