setting our mise en place

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Update on this post: the flour store is now open! 

A few years ago, rumors of something big about to happen swirled around our small town. There’s a Thai restaurant opening on the island! People whispered and shouted, wondering if it could be true. A Thai place? On Vashon?

You have to understand — the dining-out options here are a little slim. There are a couple of good places for burgers, a mediocre Chinese place, two terribly mediocre Mexican restaurants, a great taco stand (thank goodness for Zamorana; thank you Jorge and Effie), a  sports bar, a bar across the street that has turned half of the space into a restaurant (inexplicably, they have pretty good sushi), a family-style place right in the heart of town, two pizza joints, a wonderfully homey vegetarian cafe, a sweet little vegan-gluten-free-raw-food place that is super tiny and pretty expensive, and….we’re out. (Oh, a couple of underground supper clubs, but I can’t tell you about those.) There is a huge restaurant at the center of town where three Indian restaurants in a row tried to make a go (three! you’d think after #2 failed, the third guy might pick another cuisine) and now it has sat empty for years.

So, the rumors swirled, everyone growing more excited as the weeks, then months went by. A Thai restaurant on Vashon? Fact is, even if it had been just okay, the idea of being able to go out on a Saturday night and buy Pad Thai was pretty darned exciting. We were ready.

But the rumors stayed there. Nothing happened. No Thai restaurant. No signs of anything. Discussion boards on Facebook raced with possible signs, then the talk died down. I guess it was just a rumor after all. Want to go out for tacos again? 

And then, there was a mystery. Brown paper went up over the big windows of the little breakfast place in town that had shut down a couple of years before that. Paper! On the window! This must be something. And then there was a piece in the local paper, announcing that the rumors were true. May, who had once run a tremendous Thai restaurant in Seattle, had moved to Vashon. She was opening a Thai restaurant on Vashon. Coming soon.

Huzzahs went up over the island. And then we waited. And waited.

Rumors went around again. She changed her mind. She went on a trip to Thailand for inspiration. Maybe it was never true. Some folks took to stopping in front of the purported future restaurant to peer in a tiny hole in that brown paper, hoping they might see signs of life in there. (We might have been some of those people.) It seemed it would never happen.

And then, one day? A Thai restaurant. We were asked to go to a private, quiet soft launch. Danny and I had a date and walked into a space transformed. The funky old breakfast place had become a Thai escape. May had brought back wood and furniture and walls from a house being torn down in her hometown in Thailand by slow boat. We were somewhere very different than we expected. The meal was magnificent. Nothing mediocre about it. The Thai restaurant was real. And it was tremendous.

May Kitchen has been open for more than a couple of years now. It continues to be one of the best Thai restaurants I have ever eaten in. Everyone on the staff understands gluten-free and celiac, and I always eat well and safely. We don’t eat there often because we can only get a reservation every so often. Not only do islanders eat there, but people come over from Seattle for a meal. This summer, Travel and Leisure magazine named it one of the best Thai restaurants in the country. Good luck getting in now.

They’ve done marvelous things at May since they opened. It took forever to get the place going because May wanted to get everything right. It was worth the wait, of course.

* * *

The last few months have been the steepest learning curve of my life.

When we first imagined having our gluten-free flour packed and packaged for sale, we never imagined shipping those boxes ourselves.

When we imagined our gluten-free all-purpose flour (and later, our grain-free bakers’ blend) in the world, we always had it in our minds that we would carry these flours through a prominent online retailer. Why not trust the shopping, fulfillment, and shipping to an organization that does this every day? After the Kickstarter was successful, thanks to many of you reading, we returned to the logistics of shipping. When we started crunching numbers, we realized that if we sold all 7400 boxes of our gluten-free flour that way, the online retailer would take so much of our money that we would barely have enough money to do a second run of the flours.

So we decided to ship these flours to you ourselves.

While we never imagined putting boxes of flour into the hands of our delivery driver on a regular basis, we’re so happy that we are doing this now. This is a small business, run by a family. We want to do this ourselves. We want to sell to you directly. And we want to hear from our customers about what is working and is not working. We have many friends who run small businesses who have been guides in this process for us. They all say there will be lots of mistakes, times we want to tear our hair out, and enormous learning. Yep. That has already been true. We’ve only barely begun.

