Rowie’s Cakes is a dream store for anyone with special dietary requirements. Australian Baking Business talks with artisan baker Rowie Dillon about her fearless attitude to baking and the science behind her creations.
The thought of a kitchen that is entirely free from wheat, yeast, dairy and gluten is enough to terrify most bakers. Nonetheless, Rowie’s Cakes in Sydney’s Marrickville challenges the very notion that people with allergies and food intolerances can’t enjoy a varied menu of delectable cakes and desserts.
The bold candy-striped bakery is the brainchild of Rowie Dillon, a marketer-turned-gourmet baker who leapt at the chance to fill a gap in the New South Wales food market.
“I am gluten- and dairy-intolerant, so I knew firsthand how few options there were for people with dietary restrictions to indulge,” Rowie says.
Indeed, back in 2002 when the bakery was in its formative stages, being told you had a gluten-intolerance was akin to what Rowie describes as a “culinary death sentence”.
“Opening a bakery is not the usual career-path for someone in advertising, or someone with a gluten-free diet, but my understanding of market needs coupled with my own curiosity and creativity seemed to naturally lead to the birth of the business.”
The cakes may lack many of the ingredients that make up classic recipes. Nonetheless, they would certainly look at home in any modern French-style patisserie.
“We’ve got delicate potato flour feather cake, rich orange and almond cake, wicked chocolate paneggforte, creamy soy chocolate coconut ganache, mouth-watering raspberry layer-cake, sexy chocolate orange, and cheeky passionfruit,” Rowie says.
The bakery’s ‘eat me’ range also extends to muffins and cupcakes, with exciting flavour combinations including banana-raspberry-cinnamon, cocoa-raspberry, and apple-ginger-cinnamon-raspberry. And while the texture of Rowie’s creations is light and fluffy – a considerable feat considering the dense character gluten-free baking is renowned for – the aesthetic is decisively daring.
“I’m not a sweetheart cake decorator. There’s a wonky clunkiness to my cakes, which gives them a homemade and rustic look,” Rowie says.
“Their imperfections give them a unique character.”
As a self-proclaimed “experimental baker”, Rowie firmly believes in the method behind the madness.
“Gluten-free, wheat-free or egg-free cake is fundamentally different to traditional cake. You just can’t follow a standard recipe and replace ingredients because it will get that dreaded rubbery texture,” Rowie says.
“Instead of trying to replicate the tastes and textures of cake as most people know them, I’ve gone down a different path and have worked step by step – from the base to the icing – to create something totally new.”
At times, this quest for perfect texture has seen Rowie transform her kitchen into an experimental space, reminiscent of a laboratory.
“I once lined up a row of empty glasses, filled them to a third with all different types of non-wheat flours, and then topped them up with water. After letting them sit for a while, I put my finger in the glass and noted how the flour reacted,” Rowie said.
“Some flours were as hard as a rock and had separated, some were bouncy and fluffy, and others had zapped up all the water. This sounds like an obvious way to test the texture of different flours, but these reactions really did transfer to baking.”
Flour is a big deal for Rowie’s Cakes. The pantry is constantly filled with an exhaustive range of flour alternatives, including amaranth flour, quinoa flour, arrowroot flour, brown rice flour, polenta flour, buckwheat flour, potato flour, rice flour, soy flour and tapioca flour.
“Bakers really need to get in touch with their flours, as well as their grains. When you learn about an ingredient and a plant-family, you inherently understand how it will interact with other ingredients,” Rowie says.
“Think about the nutritious Aztec and Inca grains like amaranth and quinoa; they are relatives of the spinach and beetroot family.
“If you know spinach and beetroot leaves are web-like, and disintegrate in water, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that grains and flours from the same family dissolve and become quite fluffy when baked.”
As the bakery also caters for customers with egg, soy and nut allergies, Rowie has even worked to re-create basic chemical reactions that help bind cakes together.
“Think about what happens when an egg is mixed in with cake mixture – it holds everything in the bowl together. So what do you do when you can’t use an egg? We found after a lot of trial and error that the combination of oil, water, vinegar and vanilla creates an excellent binding effect,” Rowie says.
“It’s absolutely fantastic when you have these brilliant ‘aha’ moments!”.
And it’s not just Rowie who gets excited. Her customers, many of whom have shied away from cake counters for years, are quick to express their gratitude.
“There are children in the community who have never been able to have a proper birthday cake because they have severe allergies to certain ingredients. But on more than one occasion, we’ve had mums thank us with tears in their eyes when we hand the cake over,” Rowie says.
“And the best thing is, the birthday boy or girl doesn’t have to be relegated their own ‘special’ cake. They can share their cake, and the experience, with the whole family.”
Rowie’s fearless attitude to baking must be working, because the 12-person team has outgrown their 200sqm bakery.
“We’ve got a fairly big team of bakers and creative minds all working in the one space, and as business grows, it’s getting a little squished,” Rowie says.
“But it’s reassuring to know that wherever we move, we have a solid range of cakes that still sell well after 10 or so years, as well as plenty of inspiration to move forward.
“It’s easy to innovate when all the different flours, grains and seeds are your inspiration.”
“This is my Islander cake. It conjures up images of the Bahamas – big swinging banana leaf fans, rattan armchairs and clear blue water as far as you can see. Best consumed with a laidback island attitude and a Long Island Iced Tea,” says Rowie Dillon.
150g unsalted butter, chopped and softened
230g (1 cup) caster sugar
140g (1¼ cups) coconut flour
1 ½ teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
150g (1 3/4 cups) desiccated coconut
430ml (1 3/4 cups) buttermilk
230g (1 cup) caster sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
125 ml (½ cup) water
2 egg whites
2 teaspoons lemon juice
375g (3 cups) pure icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 175°C. Grease and line a high-sided (approx 9.5cm) 20cm springform cake tin. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with electric beaters until pale and fluffy (the sugar needs to dissolve and the mixture should be very creamy). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Sift the coconut flour and baking powder into a separate bowl and mix in the desiccated coconut with a whisk. Fold the coconut mixture and the buttermilk into the egg mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for one hour, or until firm on top. Cool in the tin on a wire rack.
To make the syrup, place all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10-15 minutes without stirring. Pour one third of the syrup over the cake in the tin. After five minutes pour over another third of the syrup. If your cake still needs more liquid, after a further five minutes, pour over the remaining syrup being careful not to add more than it can absorb. Set the cake aside for at least three hours or overnight.
To make the icing, beat the egg whites and lemon juice with electric beaters until stiff peaks form. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the icing is thick and holding perfectly smooth and shiny ‘standing’ peaks.
Be very careful not to over beat, this will cause the icing to break down into clumps. Using a palette knife, quickly (the icing sets very fast) and evenly spread the icing over the entire cake to create peaks all over the top and sides.