2017-07-05 / Dishing

Layers of Family

After a childhood spent baking with her grandmother and mother, Carrie Williams returns to the kitchen to bring family recipes into the modern world.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Carrie Williams’ culinary story begins with the family tree that decorates a wall just inside the entrance of her Pleasant Gap bakery. On the bottom of the tree is a photo of her grandmother. When Williams was a young child, she’d sit on a high kitchen stool covered in red faux leather, her eyes focused on her grandmother’s old yellow electric stand mixer that turned butter and sugar into decadent chocolate cake.

Williams’ favorite part of the ritual was cleanup. While an amazing smell filled the kitchen, she ran for the sprayer, which made her grandmother’s sink a lot cooler than the one she used at home. The kitchen was the backdrop for countless conversations, including Williams’ many complaints about the name Carrie (after all, it was the ’70s and Carrie was a horror movie). When her grandmother encouraged her to come up with a different one, Williams chose Serendipity. She didn’t know what it meant, but the five syllables made her smile. From that moment on, her grandmother started calling her “Sere” (rhymes with “berry”).

Hanging above the picture of Williams’ grandmother is one of her mother, a woman who spent hours making baby bassinets out of royal icing. Many years ago a high school guidance counselor called Williams’ mom with the unsettling news that her daughter, who excelled in the classroom, aspired to a career as a cake decorator. In a zeitgeist devoid of the Food Network, the career choice was decidedly unacceptable.

Both women — the grandmother who introduced Williams to baking and the mother who tried to talk her out of it (at least as a profession) — launched her into her current business helping people with food allergies and intolerances indulge in the recipes that grew out of their own family trees. After a short stint teaching — a career that was deemed perfectly acceptable — followed by a longer one in real estate, Williams returned to her high school dreams and enrolled in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s culinary school, where she won an award for a 2-tier wedding cake decorated with backlit flowers.

In 2013, near the end of her culinary studies, she started paying close attention to her mom’s diet. Her mom had endured 20 years of intestinal misery, the low point of which was a doctor’s opinion that she “simply needed to go home and put her feet up, because it was all in her head.” After connecting the dots from her mom’s nightly Ovaltine drink to a problem with wheat — and an eventual celiac diagnosis — Williams began tinkering with family recipes so her mom could once again enjoy them. “The more I talked to people, the more I realized we weren’t the only people dealing with this,” she recalls. The fact that her mom’s diagnosis was determined just as Williams embarked on a career as a baker brought her back to that five-syllable word of her youth. Serendipity’s Cakes of Distinction, a name that pays homage to the two women in the family tree, was born.

Williams’ current menu includes sandwich bread, gluten-free pizza crusts and a variety of sweets, including the vegan whoopee pies that are a hit on the Friends & Farmers Online Market and a summery Mojito cake made with rum, lime zest and fresh mint. She makes 2-3 wedding cakes a month, including one she baked and mailed to a bride-to-be in California. In addition to gluten-free, all of her baked goods are soy- and tree nut-free. She is incredibly picky about her ingredients and meticulous about her process.

If she’s filling a special order for someone with an allergy, a cleaning person arrives to sterilize the surfaces three separate times in a 4-hour period. She grinds gluten-free oats into her own “beautifully fluffy oat flour with all the nutrients and oils intact” because she doesn’t feel comfortable using any off-the-shelf products; makes her own vanilla with beans sourced from a place “the average person wouldn’t find”; and makes buttercream (at least for the non-vegans) with actual butter. She’s always game for something new, but runs it by her 87-year-old mother first. “It has to pass the mom test.”

The most meaningful orders are the ones she fills for customers who request a gluten- or allergy-free version of an old family recipe. “They bring me these puzzles and I have to figure it out and make it into something beautiful,” she says.

For Paul Pappas, the puzzle was his grandmother’s spice cake. Three years ago, Pappas found Williams at the Central PA Gluten Free Expo and told her about the cake that plays a recurring part in the memories of his youth. Pappas, who was diagnosed with celiac and diabetes about a decade ago, grew up eating the cake made with a healthy shake from five different spice jars.

He has been ordering a gluten-free version ever since, making the trip from Williamsport about three times a year. As Williams experiments with the flour, he says, the recipe has evolved. “That cake has become lighter and loftier every time I order one,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point of what I remember it as a wheat-based flour in terms of the softness and sponginess. And it still has all that flavor and spice.”    
The fact that it also unlocks a memory is the icing on the cake.  •SCM

Gluten-Free Summer Berry Crumble

4-6 c. ripe berries
½ c. sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon

6 Tbsp. butter, softened
½ c. brown sugar
1 c. Better Batter Gluten Free Flour or other cup-for-cup flour blend
1 tsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish. Combine filling ingredients and place in the bottom of the dish. Whip butter and brown sugar until fluffy.  Add flour and baking powder, mixing just until small clumps begin to form. Scatter topping mixture over fruit. Bake for 25 minutes.  Cool 20 minutes and serve while still warm.

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