But in the end, we trust small businesses. We buy from family businesses. We believe in the handmade and personal. This is the only way for us to go.

The past few months, we’ve been learning more than I thought my brain could hold. Translation? We’ve been scrambling. On top of our regular work, and the proofreading and final recipe testing for American Classics Reinvented (and all four of us battling a bad flu through January!), we have been learning how to build an online shop, talking with our accountant about sales tax and state codes, and having many many brainstorming sessions about our brand and our approach to hospitality and customer service.

Learning shipping software has been the bane of my existence. We tried three different programs, and I was starting to lose hair, until I finally found one that made intuitive sense to me. (And they have actual human beings you can call on the phone! Thank you, ShippingEasy.) And with that, we had to go through two different online store programs, with our website guy (thank you, Eli), before we found the one that would work for our purposes. There were decisions to make about which shipping carrier to use (thank you, USPS), which boxes and padded envelopes would work and ship for the most efficient prices. There were post office boxes strewn on our studio table for days, while we packed and re-packed boxes of flour again and again to see how many we could fit in flat rate boxes.

Oh, and 7400 boxes of our flour arrived. We all cried a few happy tears that day.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working with trusted friends and new colleagues, a team slowly forming to sit at that studio table and make decisions that will take our business far into the future. (We hope.) We’ve been talking to grocery brokers and people who run food shows and other folks in the food business who want to help us succeed. Those are ongoing conversations, just beginning. We hired a new accountant, a bookkeeper, someone to teach us Quickbooks, and listened to the stories of countless friends who started small businesses successfully and those who have closed theirs for various reasons. Slowly, we’re gathering a group around us, a group of people far more knowledgeable about their area of passion than we could ever be. We’re not just trying to run a successful business. We truly want to help other people do the work they love.

(Thank you, again and again, Trish.)

I’ve learned a new language, once completely foreign to me: COGS, gross profit margins, B&O tax in Washington state, federal tax deadlines for s corps. There have been countless subscriptions we have to buy to commerce sites, email newsletter sites, plug-ins, and a thousand other online things that make this all possible. It is unfathomable how much money you have to spend to start a small business.

(Please buy gluten-free flour from us!)

Then there were nearly 600 boxes of flour to send to those of you who supported our Kickstarter. Last week, we had 200 padded envelopes filled with flour boxes on that studio table nearly every day.

(There are still 146 left to go. They will be to you soon.)

And let me tell you this: I am not complaining. I have found these past few months exhilarating. Scary as hell sometimes. I’m not going to lie. But unbelievably awake and alive.

As I have listend to podcasts (Invisibilia! Sex Death and Money! Radiolab! RuPaul!), I have been humming a little as I go. It turns out I like spending part of the day stuffing flour boxes into padded envelopes and boxes. As I stuffed envelopes and printed out labels, I imagined the boxes in the kitchens of homes in Kalamazoo, Sarasota, Morro Bay, and Portland, Maine. And I thrilled to think of so many of you cooking and baking with this gluten-free flour.

You see, if we truly loved any of the gluten-free flours out there, we would have long ago created an affiliate program with them, promoted them in every post, and made our money that way. We truly believe this is the best gluten-free flour out there. And we want you to have the convenience of opening up one of these boxes and start baking with your kids.

But beyond that, personally? I like this work. So does Danny. (He’s helping with the boxes too, but he’s mostly holding down the home front right now, organizing our lives, and taking care of Desmond. A tremendously curious nearly 1-year-old does not like NPR podcasts or staying at the studio all day while his parents run their business. He deserves time at the playground and music groups and long naps. When Lucy was a baby, Danny was working late into the night at restaurants. This time, Danny is the primary caregiver. And the cook, the scheduler, and the best ear and occasionally shoulder to cry on this woman could ever imagine.) I like putting flour boxes into padded envelopes. My days are much more practical these days. I quit Facebook in the middle of these months. I didn’t need the distraction anymore. I don’t waste time tooling around the internet anymore. I have work to do.

