by Claire Cella • Photography by Knoxy
In the final fading refrain of the Beatles song, “Blackbird,” Paul McCartney croons, “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” One could imagine Karen Morgan belting out that line the moment the first loaf of French boule—made from her own blend of gluten-free flours, starches and gums—began to plump and lift in the bowl before her eyes. And even easier to imagine once she tasted that first fresh piece ripped from the rounded golden crust.
That moment was in 2012, ten years after Morgan had been diagnosed with celiac disease, almost eight years after she began to learn to bake without gluten in her life, and four years after she’d founded and established her own online wholesale bakeshop, Blackbird Bakery. Now, she and Blackbird Bakery aren’t just successfully flying high, they’re arguably soaring. In the past year alone, Morgan’s online sales have quadrupled, the business was named one of Austin’s most innovative companies by Austin Monthly, and her second cookbook, “The Everyday Art of Gluten-Free,” is scheduled for release in the fall of 2014.
She’s baked a cake for singer Thom Yorke, assembled a Christmas basket for Lady GaGa, and the restaurant Frank uses her gluten-free hot dog buns in their everyday service. And that beloved boule she still makes is a consistent bestseller at the downtown Austin SFC Farmers’ Market.
But soaring hasn’t come easy. There was a learning curve—one that’s taken Morgan over seven years of culinary and scientific experimentation, 14,000 recipe trials, sheet tray upon sheet tray of cookies that looked like melted plastic and some hardcore, dogged determination. Surprisingly, when first diagnosed with celiac disease, Morgan had no culinary experience other than early memories of sitting on her mother’s kitchen counter scooping butter into mixing bowls for cookies. There weren’t any cooking schools based on the then-limited gluten-free techniques and, according to Morgan, the only available cookbooks were stodgy and old. “You weren’t really getting any good information out there,” she says. “Only if you wanted to know how to make an adobe brick loaf of bread that was so dense you could probably kill someone with it.”
After trying and retrying recipes in her kitchen, Morgan says that one day she just threw all of the books away—deciding, instead, to pursue something completely different and teach herself how to make something that she, and others, would want to eat. She got the opportunity to do just that in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, France, when she and her then-chef boyfriend were hired to work for a bed-and-breakfast for four months in 2006. Morgan endeavored to make everything sans gluten during that period of time. “We received standing ovations every night,” she recalls. “If you can fool the French, then you can really make change in America,” she says with a hearty laugh.
Upon returning to the U.S., Morgan started sharing her work locally with fellow chefs, such as David Garrido, formerly of Jeffrey’s, and Shawn Cirkiel, of Parkside, as well as nationally with students at Whole Foods Market, Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City where she taught. She founded Blackbird Bakery online in 2008, and was able to open up her shop and sweets to wholesale clients worldwide. And a few years later, she shared her years of exertion and energy in her first cookbook, “Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free.”
After the first cookbook, however, Morgan realized there was still much to learn about cooking without gluten, and she sought out people in the gluten-free community to elicit their thoughts on what the industry lacked, and what challenges still remained. The biggest problem, they said, were the flours—multi-part recipes that require an array of varied and unconventional ingredients to assemble and an excessive amount of time that the average cook, chef and even modern working consumer don’t have. “That’s when I decided I wanted to create a line of flour blends,” says Morgan. “You know…because in the gluten-free market today, there’s no such thing as an all-purpose flour blend. It’s impossible.”
She credits her blends—six in all—to her time in France and the culinary knowledge she garnered there. She explains that professional chefs in France actually use a wide variety of flours from grains that are each grown, harvested and milled to very precise specifications and mineral contents in order to make a range of baked goods. The flours used to make croissants, for example, are starkly different from those used to make baguettes. And not only are the flours different, but the final mixtures all have different ratios of gluten, water, yeast and salt, as well, in order to derive specific tastes, textures and appearances like crisp exteriors, flaky layers or buttery centers. Morgan wondered why this concept couldn’t be applied to gluten-free baking, as well.
In May 2014, she officially released her flour blends—Biscuit, Bread & Pizza, Pie & Pasta, Cake & Muffin, Cookie Jar and Donut & Fritter. Inside each bag is a correctly crafted and scientifically concocted mixture of complete-protein, non-GMO and mostly organic grain flours, starches and guar gum, all tailored to mimic the delicate nuances of a specific type of baked good—the breads and pizza crusts rise tremendously; the tarts are sweet, soft and buttery; the donuts puff; the biscuits flake; and the cakes are moist and airy.
Morgan’s new cookbook is based on these flour blends. “It explains the philosophy behind them, how I engineered them,” she says. “You can be a professional chef working at one of the best restaurants in the world, but if you were asked to make a phenomenal loaf of brioche or flawless crepes without gluten, you would be stumped. This book is really supposed to be a bible and a turnkey to help people unlock the secrets to baking and cooking gluten-free.”
Even in light of all the success, Morgan admits there’s still work to do. The puff pastry and the croissant still need to be mastered, she says with a wink. She’s also interested in seeing her flour blends on the shelves of Texas-based grocery stores like Central Market, and in the kitchens of local chefs. For now, though, it’s just fun and gratifying to watch this blackbird as it flies.
For more information on where to find her gluten-free products, visit blackbird-bakery.com