Rockin’ in the free world

Going deliciously gluten-free with Nicole Gardner.

Story by Robyn Passante + Photography by Kim Smith Photo

When Nicole Gardner and her daughter, Hailey, were diagnosed with a gluten allergy eight years ago, the mother of three set about learning how to cook a new way, with new ingredients, that would leave her whole family satisfied and feeling well.

Gardner was already lactose intolerant and had a peanut allergy, so she was used to limiting her diet and finding workarounds. But this change was not without sacrifice.

“I’m Italian, so …” says Gardner, leaving the sentence to be finished with the first image of Italian cuisine that pops into one’s mind: A steaming bowl of pasta. A New York-style pizza. A hot, crusty loaf of Italian bread.

Gardner mastered gluten-free cooking and then moved on to gluten-free baking, and her treats were such a hit with friends and family that she opened The G-Free Spot — first online, and since January 2018, in Coligny Plaza. The gluten-free bakery satisfies countless cravings daily with its homemade, small-batch goodies.

G-free spot Hilton Head Island
Nicole Gardner’s gluten-free journey started upon learning two people in her family were gluten intolerant. She then combined her passion for cooking and baking with a whole new set of rules.

The Right Chemistry

Baking without gluten isn’t as easy as switching out wheat flour for a flour alternative. “Gluten does amazing things; it’s elasticity, basically. It gives you that creaminess, airiness and fluffiness in breads and baked goods,” she says. Luckily, Gardner majored in chemistry and business in college, and has put both to good use at The G-Free Spot. “Our goal was not to increase sugar content in our recipes, but to find different proteins that will make our traditional recipes act, look, feel and taste the same as they do with a regular flour.”

Sometimes that means changing up the number of eggs, altering the baking soda and baking powder ratios, and using higher-fat milks like buttermilk and heavy cream. “Understanding what’s actually happening on a physical and chemical basis is important. For instance, often if you mix baking soda with sour cream, it puffs things up; you get a chemical reaction.”

Not-So-Slim Pickin’s

The marketplace has changed dramatically in the eight years the Gardners have been on their gluten-free journey.

“I think more people are more aware and more subscribing to a gluten-free lifestyle. There are more eyes on it, more people experimenting, and companies are more aware and more inclined to produce products that are friendlier to people who can’t have gluten.” Pasta in particular has gotten leagues better, says Gardner, who goes straight to the source: “Italy is light years ahead of us in terms of understanding celiac disease.” She recommends trying Italian brands Jovial or Le Veneziane. “In some cases I would tell you that the Italian gluten-free brands are better than the ‘real stuff.’”

Mix It Up

“When people come in and tell me they’re trying to do some gluten-free baking at home, I tell them to not use a single-source flour. Don’t use just rice or just almond, unless the recipe specifically calls for it.” Instead, Gardner says, use a flour blend or a one-to-one ratio of two different kinds of gluten-free flours to get a better taste and a better texture.

G-Free Spot Faves

Everyone has their personal favorite, but the biggest sellers at the bake shop are the cinnamon streusel coffee cake, carrot cake and the Brookie — a chocolate chip cookie bottom with a double fudge brownie top.

“Those are hard to keep up with keeping in the case,” Gardner says. Making a coffee cake she could enjoy was a true labor of love for the baker.

“I grew up loving Entenmann’s coffee cake, those and Devil Dogs,” she says. “Those were my two guilty pleasures, and to not have anything out there like it was so sad. It was really sad.”

G Free Spot Hilton Head
The G-Free Spot specializes in gluten-free breads brownies, cookies, muffins and cheesecakes. They often add new and seasonal products to their menu.

Giving + Receiving

Gardner says her business is not just a bakery. “It’s a purpose; it’s a service” for those who, for medical reasons, have had to limit themselves from dinner parties and restaurant outings, not to mention just from enjoying some of the decadent treats they once loved.

That’s because the threat of cross-contamination from something as simple as a spoon or a measuring cup is stressful for people who medically need to have no gluten in their diet. Everything from The G-Free Spot is handmade and baked on-site in small batches, in a completely gluten-free kitchen.

“We’ve seen the most amazing responses from folks. They’ll come in and say ‘Is everything gluten-free?’ We say yes and they’re very emotional. We have seen just as many tears as we’ve seen smiles,” she says. “It’s amazing how much you miss things when they’re taken away from you. … To have a choice and know that there’s variety, it’s not just flourless chocolate cake or crème brulée — it’s a pretty moving experience for a lot of people.”

G Free Spot Hilton Head
The S’mores Brownie is a double fudge brownie with a meringue and lime topping. Pick one up for $4.25 at The G-Free Spot in Coligny Plaza. You won’t regret it.

Appetizer

The G-Free Spot

Tomato, Cucumber and Avocado Salad

G Free Spot Hilton Head

Ingredients (salad)

1 ripe, large tomato cubed; variety is not as important as being ripe and firm

1/4 English cucumber diced

1 whole avocado cubed, ripe but not mushy

2 tablespoons of small diced red onion

Ingredients (dressing)

Dressing: can be applied directly to salad and tossed at the end

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Directions

(Serves 2) Combine all ingredients in serving bowl and toss to disperse dressing. Cool until ready to serve. Best if chilled for one hour.