I go to bed every night exhausted. But happy. I never wonder anymore if I have done enough productive work that day. All this work is necessary before we open for business. It’s just like setting up mise en place before we start to cook. Without that planning and preparation, there is chaos.

And as I told my friend Trish yesterday, “I feel like I am wearing many heads these days.” I meant hats, of course. But really, I feel as though I have grown several new heads. All this learning is firing my neurons. indeed. I’m loving this.

Of course, I’ll love it even more when the store is open and we can finally sell you this gluten-free flour.

Stay tuned, folks. In a couple of days, we’re about to take the paper off the windows of this business.

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mise en place for sweet potato cake

hazelnuts for sweet potato cake

sweet potato cake

Sweet Potato-Cherry Bundt Cake, adapted from David Leibovitz, who adapted it from Alice Medrich

We want you to know this: you can use our gluten-free flour for nearly anything you want to bake.

The other day, I saw that David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food writers and recipe developers, adapted a cake by Alice Medrich, another of my favorite food writers and recipe developers. (In fact, Alice came to bake with us in December, an experience I still haven’t shared with you. But I will.) I love how this community can help each other create cakes. Alice made a meticulous recipe. David made it his own. We made it gluten-free. Now, you can make it for your family.

This isn’t a light, fluffy cake, like a birthday cake that came from a box mix. It’s my favorite kind —— dense and moist and filled with plump dried fruits and nuts. This is a cake with heft. David made it in two loaf pans, but he mentioned the possibility of making it in a bundt pan. I ran with that. I hummed while I roasted the sweet potato, toasted the hazelnuts, and soaked the dried sour cherries in honeyed water. There was no rush. I had a plan. After lunch today with a team of people helping us to envision this website overhauled, and the flours out in the world, I passed out pieces of this cake as an end note to a great discussion. Everyone agreed —— more, please.

And no one mentioned the fact that it was gluten-free and dairy-free.

115 grams (about 2/3 cup) dried cherries
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup water
225 grams (about 1 3/4 cup) gluten-free girl all-purpose flour blend
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
200 grams (1 cup) organic cane sugar
90 grams (1/2 cup) coconut sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
75 grams coconut oil, melted
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup sweet potato puree
125 grams (1 cup) toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

Prepare the cherries. Chop the cherries as finely as you can. Drizzle the cherries with the honey, then cover with warm water. Let the cherries sit for 30 minutes, then drain the cherries. Save the water. Set aside.

Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 350°. Grease a bundt pan liberally with coconut oil.

Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Make the batter. Whisk together the cane sugar and coconut sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running on low, add the egg. When they are light and fluffy together, drizzle in the melted coconut oil and mix until coherent. Mix in the lemon zest.

Finish the batter. With the mixer running on low, pour in 1/2 of the dry ingredients, then the sweet potato puree, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Add the cherries and hazelnuts, then drizzle in the leftover honeyed water until the cake batter is light and pourable.

Bake the cake. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top of the cake has started to brown, the edges are pulling ever-so-slightly away from the sides, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool to room temperature before removing it from the bundt pan. Serve immediately.

Feeds 12.

26 comments on “setting our mise en place

  1. Debbie Reisetter

    Thank you for being such an inspiration to me. Every time I am let into your world and read your posts, I feel stronger and more encouraged that I, too, can go out into this world and reimagine my life. Celiac’s has changed my life for the better, too. 🙂

    1. Carol Grout

      Oh, yes! Fifteen years in and consider it a silver lining. We are definitely healthier overall.

  2. Brenda

    I just received my Gluten-Free Girl Flour in the mail (Rochester, NY)! And I’m inspired to make this recipe first. Thank you for all you and your family have shared. I’m truly grateful. 🙂

  3. MS

    Hi! I know you stated before that you would share how to make this flour mix at home. I would love to make this cake for my friend who has celiacs. She is having a potluck on Saturday. Would you please remind me of the mix? Thank you so much and best wishes as you get your company off the ground. (I will post the cake on IG once it’s made!) t

    1. shauna

      If you just search on this site for “all-purpose flour video,” you’ll see me showing exactly how to make it.

