Cassel, 47, started her professional culinary career in the Reading Terminal Market. Now she owns and operates the only gluten-free bakery in Hawaii.
Although gluten-free may sound like the newest food trend, it has been working its way into the mainstream for the past five years, as the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease has risen.
From Wegman's to Trader Joe's, alternative flours are popping up on grocery store shelves. Even baking matriarch Betty Crocker put out a line of gluten-free mixes this year.
A recent event sponsored by the Ambler-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness attracted more than 1,200 people, 50 vendors and 25 area chefs to the Wachovia Center. Local interest in gluten-free eating should be well served when a new gluten-free bakery opens this winter at Broad and South streets.
Though it's the only known treatment for the disease, living a gluten-free lifestyle does not come without a few obstacles.
"Educating the people is the most important thing," Cassel said. "People often think gluten-free equals sugar-free. People don't really understand that gluten-free is a necessity."
That feeling you're not
in Philly anymore
The route Cassel took from Philadelphia to Kauai (the most northwestern and remote of the four major Hawaiian islands) was not exactly direct.
She was born and raised in Ridley Park. The fifth of seven children, she started her love affair with great food at a young age. In the early '80s, it brought her to Café Olé in the Reading Terminal Market, where she also did a turn as caterer for the American Ballet Company.
"I miss all the hustle and the bustle and the people that used to come to the café," Cassel said. "We had a great following. It was a fabulous place to work."
Cassel packed up her knives in 1985 and headed cross-country to attend the culinary arts program at the University of California- Los Angeles and try her hand at catering to the stars in Hollywood. But soon enough, the Pacific islands were calling her name.
In 1992, just a few months after Cassel arrived on the island, Kauai was devastated by Hurricane Iniki. In the true spirit of aloha, she stepped up to the stove and ran one of the island's Red Cross kitchens as it prepared 3,700 meals a day for homeless residents.
"Iniki was my introduction to the community," Cassel said. "When I was out there doing something for the community, that's when everything came together. Cooking for all those people was awesome.
"I can't tell you how many pallets - and I mean pallets - of Spam I went through," she recalled with a laugh. "It was a trip."
Ten years ago, Cassel took two monthlong trips to Asia. She noticed that the intestinal and skin-related issues that had plagued her would subside while she was away.
"When I was in Asia I felt great!" Cassel said. "I would literally be doubled over in pain here. I went to Asia, and I was eating an Asian diet, and all those symptoms subsided and my skin started to heal."
After testing positive for celiac and the related skin condition dermatitis herpetiformis, she stopped eating products with gluten.
In 2005, Cassel decided to combine her love of baking with her gluten-free diet. She charged $60,000 in start-up costs to her credit card and Sweet Marie's Bakery was born in a 144-square-foot kitchen in Kapa'a.
The local connection
Thanks to Allison Lubert and Heather Esposito, Philly's getting its own gluten-free bakery this winter at 1424 South St.
Sweet Freedom's Web site says it will offer products that are "vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, corn-free, wheat-free, peanut-free, soy-free, casein-free, [have] no refined sugars [and are] suitable for diabetics."
Oh, is that all?
It seems miraculous that Connecticut-born Lubert and Esposito, a South Jersey native, could crank out an ample variety of cookies, cakes, cupcakes, loafs, muffins and pies, given those ingredient restrictions.
"It's amazing!" agreed Lubert, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. "There are enough alternative ingredients out there so that you can be free of all those things and still make it work."
OK, how do you bake a traditional Italian pizzelle without flour, eggs, butter or sugar, given that these are the only ingredients in the traditional recipe?
"Chickpea flour, garfava bean flour, rice flours - those are all so big in what we do," Lubert explained.
"It's switching things out one thing at a time and figuring out what works," added Esposito, a graduate of the Philadelphia Biblical University as well as the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and the Natural Gourmet Institute, both in New York City.
Esposito's interest in gluten-free foods grew after she was diagnosed with hypoglycemia in high school.
"I started realizing how much I couldn't do gluten," Esposito said. "I eliminated that from my diet and I was like, 'Wow, well there's nothing really that you can eat as far as baked goods.' And I have a big sweet tooth!"
"We want our stuff to be as good as non-gluten-free, non-vegan, non-healthy stuff, because it's hard to find," said Lubert, who's allergic to wheat and dairy.
Their testing standards were thus fairly simple: "We know if we wouldn't eat it, then we wouldn't want anyone else to," Lubert said.
"Philly is a great place to be because there's so much emphasis with the NFCA wanting to make Philly a place that you can dine out at gluten-free restaurants," Esposito said.
"If there's nothing else to do and there's nowhere else to be, I want to be in my kitchen in my sweats," Lubert said as she took a warm, gluten-free ginger snap off a cookie sheet. "That's my happy place."
It's no fad
Gluten-free may sound like some new South Beach Diet, but according to Alice Bast, founder and president of the NFCA, that could not be further from the truth.
"It is not the hot new food trend," Bast said. "It's a serious health problem."
Until recently in the United States, celiac was considered a rare childhood disease, Bast said. It was more widely diagnosed in Europe, and awareness here increased after a 2003 University of Maryland study found that 1 in 133 people have it.
In 2004, celiac was reclassified as a common disease affecting 1 percent of the total U.S. population.
"That rarely happens," Bast said.
Through the NFCA, local chefs and food enthusiasts can take online training about the intricacies of a gluten-free diet.
"Some of the chefs think they really understand what is gluten-free," Bast said. "But after they go through GREAT [the foundation's Gluten-free Resource Education and Awareness Training], what they always say is, 'I thought I really understood it, but I realized how much I didn't know. I thought people were just on a gluten-free diet because it was a lifestyle, and then I went through the training and I realized that people's health is in my kitchen.' "
"You have to be strict on your gluten-free diet," Bast said. "It's not a lifestyle alternative. It's your medicine. It's your treatment, and you have to be vigilant."