leaving the city of my comfort

 A couple of nights ago I dreamt I was baking again for a bakery I used to work for. The space was different, but most of the faces were the same, and I felt my dream-self falling easily back into old routines. All the motions, the steps, the methods were almost instinctual, and as much as I had new-job feelings of uneasiness, I was reassured by the familiarity and consistency.

Then, of course, it turned bizarre, with miniature white mice scurrying around under sheets of parchment paper that were scattered across the floor, many of them dropping their tails, and me leaving to go hiking in Glacier National Park. It was a dream, after all.

But the sense of how freely and comfortably I could fall back into old routines stayed with me, and I've been thinking about it ever since. This is the time of year when everyone's talking about resolving to improve themselves in this way or that, or how they're NOT resolving anything due to the high incidence of NYRF (New Year's Resolution Failure, obviously). I haven't pledged a resolution in years, not any that coincide with January 1st, at least. But I have been thinking lately about comfort zones, and what lengths we'll go to stay in them, and why it's often a good idea to nudge ourselves out of them, and this seems right in line with the New Year's Resolution train of thought. (And is also what the great Alan Alda encourages us to do.)

I am the queen of trying to stay in my comfort zones. But, as is often the way with life, the past two years have found me getting pushed WAY out of many of them, in ways that I was not always accepting of, or even partially okay with. And yet, here I am, having been through a lot and realizing that I have come out so much better for all of it, and it's dawned on me that the experiences that felt the worst were actually the most beneficial to my own personal growth. Not a groundbreaking discovery, I know, but still it's nice to look back at difficult times and see that hey, not only am I still standing, but I'm standing taller and straighter than ever before, with a bigger smile across my face. It feels good.

So now, with a new year once again waiting to be jumped into headfirst, I've gotten to a point in my life when I recognize that I need to take some deliberate steps out of my comfort zones once again. This time, though, it's different in such a better way, since I get to decide the direction and timing and intent. But it still makes me uneasy to think about, and so far I haven't even accepted the thinking phase enough to actually be able to say out loud, this is what I'm doing now.

By now you're probably wondering just what, exactly, I'm talking about?

Well, there's a new restaurant in Josh's very-near future. A very hip, vintage-yet-modern Italian bistro. And he has mentioned several times that he'd really like the entire dessert menu to be gluten-free, but that he's not a pastry person and doesn't want to have to deal with that part of the kitchen anymore. In case it's not obvious, yes, it appears that I am being recruited. And it was such a surprise, although probably only to me. Everyone who knows me is always surprised that I'm NOT involved in Josh's restaurant, so to them this would look like a natural step for me to take.

But I've gotten used to not being an active partner in Josh's entrepreneurial activities. And I've gotten used to not working in a professional kitchen. And I've gotten used to being home every day with the boys. In short, I've gotten used to how my life is right now, and in order to take Josh up on his (tempting) offer, I'll have to accept that life will change. I'll have to move out of a comfort zone, on purpose.

Which is why I keep being drawn back to that dream I had. If starting to work outside the home again feels so unnerving and obstacle-filled, at least I can take comfort in knowing that the type of work I'll be doing has a degree of familiarity to me, and is something I think about all the time anyway. It would be new, but not in a manner to which I am wholly unaccustomed. New-but-with-a-built-in-comfort-zone-designed-just-for-me is the way I like to think about it. And I have to admit that for my creations to have a wider audience than just my immediate family would certainly be gratifying. As would knowing there is once again a place for me in a professional environment. And then there's the hope that by venturing back out into the world of the working, I might find a way to start pulling my own weight again, financially-speaking. All good things.

Hmm. It sounds like I've agreed to be Josh's Pastry Chef. Nevermind that writing that sentence is the closest I've yet come to saying yes to his standing offer. Still, things seem to be moving in that direction, irregardless of my inability to fully commit. Because I've already started brainstorming recipes, tested out one dessert, and today I perfected my gluten-free focaccia recipe.

Focaccia is not usually a pastry chef's responsibility. But as the resident gluten-free baker, I am by default responsible for all gluten-free baked goods, sweet or savory. And Josh doesn't want his gluten-free customers to have to continue missing out on the first round of nibbles the kitchen sends out to each table: tender focaccia with herbed extra virgin olive oil for dipping. And so I got charged with creating a celiac-friendly focaccia so good that those who needed to eat from that bread bowl would also really want to, and so that Josh would never feel the need to apologize for serving sub-par food to his gluten-free diners.

That last part is really the important message in all this rambling. If Josh (or any restaurateur, for that matter) was merely interested in having gluten-free options on his menu so as not to miss out on revenue from the gluten-free population, there are prepackaged, commercial products he could fall back on. It would be easy, without the hassle of training his staff and worrying about cross-contamination. And he could pat himself on the back for making his restaurant celiac-friendly. Many restaurants already do this.