      1. MS

        Thank you! I did look there but it seems like there are 3 flours plus a potato starch. I wanted to make the mix that you have in the box. I wouldn’t presume to ask you but I thought you said that you were still willing to share it. I am very new to gluten free baking but I wanted to give it a try for my friend. (I’ve actually gifted her your last two beautiful cookbooks!)

        1. shauna

          All you have to do is use the formula we showed you in the video: 40% whole grain and 60% starches. Millet, sweet rice, and potato starch.

  4. David

    So glad you like the cake. Alice is such an inspiration for us bakers, and now you are too – for gluten-free ones. Yay!

    1. shauna

      Oh David, you made my day. You know you’ve always been one of my biggest baking inspirations. xo

  5. Lauren

    Thank you for sharing not only your flours but your experiences. I love small businesses too and understand there is so much work and love behind them.
    Also you have WAY more restaurants than my tiny town does! I’m a little jealous 😉

  6. molly

    Do you know, just this Tuesday, I looked up from my kitchen sink and suddenly, and completely, had a vision of you, YOU, surrounded by flour, flour everywhere! Except in those corners where you were surrounded by baby, baby everywhere! And I meant to text you, immediately, for the vision was so real, and so strong, and so thorough.

    And then: life.

    And then: this. I come here, and here it is, complete with pictures of boxes and mailers and playpens. Exactly as I’d imagined.

    Three cheers for the peeling away of brown paper!!!!!!

    xx,
    M

  7. Jenn Sutherland

    I cannot wait to be able to buy your flour here, on this site. My kickstarter box has been sitting on the counter for a week, waiting for inspiration of what to make with this beautiful box. I don’t want to make just anything, I want it to be special. And now you have provided even that. Bless you.

    xoxo, js

  8. Margit Van Schaick

    Wishing you much, much success and happiness. So glad to hear that you are experiencing a feeling of contentment from packaging the flour to be shipped, the satisfaction of creating and building a business. My one bit of advice–don’t forget the importance of balance. Business, and the family, too–with you at the center figuring it out as you go. Don’t forget to breathe.

  9. Vicki B in VA

    Just got my GF box of flour in the mail!! Whoo-Hooo!!! Can’t wait to use it up and have the opportunity to buy even more! Will I get the “exclusive collection of 10 recipes for gluten-free baked goods” via e-mail? Thanks SO much for all of your hard work! Truly, truly appreciate it!

  10. Kacie Carter

    Shauna and family, I’ve been reading for years, and even met you at the potluck in Silverlake but somehow have never commented on your website! I have looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of your posts with a smile as a loyal reader. You are so very appreciated by this community for all that you do- and for your incredible integrity, above all. I can’t wait to try your flours. As I gear up to start my own business in LA in the next year (a health shop!) this post resonates deeply as a reminder that the stress we endure to live our passions and help others is ultimately worth it. And then it doesn’t feel so stressful, after all. Thank you for all you do. I can’t wait to see how high the company will inevitably soar!

  11. Diana Viney

    I am so thankful to receive your creative and deeply thoughtful posts each week.
    My husband and I are both Seattle business owners and we can relate to all that you mentioned in your writings this week. The learning is relentless and wonderful too! We are excited to order from you directly! Go small businesses! We are currently looking for a new web site helper- someone who is good with branding and optimization and all that other online mumbo jumbo ( which as it turns out, is Very important to understand!) Please send along a referral if you know of anyone.
    Thanks so much and keep up the amazing work! – Diana

  12. Sara

    I had saved this recipe from David’s recent post about it, planning to use your guidelines to adapt it, and you’ve already gone and done it. I can’t wait to hear about Alice’s visit. I love Flavor Flours and have made several things from it. I can’t wait for your flour to arrive! I wish you all success!!!

  13. Laura

    I don’t have your flour (but it is in process) but I did want this cake for my birthday. My daughter made it with dried cranberries and pecans due to allergies, and it was delicious. For some reason ours had to cook for about 65 minutes. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe. It beat out the GF baked goods a friend brought from a bakery.

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