As a health conscious eater, I have mixed feelings about the improvement of gluten-free ingredients and recipes for sweets and savories. I think back to pre-g-free meals, more like battles between me and the bread basket, reserve forces called in to fight dessert. Dining has actually become far more peaceful in the past couple of years! But now my new enemies are growing strong in number and temptations are lurking.
I am especially conflicted when it comes to The Happy Tart Gluten-Free Pâtisserie in the Del Ray neighborhood of Virginia. This entirely gluten-free bakery that opened in January of 2012 makes products that are so tasty, I wonder if the world even needs gluten anymore! Chef and owner, Emma Cech, discovered her gluten-intolerance while enrolled in the Professional Pastry Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine. Her mission soon became perfecting gluten-free French pastries, and she has returned to Virginia armed and ready.
I was intrigued when I learned about the bakery and their supply of fresh breads, pizza crusts, cakes, cookies, and fancy schmancy European delicacies. Now that I have an obligation to my blog followers to seek the best of the best, a visit was imminent, and I knew just the companion to bring along. She’s got a sweet tooth the size of Texas, an insatiable appetite, high standards for quality treats, and, though blood related, is a huge fan of gluten. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you Sister Seitan (pronounced “sey-tan”, as in the wheat-gluten meat substitute common in vegetarian dishes. It is, however, deliberately mispronounced “satan” by vegetarian celiacs.)
As we entered the bakery and deliberated over our selections, our eyes widened and mouths watered. A must-have for me was the Sunday special: sweet, gooey, sticky buns. The doughy layers doused in cinnamon syrup and covered with sugared walnuts satisfied every craving I’ve been having for the past couple of years. Sister Seitan, and later Mr. Green Bean who accompanied me on a return visit, concurred that the sticky buns are a hit and undetectably gluten-free. Sister and I also shared an apple turnover, as I never say “no” to an apple dessert. The Happy Tart crust used for the turnover, as well as all of their pies, holds together beautifully, with a light, buttery crumb and just a hint of sweetness, leaving the sugar to the filling. We also munched on crispy baguette chips in cinnamon/raisin/pecan and parmesan/garlic varieties. Though the Happy Tart is not technically a dine-in establishment, they offer coffee and tea, and Adirondack chairs just outside for those customers who can’t wait to dig in. That is where you could find me and Sister Seitan on that sunny afternoon, licking our lips, and the plates, in disbelief at how delicious everything was.
I recently had another opportunity to taste a variety of The Happy Tart’s delectables. Emma Cech graciously provided some of her petit fours and tartlets for the Glutie Foodie launch party last week. The launch, held at my second home, Hemphill Fine Arts, celebrated not only the beginning of my blog, but also a new business venture by Josh Goldman, DJ G Events. DJ G provided the tunes while guests sipped wine, admired the work of Artist Linling Lu, and praised The Happy Tart products. For the sake of research, of course, I took bites from others’ plates and stashed a couple of treats away to make sure to try them all. The rich Chocolate Raspberry and five layer Chocolate Decadence petit fours are moist on the inside, with chocolate shell armors that crack easily with the invitation of a fork. My favorite was the Tea Time petit four, made with joconde almond cake, layered with apricot jam and earl grey tea mousse, and dipped in white chocolate. The subtle almond and earl gray undertones offer a unique flavor, sweetened by the apricot and white chocolate. For sweet and sour fans, the lemon meringue and lime curd tartlets are bursts of flavor, not to be underestimated for their small size.
I reserve judgment on The Happy Tart’s selection of breads. Ready-made pizza crusts are waiting in my freezer, and one of these weekends I’ll rush over to snag a fresh bagel before they’re gone. But if the crowds that flock to this tiny storefront are any indication, I’m sure the breads will not disappoint.
So, I surrender to The Happy Tart, a force much more powerful than my will. I admit that I am grateful for Cech’s contributions to gluten-free baking and have even tried my hand at her crostata recipe, using the rice flour blend sold in the bakery. Her crust recipe alone is enough to crumble my defenses. And when my Thanksgiving table tries the apple pie I plan to bring, it might just turn them all into gluties.