But have you had the gluten-free options these places offer? From pizza to sandwiches to muffins, it's been an experience in constant disappointment for me. Better to stick with naturally gluten-free foods than waste my money (and appetite) on bland baked goods with unappealing textures. And yet, against all logic, I keep trying new items as I come across them on menus, holding out hope that finally I'll eat something as good as what I make at home. It rarely happens. And honestly, it's not that big of a deal for me, since I do eat so well at home. But I know that not everyone spends their time cooking and baking like I do. Many people who are gluten-free rely more heavily on prepared foods at home, and eat the same low-quality gluten-free products when they eat out, and that's assuming they even have gluten-free dining options available to them. The food is passable, but never phenomenal.

It doesn't have to be this way. Gluten-free food can be just as good - and sometimes better - than its gluten-full counterparts, when its creators truly understand the ingredients they're working with and are passionate about making a superior product. I know this because I live it. We don't eat food around here that comes with qualifiers. Well, for gluten-free it's pretty good doesn't cut it with me. When I bake for family gatherings, everyone eats the gluten-free cookies and pies and cakes, and not only does no one miss the gluten (or even realize it's not there), but they often rave about how great everything is. Just great. Period. No strings attached.

This is how Josh and I want customers at his restaurant to feel. If you're coming for dinner, and need to eat gluten-free? No need to apologize or worry or feel uncomfortable at the thought of the kitchen making you a special plate. The menu is covered with gluten-free items for you to choose from. And we won't be apologizing either, because we know that, whatever you choose, you will end up with a meal that rivals the quality and flavor of the dishes your gluten-full dining companions are enjoying. Because if it doesn't meet our own personal standards, it doesn't make it onto the menu. Everyone here eats well.

It sounds simple enough. Yet it's rare enough that it feels slightly radical, and very special. And it's this sense of embarking on a very significant adventure that makes me willing to say yes to a proposal that even two months ago was nowhere on my radar. Yes to an idea that is simply a logical extension of our personal culinary philosophy, but which has the power to change people's notion of what it means to eat gluten-free. Yes to the opportunity to make someone feel welcomed and included and, after that first bite, joyful. How could I have answered any other way?

So as I gear up to take on this new role, preparing for old comforts and routines to change, it feels right to start off with bread, that ultimate comfort food. This focaccia is lofty, with a springiness and airy structure that will shock anyone who still believes gluten-free means dense and heavy. The mix of whole grains mimics the hearty flavor of wheat, and the rosemary and kosher salt make the bread interesting enough that eating it by itself feels like what it was intended for.  In fact, it's exactly how I'd want to begin my meal at a very hip, vintage-yet-modern Italian bistro.

This focaccia? Simply put, it's great. Period.

Rosemary Focaccia
yields one 7- to 8-inch round

38 grams (1/3 cup) brown rice flour
37 grams (1/3 cup) sorghum flour
65 grams (1/2 cup) cornstarch
42 grams (1/4 cup plus 2 1/2 tsp) light buckwheat flour
12 grams (1/4 cup) potato flakes
16 grams (2 Tbsp) millet flour
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) plus 1/4 tsp rapid rise yeast
1 tsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary, plus more for sprinkling
8 oz (1 cup) warm water, 110ºF
1 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large egg, separated
coarse kosher salt and extra virgin olive oil for sprinkling

Grease a 7- to 8-inch diameter cast iron pan (or equivalent-sized baking pan) with olive oil and dust with gluten-free flour (I normally use sweet rice flour).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flours, potato flakes, xanthan gum, sugar, salt, yeast, and 1 tsp rosemary. Mix on low until thoroughly combined.

Pour in the warm water, oil, and the egg yolk, and mix on low just to combine, then increase speed to high and beat for two minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl beat the egg white until it just holds stiff peaks. (I find it easiest to use a hand held electric mixer for this. But you could also just use a balloon whisk and elbow grease!) By hand, stir 1/4 of the beaten egg white into the batter to lighten it, then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the rest of the egg white until no white streaks are visible.

Pour batter into prepared pan and use a spatula to gently spread and smooth it. Cover pan with a cloth and place in a warm area to rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Uncover the pan and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the bread, then sprinkle coarse kosher salt and remaining coarsely chopped rosemary liberally over the surface. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a tester inserted near the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then remove bread from pan and finish cooling on the rack.

Focaccia keeps, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.


  1. What a wonderful opportunity for you and for your customers! It makes me want to move to Maine so I can be a regular! As a girl who loves her comfort zone, I completely understand how hard it is to let it go. But you are going to be a blessing to so many people by bringing your talents and understanding to your husband's restaurant.

