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Featured in New Jersey Jewish News: New Short Hills bakery is going against the grain

by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer

My soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, corn-free, chocolate-free mother has declared her desire to take up residence at Squirrel & the Bee, a bakery that opened in August in Short Hills and became kosher in March.

Under the supervision of Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, it will be strictly kosher for Passover, which begins Friday at sundown.

But the grain-free bakery — which offers gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, and egg-free goods — is not only for those with restrictive diets.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a steady stream of women flowed in. They sat at tables with coffee or tea, enjoying fruit smoothies, blueberry muffins, zucchini bread, cinnamon buns, “bagels,” or breakfast sandwiches. Nearly all the offerings were based in almond flour and contain no refined sugars.

Later, as lunchtime approached, customers ordered veggie burgers, quiche (yes, it’s dairy-free), and vegan pot pie.

Sara Kotlarz came in and went straight to owner Michelle Retik, a Short Hills resident and member of B’nai Israel, to discuss a cake for her daughter’s birthday, which falls during Passover. “Is it really kosher for Passover?” Kotlarz asked. “Strictly? Everything?” Like many, she was in slightly stunned disbelief.

Another customer, who came in to pick up a cake a few days later for a gluten-intolerant colleague, said she’d never been to the bakery before. “Because I’m not gluten-free,” she explained. But after a few minutes, she caved in to temptation as she waited, and ordered a veggie burger for lunch.

Retik fell into grain-free baking after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in 2011.

“I was really sick,” she said. “I had to stop working. Nothing helped. I called my doctor and said what if I change my diet and get rid of grains, refined sugar, and most dairy?”

An Internet search turned up diets for all kinds of auto-immune issues, from colitis to psoriasis to rheumatoid arthritis. Although her doctor said it wouldn’t help, she decided to try it anyway.

“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “So I cleaned out my kitchen and started fresh.”

Within 48 hours of adopting a grain-, refined sugar-, and dairy-free diet, she said, she began to feel better. She went off her medicine, and never looked back. And although physicians disagree about the benefits of various restricted diets, she became convinced of the health benefits for her new approach to food, with its focus on healthy fats, protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

And that’s saying something for a professionally trained baker whose previous venture, Michelle’s Bakery & Cakery, a kosher establishment in Springfield, featured fried sweet potato doughnuts and decadent brownies. That bakery closed while she was ill. Retik has tossed all of her old recipes — along with refined sugars and flours, baking powder and corn starch, stabilizers and thickeners. “I’ve had to relearn everything,” she said. “But in a way, having gone to culinary school” — she earned a degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York — “prepared me to do that.”

It was much easier for her to acquire kosher certification, since she was already using all-kosher ingredients as well as two sets of equipment, one for dairy and one for pareve. The store is completely meat free.

For many people, however, healthful — and kosher — only goes so far. After all, do you really want to limit yourself to food that, made without grain, is technically kosher for Passover, all year round?

Retik has risen to that challenge. She spent a year and a half testing, tasting, and perfecting her recipes. The bakery’s name reflects the nut flours she uses, and the locally sourced organic honey that serves as her main sweetening agent. She uses only “healthy” fats, like coconut oil and olive oil, and occasionally butter. Everything is made from scratch in the kitchen, from the jams to the nut butters to the almond milk. “Nothing comes from a can,” said Retik. “There are no preservatives and no starch.”

She is planning to put in a fruit and vegetable garden behind the store.

Be warned: The prices are higher than those at a typical bakery, but, as Retik pointed out, so is the basic cost of the ingredients she chooses.

The blueberry muffins are crowd-pleasers, dainty but loaded with fruit, and there are also pumpkin, apple cinnamon, and banana nut muffins. The loaves of “bread” include banana, pumpkin, and zucchini. And there are cupcakes, a Twinkie-like confection, macaroons, thumbprint cookies, flourless chocolate cakes, biscuits, even tiramisu.

My teenage daughter wants more of the richly flavored whoopee pies and the light lemon curd tart topped with fresh berries, and she cannot believe she can have them both on Passover. Although my son proclaimed the crust of the quiche “weird” and the vegan potpie filling too sweet, he ate both, and then polished off a chocolate cookie.

Retik worried before she opened that the bakery would not appeal to those without food issues. But she seems to have found her niche.

“I was overwhelmed, surprised, and happy with the reality that people who are not sick and have no physical need still want to eat healthier and be healthier. They understand that the foods we put in our bodies can be harmful,” she said. “I feel humbled to be part of something really big.”

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