Chocolate-chip cookies. Chocolate-dipped macaroons. Brownies. Lemon drops. Anise cookies.
Breads: rosemary onion, cinnamon raisin and white.
Even birthday cakes and wedding cakes.
Yes, you can bake something sweet without wheat.
Christine Penney and Sandy Federico are the proof. The sisters started to bake without wheat and gluten to resolve family members’ health issues.
As of Thursday, their chocolate chip cookies and lemon drop cookies are being sold on a test basis at the stores in Woburn and Reading. They also sell their products to 17 other food markets.
One day after they delivered their first order to the Market Basket in Reading, the store called, Penney said Friday afternoon, to order more.
The business will celebrate its first formal anniversary later this month, on July 20.
Penney and Federico started to bake sweet treats about five years ago, to address Federico’s daughter, Alexa’s health issues, Federico said Friday morning, sitting in the office of their bakery, Something Sweet Without Wheat, off New Boston Street.
Within eight weeks of eliminating gluten from her daughter’s diet, Federico said she saw a “transformation” in the teen. Her color and energy returned, Federico said. She stopped sleeping all day. Gained weight, up from under 100 pounds.
Federico is a nurse at Mass General Hospital, in the special care nursery. Offered the option of surgery for her daughter, a lifetime of medication or removing wheat, corn and soy from her diet, Federico figured, “We have nothing to lose” by changing her diet first.
So she went gluten-free in her home. Penney also went gluten-free in her home to make life easier for her niece. Penney uses the words gluten and wheat interchangeably.
After Alexa visited the doctor, Penney made an appointment for herself with the same doctor. She’s had allergies her whole life, she said. She turned out to have the same issue as her niece: Chron’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
At that time, Penney’s son had a problem with his sleeping. He would sleep, his mother said, for 20 days. At her appointment, she asked the doctor to also look at her son. The diagnosis: he was allergic to wheat.
Three weeks later, minus wheat, her son felt much better, she said. It took a month, she said, before her condition improved.
“I’m suspicious by nature,” Penney said. But “I couldn’t believe” the improvement.
Penney and Federico set out to find wheat and gluten-free-free treats.
“They tasted,” Penney said, “like cardboard.”
So they started to make their own for their families and their children’s friends.
Three years ago, at Christmastime, the sisters approached the Natural Food Exchange in Reading to see if the store would sell their baked goods. Penney made about a dozen anise cookies. Customers thought they were samples, she recounted, and tried them. The owner asked a young customer if he liked them. The boy, according to Penney, said, ”They taste like my mom’s.”
The sisters knew their products were good, Federico said, when people who didn’t have to worry about gluten ate them and liked them.
Some companies make gluten and wheat-free cookies with only one kind of flour, Penney said. They crumble, she said, and have no taste. The sisters use different kinds of flour, they said, emphasizing the plural.
They started to bake commercially in Federico’s kitchen, in Stoneham, Penney said, with the OK from the town’s Board of Health. The board even suggested, Penney said, that the women sell their products at the Farmer’s Market there.
They moved up to commercial baking equipment.
This past spring, they outgrew their home kitchen. They moved their bakery to Woburn, Penney said, the end of April.
In another lemonade-from-lemons turn for them, at that time, Jessica’s Bread was moving out of Woburn. That company wanted to offer a gluten-free bread, Penney said, but couldn’t make it in the same place as regular bread because wheat flour gets into the air, Penney explained. So, through her husband, electrician Joseph Penney, who did work for the bread-making company, Christine Penney and her sister took over the lease on the Woburn building and make gluten-free bread for the other company.
Now they have truly commercial-sized baking equipment, from mixers to a walk-in oven—yes, walk-in oven—and walk-in fridge. They dwarf the commercial equipment the women used at Federico’s home. The cookie making machine can make 78 cookies a minute, calculated Penney’s son, Joseph. They employ nine people, including several family members.
Even before Something Sweet Without Wheat moved to Woburn, Penney and Federico wanted to grow their business, Federico said. They approached Market Basket in March.
The bakers receive orders from their store customers on Mondays, except for Market Basket. “Tuesday," Federico said, “we deliver.” They hope to deliver to the two Market Baskets on Thursdays.
The women work at the bakery weekdays, Penney said, from roughly 8 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Penney also works as a hairdresser. She just left Michael’s Hair Design in Stoneham to better balance the time demands of her two jobs. Federico works several nights a week at Mass General Hospital.
One day their bakery received a call from a woman who wanted a gluten-free birthday cake—four hours later. They made one especially for her.
They’ve even made a wedding cake, chocolate with raspberry filling.
“Otherwise,” Penney said, “the bride couldn’t even eat her own cake.”
For Penney and Federico, Something Sweet Without Wheat is more than a business. The name came, according to Penney, a self-described “big sweet-eater,” when she said, “I want something sweet—without wheat.”
“This,” Federico said, “is how we live.”