  2. I still remember the day you walked into that bakery, it was the greatest gift I could have ever received! Wishing you luck and happiness in your potential new venture, I'm sure it will be a tremendous success. Tell Josh hi for us, we might just have to take a trip down memory lane and come to Maine for dinner soon.

  3. I fully and whole-heartedly agree with Heather! You will be giving a service to others, Tara, in a very real and present way! The restaurants I go to, well, most have not even heard of gluten-free. Yet alone boasting a chef or pastry chef who prides themselves on excelling beyond peoples expectations!

    This will definately put you on the map as a destination restaurant for many who will visit Maine.

    This Focaccia looks lovely- I used to bake it and other breads all the time, in years past, before I learned of my gluten (and dairy) intolerance. I loved pulling warm loaves out of the oven, and my male roommates appreciated that too! They would come home with sacks of flour or yeast packets and just say: "Bake some bread", if I hadnt for awhile.

    I have not mastered bread at home yet. But after reading your last post I did go pick up some millet flour and potato starch..I have teff, and need a few others, like buckwheat.

    Thanks again.

  4. Oh, Tara!! How exciting for you! I can't wait to talk with you. Need someone to be with the boys on a regular schedule? Also, I would love to try to make your focaccia... but I've never seen potato flakes. Where did you buy them?

  5. Thank you, everyone, for your enthusiasm and support! It's definitely exciting for me to be involved in a restaurant again!

    Heather - Maine definitely is a nice place to live! I'm always up for encouraging people to move here.

    yellow dog - I would LOVE it if your family made the trip back to Maine someday! Especially since our kids need to meet. Oh, and in the dream, when I went hiking, I found out that you had a stunning vacation home IN the park!

    Silky - I certainly hope that Josh's restaurant becomes known as a destination spot for ALL diners, celiacs included!

    As for all those flours, it can seem a bit overwhelming to have to buy so many little bags at once. But you'll find that you don't use them all at the same rate, so your replacement shopping will feel much more manageable, needing just one or two flours at a time. Have fun!

    Sammy - I know! We definitely need to talk. I've actually been thinking about talking to you about trading childcare so that we BOTH get some alone time to work productively on our respective businesses. Let's get together soon . . .

    And potato flakes are just a nicer-sounding term for instant potatoes. But you have to make sure to buy an unflavored variety (no cheese, herbs, whatever else gets put in there) which, believe it or not, is harder to find than it should be. (Oy. I could write an entire essay on the implications of that alone!) I ended up getting the generic ones at Hannaford, but organic ones are available online. And they contain mono- and diglycerides, which I'm wary of. So I might not consider this an everyday bread. But it's too good to pass up completely!

  6. This focaccia bread looks fantastic! I've never tried gluten-free bread, but this recipe may make me a convert (and may allow me to heed the advice of my accupuncturist that I cut wheat from my diet).
    I am from Maine--the Portland area--but now live in California. I was just home for the holidays...always love to get back to Maine. I hope on my next visit to travel up the coast--we seem to stay put in the Portland area, which is beautiful, but there's so much coastline to explore. I'll put 40 Paper on my list of places to visit this summer!

  7. Katie - Hi there! It's always good to connect with other Mainers, even if you're now on the other side of the country! Good luck going wheat-free - it can certainly seem daunting at first, but there is an invaluable world of information, advice, and support online. And if it makes your body feel healthier, then it's all worth it. Please do come visit us at 40 Paper this summer if you make it up to Camden - we'd love to have you!

  8. mmmmmmm,..you did a beautiful job with this gf rosemary foccacio!!

    It looks just wonderful, Tara! Pop over @ my new blog & update your RSS, if you will!

    Bye bye!

  9. Tara - how wonderful! I wish you the very best of luck. My daughter went to Colby - I used to visit the area pretty regularly - lovely part of New England. I hope to make it up your way and eat some of what promises to be deliciously off-the-charts wonderful gluten free food!

  10. Ellen - Thank you! I hope you do make it back to the area and are able to check out 40 Paper - we'd love to welcome you! Your mention of your daughter makes me realize that we truly do live in a small world - I grew up in central Maine, not too far from Colby, and attended one of it's rival colleges! :) All the best to her!

  11. Do you still have gluten free focaccia? I'll have to ask next time I am in. I just learned from this post: always ask. I can usually have what I want! I feel rather puffed up that I get to be a regular at 40 Paper. I often have dessert even if I am not having dinner!

  12. Diva Carla - Yes, we have the focaccia every night! And I'm glad you're enjoying the restaurant (especially the desserts) so much.


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