Kosher, allergy-free bakery brings sweet indulgence downtown

The time: evening, after a delicious fleishig dinner. The place: outside the local cupcake shop. The contenders: one kosher nosher versus a towering heap of buttercream frosting. Sweet tooth, thwarted.

At Babycakes NYC, this scene might have played out differently. The vegan, kosher bakery, whose second location opened in downtown Los Angeles in 2009, offers a health-conscious respite from the current reign of butter-

drenched baked goods. It’s also a safe haven from common food allergens — the sweet treats formulated by founder and owner Erin McKenna are soy-free, egg-free and, for the most part, gluten-free.

It all started when McKenna was diagnosed with several food allergies that forced her to cut desserts out of her diet.

“I began baking this way because I have an allergy to dairy, gluten and soy,” McKenna said from her flagship location in New York City. “I missed sweets, so I had to do something about it to get my fix. I experimented for over a year before I got the perfect cupcake, cookie and brownie, but it was worth it.”

Her adoring devotees agree. On a typical Sunday, throngs of patrons fill the retro-chic bakery a few blocks from Pershing Square. Inside, pale pink walls are festooned with vintage wallpaper and record sleeves from The Babys, The Go-Go’s, Dionne Warwick and Bette Midler.

A hand-painted sign proclaiming “Frosting Station” beckons visitors to the confection counter. There,  arrayed on dainty doilies, are cupcakes in flavors such as red velvet, death-by-chocolate, pumpkin spice, mocha brownie, lemon coconut and strawberry shortcake. Moist, crumbly doughnuts are available in maple, blueberry, cinnamon sugar and chocolate-dipped. The bakery also offers cookies, loaf cakes and (nearly) sin-free Cinnabon-like creations dubbed “Wonder Buns.”

At $4.25 or $4.50 each, Babycakes NYC’s cupcakes aren’t exactly cheap. But neither are the specialty ingredients from which they’re made. Instead of wheat flour, McKenna bakes with brown rice flour, garbanzo-fava bean flour, tapioca flour and potato starch. Cold-pressed coconut oil and expeller-pressed canola oil provide organic, chemical-free fats. Rice milk and coconut milk stand in for butter in a rich revision of cupcake frosting that could fool the most discerning palate.

Those treats that are not gluten-free are made with spelt flour, a hearty grain preferred over wheat for its health benefits. In addition, refined white sugar is a pariah here — McKenna’s treats are sweetened with premium agave nectar or, occasionally, unrefined sugar. Recipes that are not gluten- or sugar-free are clearly identified in the display case.

Even red velvet cupcakes get a healthy makeover in this bakery’s hands — instead of synthetic food coloring, it’s beet juice that makes them blush.

Surely, an establishment with such diet-conscious appeal would fit right in on the Westside. Why open downtown? Affordable rent is one reason, McKenna said, but also, “We really loved the art movement that was happening downtown as well as what it was becoming on a culinary level. Every great restaurant is now opening downtown. It’s nice to be a part of that movement.”

And thanks to Babycakes NYC becoming certified kosher in 2007, downtown diners can enjoy a rich, frosted cupcake after a meaty meal at Schnitzly, just one block away.

Few things move McKenna more than watching the effect her confections have on first-time patrons, said the baker, who has also released two cookbooks.

“I think the most touching thing to see is parents witnessing their child eating a cupcake or doughnut for the very first time,” she said. “There are usually tears involved, and it’s not just the parents crying — it’s me, too!”

Babycakes NYC, 130 E. Sixth St., Los Angeles, CA 90014. (213) 623-5555.