One of the vendors offering tasty treats at the May 15th Forest Hills Artists Walk is Annette Ryan. Our editor-in-chief discovered Ryan’s gluten-free stand at the Dupont farmers market and has been hooked ever since. And now, we’re hooked on her story.
On a recent Sunday at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, a steady stream of customers kept Annette Ryan and friends-turned-volunteers Barbara and Molly busy slicing sweet potato energy bars and bagging blueberry lemon, chocolate ginger, orange cranberry pecan and apple pie scones in paper sleeves.
Ryan’s baked goods are popular with customers not only because of what’s in them – but also because of what’s missing.
Ryan, the founder and operator of O Earth Creamery and Bakehouse (oearthcreameryandbakehouse.com), doesn’t use a single grain of wheat in her baked goods. In addition to being gluten-free, many of Ryan’s products are dairy, lactose and casein free. Some are entirely vegan.
Ryan grew up on her family’s farm in rural upstate New York. Helping out in the garden and in the kitchen, Ryan developed a passion for food. She was encouraged to experiment with her curiosity about flavors and textures. Once, when her mother told her root beer was made from sassafras bark, Ryan went out into the woods to find a sassafras tree and taste its roots and bark.
While in college at the University of Maryland-College Park, Ryan developed serious health problems and learned through the process of elimination that she was gluten- and lactose intolerant. Rather than turn to the gluten-free and dairy-free products in the grocery store, Ryan began making her own.
Eventually, she hit upon a repertoire of flours that, when mixed in the proper quantities, recreate the effect of gluten, but in a more healthful form than the high-glycemic gluten-free products found at the grocery store.
“My bread is a work in progress,” Ryan says. “I put in a lot of grains and seeds that make it nutritious… but the bread can be very dense. In gluten-free baking, you need starches to provide lift and a lighter texture, and you have to mix various flours to recreate the effect of plain wheat flour.”
A recipe for success
Ryan uses coconut flour and brown rice flour, which are common in commercial gluten-free products, but also incorporates more exotic ingredients, such as teff, a grain grown in Ethiopia. It has protein and a rich, nutty flavor, but no gluten. Teff flour is used to make injera, the spongy, pancake-like bread used to scoop up Ethiopian cuisine.
Arrowroot flour gives her bread a lighter texture. It also provides a nutritional bonus as it contains more protein than other starches, as well as magnesium, potassium and several B vitamins.
Cassava flour is also a staple. The cassava plant is the same one used to make tapioca starch, which is a standard starch used to mimic the light and fluffy texture of wheat bread, but cassava flour uses the whole plant instead of only the stripped-out starch, so the flour is more nutritious and bakes into a heartier bread.
“I can now flow with these flours,” Ryan says, “and I’m experimenting with gluten-free starter, which is tricky.” She uses a starter made from wild yeast, the silvery coating on grapes and cabbage.
“I can get the starters to survive six weeks,” Ryan says. “I’m learning what they like.”
Ryan uses only the freshest ingredients. She grinds the grains and seeds herself and puts the starter to use immediately. Gluten-free baking ingredients go rancid quickly, so everything must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
The start(er) of a business
Around 10:00 on a Saturday morning, Ryan is at Mess Hall, a culinary incubator in Northeast. She’s kneading kalamata olives and fresh rosemary into bread dough, forming loaves on a baking sheet and brushing what looks like an egg white mixture over the loaves. The dough contains no wheat, and the egg isn’t really egg – it’s freshly ground flax seeds, water, sunflower seeds, olive oil and kosher salt.
Ryan knew her own kitchen couldn’t provide the capacity she would need to launch a culinary business. Her search led her to Mess Hall, the brainchild of Al Goldberg, who spent much of his career in catering.
Goldberg was the one who suggested Ryan focus her initial efforts on gluten-free baking. Ryan originally planned to create and sell non-dairy cheeses and other products made with nut milks. Goldberg thought Ryan’s efforts were delicious, but through a connection at FRESHFARM farmers markets, Goldberg learned of a need for gluten-free products at the Dupont Circle market. Ryan applied to become a vendor and won the slot. A Kiva Zip loan gave her startup funding.
“She’s so talented,” Goldberg says. “I feel I’m pretty sophisticated with food, but I haven’t heard of half the things she uses. She’s a tactician, she knows how to make [her ingredients] work.”
Ryan is also vendor at the CityCenterDC FRESHFARM market and she is seeking more outlets for her baked goods as well as for her non-dairy cheeses and treats so she can launch the “creamery” part of O Earth Creamery and Bakehouse.
She’s been working with Garrett Glover, a business consultant at the University of Maryland’s Small Business Development Center, on how to move from being a technician – who makes, delivers and sells a product – to an entrepreneur who grows a successful business.
“Annette is a unique talent in a boutique industry, a niche market taken very seriously by a devoted customer base,” says Glover. “Also, she is spiritually tied to healthy eating. Food is a spiritual endeavor for Annette and that differentiates her from the many food vendors that have jumped on the gluten-free band-wagon.”
A birthday tart for O Earth
Annette Ryan recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of O Earth Creamery and Bakehouse, a business that has allowed her to do what she loves the way she loves to do it.
“Persevere!” Ryan says, when asked about her goals for the next phase of her company’s life. “If you love what you do and have a passion, you somehow manage to push through. You force the universe to smile on you.”
Ryan’s wares will be available for sampling at the May 15th Forest Hills Art Walk, plus you can find her sweet and savory tarts, breads, cookies, scones and other baked goods at the O Earth Creamery and Bakehouse stand at Dupont Circle FRESHFARM market Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and at the CityCenterDC FRESHFARM market Tuesdays starting May 3rd, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., through October 25th. Ryan also accepts special orders emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.