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Bagel Makers Learn to Live Gluten Free


Published January 22, 2014 at 11:05 a.m.

Ron and Leah Goldberg - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Ron and Leah Goldberg

Leah Goldberg was not a healthy 13-year-old. When her parents first took her to a doctor for chronic gastric symptoms such as cramping and bloating, her blood contained no iron — a discovery that provided no answers.

After spending her teens and early twenties visiting doctors, Goldberg finally encountered physicians at the Mayo Clinic who gave a name to the ailment that had ruined so many years of her life: celiac disease.

Now 25, Goldberg is not alone. Two years ago, her older brother, Kyle, received a diagnosis of gluten intolerance sped along by a case of ulcerated colitis. Last year, her father, Ron Goldberg, got news from his naturopath: “You’re doing great, but your gluten is off the charts.”

In short, this is a family that needs to steer clear of wheat. Too bad its members are part of northern Vermont’s oldest bagel dynasty and current owners of the Bagel Market in Essex Junction.

The cruel irony is not lost on the family. Ron Goldberg and his wife, Mary, had four children: Leah; Kyle; Sarah, who works in medicine; and eldest son Tad, who passed away in 2005. All of them grew up in the bagel business. Ron still eats a bagel a day, despite his doctor’s recommendations. Kyle has scaled back on his gluten intake considerably. But Leah, the youngest, must avoid contact with any of the allergens that may make her devastatingly ill.

Now the family is working together to prepare food that celiac sufferers like her can enjoy. That means embarking on the perhaps quixotic quest to create the perfect gluten-free bagel.

If anyone has it in their DNA to bring the ethnic specialty into the future, it is this family. Ron Goldberg’s great-grandfather owned the largest bakery in Leeds, England. After a time in Syracuse, N.Y., Goldberg’s grandfather, Ruben, opened his first Burlington bakery on Riverside Avenue in the 1940s. The stone oven turned out loaves of pumpernickel bread and braised briskets for families that dropped off pots to cook for the Sabbath. On Sunday mornings, much to the delight of Little Jerusalem locals, the Goldbergs baked bagels.

The better part of a century later, Leah Goldberg is learning to make products similar to those of her ancestors, only without conventional ingredients. Her coconut macaroons, sweetened with maple syrup and topped with chocolate and almonds, are a splendid vegan and gluten-free indulgence. Also great for paleo diet adherents, they’re one of several gluten-free treats available daily at the bakery.

Goldberg herself must shun far more than just gluten. After reeling off a list of allergens — dairy, rice, beef and sugar — she stops. “Let’s start with what I can eat,” she says with surprising good humor. It’s a short list of plants and protein.

Goldberg says she hasn’t been able to work with typical baked goods for four years now. Approaching a bowl of dough or muffin batter when her father or brother is baking is enough to make her break out in hives. Wearing gloves, she can put bagels in the oven, though even that leaves her skin inflamed. Any more contact could make Goldberg, who’s now an avid runner, seriously ill again. So she uses the skills she learned as the vegan baker for Dobrá Tea to cook for customers with allergies of their own.

Goldberg’s greatest passion is for raw food. She says proudly that she’s gotten her parents to embrace dishes such as the pad Thai she makes at home using peeled, julienned zucchini in place of noodles. Still, she says, she realizes that other allergy sufferers just want the closest replacement they can find for the favorites they’ve lost. Goldberg can’t eat her own gluten-free bread, but every day she prepares a loaf to use in sandwiches filled with pastrami or the turkey breast that Kyle roasts in-house.

That bread is made with rice flour and sorghum, then bound with potato — all allergens for Leah. Kyle, who’s her official taster, says he prefers hers to most gluten-free breads he’s tried. “I’ve noticed a lot of the places I go to use a lot of tapioca [in their bread],” he says. “Tapioca is really sugary — so much that I get halfway through a sandwich and I’m really full.”

Leah says Kyle is also a fan of her muffins: “Whenever I make gluten-free blueberry muffins, I have to say, ‘How many did my brother take, and how many did we sell?’” Those pastries are made using almond flour and banana with no refined sugar. They’re denser and drier than the Bagel Market’s conventional version, somewhere between muffin and banana bread.

Yet a gluten-free bagel has proved elusive for the family. Before joining the family business, Leah planned a career in dentistry, and the scientific method serves her well in her baking experiments. “It’s like chemistry,” she says. “Gluten-free baking is like night and day with [regard to] flour. It doesn’t have the glue — it doesn’t have the sticky. There’s no easy way to make it not fall apart.”

Goldberg has tried many recipes, varying her ingredients and ratios on a regular basis. Even baking the dough in pans rather than rolling it as with a conventional bagel hasn’t worked. And, until her bagels are perfect, Goldberg won’t put her family name on them.

In the meantime, the Bagel Market has plenty to offer gluten-free diners besides Leah Goldberg’s baked goods and raw treats such as grain-free granola bars. Kyle works with Ron’s chef brother, Larry Goldberg, on salads more elaborate than most sandwich-shop fare. The Market Salad has proved particularly popular. The base of spinach is topped with a marinated chicken breast, cranberries, candied walnuts and red onion. Its crown jewel is a medallion of fried Vermont Creamery chèvre coated in gluten-free bread crumbs.

The Goldbergs’ own restrictions on grains have also made them work harder to come up with sandwich fillings that can be enjoyed without the bread. Kyle is particularly fond of a coffee-rubbed beef dish served with cilantro pesto.

Ron Goldberg says he’s pleased to allow his children freedom to work on their culinary craft. That freedom is precisely what kept Leah from returning to dental school. Eventually, she hopes to open a restaurant with a largely raw menu. “I want to keep it farm-to-table with local meats and everything simple, balanced and healthy,” she says. “I’m like an old Jewish grandma: ‘I gotta feed the kids!’”

For now, Goldberg and her family will make the best of their ailments and feed the “kids” of Essex Junction, whatever their dietary needs may be.

The Bagel Market, 30 Susie Wilson Road, Essex Junction, 872-2616.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Family Circle"