Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
If there's one thing to be learned from a visit to the new By the Way Bakery location on Manhattan's Upper West Side, it's that looks can be deceiving.
First, there's the affable owner Helene Godin, who stands about five feet tall and, as is appropriate for a bakery proprietor, appears to be all sweetness. But talk to her for about five minutes and you'll discover that this former lawyer is a tenacious, relentless innovator, the kind of person who can apply her organizational skills to a craft she's wholly unfamiliar with and, within a short time, master it.
And then there are the bakery's homey, familiar cakes, cookies, and bars. Coconut layer cake. Gingersnaps. Brownies. These sweets look textbook, but in fact are the product of months of testing, trying, failing and ultimately succeeding. For not only are these desserts gluten-free, they're also dairy-free and certified kosher.
"I wanted to do something completely different," said Godin of her decision to quit law in 2010. "And just because I couldn't bake, I wasn't going to let that stop me. So I taught myself."
Just a few days after Godin left her job in media and intellectual property law, she found that she was bored. She decided—why not?—to open a bakery. Surveying the landscape, she decided that the rising market of gluten-free was the way to go.
"Life's too short," she said. "Why not stretch yourself?"
When she found that there were no gluten-free pastries on the market worth imitating, Godin started from scratch, researching recipes obsessively and taking up permanent residence in the kitchen of her Westchester home.
"I loved the craft of lawyering," Godin recalled. "I used to agonize over the placement of a comma. So I took all that and applied it to baking. I'd research blueberry muffins for five hours."
For four months, Godin spent eight to ten hours each day researching and testing various combinations of flours. She finally hit upon it: a mix of brown and white rice and sorghum flours, plus potato starch and tapioca.
"I'm very happy with the mix," she said. "It produces a pastry that tastes more conventional, because everything's in the right balance."
By the Way Bakery gets its name from the idea that the desserts taste so good, their gluten- and dairy-free status can be commented on only as an afterthought. Godin opened the first branch in her town, Hastings-on-Hudson, to considerable acclaim in May of 2011. After two years of success in Westchester, Godin set her sights on the big city. This past summer, she decided to expand to Manhattan; the Upper West Side location opened earlier this month.
"I move very fast," she explained.
For a closer look at the selection of gluten- and dairy-free desserts at By the Way Bakery's new location, click through the slideshow above.