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Interview: Superstar Gluten-Free Baker Kyra Bussanich

The four-time Cupcake Wars champ says diet-restricted kids deserve an equal place at the table. And she gives us oatmeal bars.

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Kyra Bussanich runs a popular gluten-free, celiac-safe bakery near Portland, Oregon. (“When we first opened,” she remembers, “I thought maybe three people would come in a day. And we had lines out the door right away.”) The proprietor of Kyra’s Bake Shop authored her own baking book, but she is probably best known for her reality-show four-peat on Cupcake Wars.

Behold the basic facts. The backstory is anything but basic. Here, in her own (lightly edited) words, Kyra describes the journey—and it was a journey. She also delves into what her experience taught her about kids, food, diet, families, and inclusion. And then things get really interesting, as Kyra shares a go-to, kid-friendly recipe for gluten-free oatmeal bars. Enjoy!

As a kid, I went to sleep nauseated almost every night. I’m a huge vomit-phobe. I remember lying in bed, night after night, saying to myself, don’t throw up, don’t throw up. I was really underweight. I just always felt terrible.

When I was a sophomore in college, I was so sick I could barely function. I had constant digestive issues. I would go to class, eat a sleeve of Ritz crackers, sleep for three hours, then wake up to study. My family realized something was wrong when my dad took me to the Melting Pot, the fondue place, my favorite restaurant at the time. And I couldn’t eat. I just sat there in two jackets, shivering.

I was going to school in Tacoma, taking the train back to Portland every week for tests because I was too weak to drive. My elbows and hands were black and blue because the doctors had to find so many places to draw blood. Finally a doctor said, “We think it’s either celiac or Crohn’s disease.” I was such a carboholic, I was hoping it was Crohn’s, so I wouldn’t have to give up wheat.

It came to the point where my doctor said, we need to take part of your intestines out. I begged to try going gluten-free first. My mom was gluten-free, because she has Hashimoto’s, and she was on me to try it. At this point, I literally couldn’t get out of bed. I had a big last meal—spaghetti, garlic bread, cake—which made me feel terrible. Within three days, I could stand upright. Soon I was off all the drugs. Three years later my blood tests were normal for the first time in a decade.

If a kid has dietary restrictions, the whole family needs to be on board. I’ve heard so many stories where a 7-year-old has to sit and watch everyone else eat Oreos, while they get a cut-up apple. Especially now, with so many, better gluten-free options, families can be inclusive and all eat the same things.

So much connection and nostalgia centers around the table. If the family is right there with the kid, it tells them, “Listen, you are important to us.” Let that kid be part of what the family is eating, what the family is doing.

I had a job in desktop publishing that gave me no real creativity. But when I was sick, at least I could do it at home. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I was deeply depressed. Here I was, in my late 20s, supposedly the prime of my life, and I couldn’t go grocery shopping, and I had a job I just didn’t care about.

At around the time I started feeling better, my husband read me the Steve Jobs commencement address, where he says that if you’re not doing something you love, you need to make a change. And my husband said to me—if you needed to say, right now, what you want to do, what would it be? And I just blurted out, “go to pastry school.” It was the first time I’d ever spoken that out loud.

Cupcake Wars freed me to bring more exotic flavors into our menu. I’m always looking to incorporate elements that might push Joe Midwest, who just wants chocolate and vanilla, to try something. Like a raspberry-mango-habanero combination: everyone knows raspberry. Maybe mango is slightly unfamiliar, but people know it’s fruit. So maybe they’re willing to try habanero. There’s also the cachet that winning brought. I’m the only GF baker who ever won against so-called “regular” bakers, so people are willing to try what we do.

I would say about one-third of our clientele makes a point of telling me that they’re “not even gluten free.” People will come to the Portland area from Michigan or Ohio, let’s say, and structure their whole visits around coming to our shop.

I have a pretty abysmal diet. I mean, I try to limit myself to two desserts a day.

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Gluten-Free Oatmeal Jam Bars

I love these buttery oat cookie bars. My grandmother used to make a classic version of these bar treats with either raisin jam or fig jam. You can really use any fruit jam you’d like, or even substitute ½ cup of nut butter for the jam. If you do this, melt the nut butter in the microwave for about 45 seconds, and stir together with the jam before spreading it over the oatmeal cookie base.

These keep really well in the freezer and are a perfect little pick-me-up whenever you want one.

KyraBars

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups of your favorite jam
Oatmeal cookie base
  • 1 cup butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup white rice flour
  • ½ cup potato starch
  • ½ cup tapioca starch
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups gluten-free oats (plus ¼ cup for topping)

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch pan with gluten-free pan spray and set aside.

  2. Step 2

    In a stand mixer, mix the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until uniform in texture.

  3. Step 3

    Add the rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, baking powder, and salt, and mix on medium speed until combined.

  4. Step 4

    Stop the mixer and add 3 cups of oats. Mix on low speed until combined.

  5. Step 5

    Press ⅔ of the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan.

    Sous Tip:

    This is a great task for little hands to start, but do make sure the cookie base is pressed firmly into the pan.

  6. Step 6

    Gently spread the jam over the top of the cookie base.

    Sous Tip:

    I like to use a baby offset spatula, but you could just as easily allow a kiddo to fingerpaint the jam over the base!

  7. Step 7

    Add the remaining ¼ cup of oats to the rest of the oatmeal cookie base and crumble over the top of the jam.

  8. Step 8

    Bake until golden and set, about 45-50 minutes. Let cool completely, then cut and serve.