Some food label readers don't do it to count calories.

Gluten-free baker Nikki Burns, 26, watches out for ingredients like wheat, soy sauce and so-called "natural" flavors. In 2009, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, forcing her to permanently cut these items from her diet.

Upending what she ate led to experimentation in the kitchen. Burns discovered she had a knack for gluten-free snacks — specifically, cupcakes. She's won local food competitions, has sold her baked goods via word of mouth and is now selling her creations at a local coffee shop. And she's taking steps to parlay her skills into other commercial ventures.

It's been a sweet surprise after a bumpy adjustment to a gluten-free diet.

Starting out, "everything that I found was either frozen, or it just tasted awful," said Burns, a kindergarten teacher at Orchard Ridge Elementary School. "Every gluten-free treat I'd ever had in the past had tasted like cardboard."

After reading up on gluten-free recipe blogs, she started experimenting with her own recipes.

"When you go off gluten, your body craves sweets," she said. "Cupcakes were the first thing I really wanted but I couldn't get."

Thanks to her recipes, gluten-free cupcakes have become a staple at Iron Cupcake Madison, a local mini-cupcake competition held every couple of months. Entrants must adhere to a theme and audiences vote for best taste and presentation; all the money raised benefits a local charity. Burns has participated in all five competitions since October 2010, winning three of them.

Her favorite competition took place in June; it featured children's literature as a theme. Bakers crafted cupcakes inspired by Harry Potter, "The Giving Tree" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," among others.

"You got to not only style your cupcake and make it fit your theme and the book, but you also had to come up with a flavor," she said.

Burns made two different types of gluten-free cupcakes for the competition, the only baker to both bake two varieties and to operate under a dietary restriction. For the first, Burns chose "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" as her book, with a creation that looked like a tiny portion of spaghetti and meatballs. She baked a chocolate cupcake, filled it with raspberry filling, then topped it with loopy strings of vanilla buttercream (the "spaghetti") and a homemade truffle (the "meatball"). The cupcake took third place for both best taste and best display.

For the second entry, she chose the book's sequel, "Pickles to Pittsburgh," and served — wait for it — peanut butter and fried pickle cupcakes. The unlikely combination was a big hit.

"Everybody's been doing lots of fooling around with flavor profiles," said Iron Cupcake organizer Nancy Sorensen. "I don't know if it's because she's had to test so much, but she's really perfected it."

Burns has spent the last two years developing her cupcake recipe. She uses a variety of gluten-free flours, including white rice flour, brown rice flour, tapioca starch and sweet white rice flour, using xanthan gum as a binding agent.

Most of the time, people at Iron Cupcake competitions can't tell the difference between her gluten-free confections and standard cupcakes.

"People are usually shocked that it's gluten-free," she said.

Her winning recipes include a lemon raspberry cupcake, which won the filled cupcakes competition; a key lime cupcake that won the citrus-themed competition; and a "Funky Monkey" recipe (banana, peanut butter and marshmallow) that won the marshmallow-themed competition.

Sorensen said Burns has an opportunity to capitalize on her niche.

"It's so hard for anyone to have gluten-free baked goods that are actually gluten-free — that come from an oven that never had wheat in it, or from a facility that's really clean," Sorensen said. "I would hope she could go pro with it."

Burns has developed a following through Iron Cupcake, making cakes for weddings and birthdays. Sorensen also recommended Burns to Patrick Downey, owner of the Victory Café on Madison's east side, which now stocks her cupcakes.

"I thought they were good as any cupcake, gluten-free or not," Downey said.

For the last month-and-a-half, Burns has made one to two dozen cupcakes every other day for the Victory, with the product often selling out. Recent flavors that sold out include Oreo, chocolate raspberry, lemon raspberry, mound (dark chocolate with coconut) and lemon blueberry.

Downey said the large demand for the cupcakes is not solely because they are gluten-free.

"The fact that they're gluten-free is just a bonus," he said. "The majority of people just buy them because they're so good."

Burns hopes to make a career out of gluten-free baking, but the transition from hobby to profession might be long — selling at the Victory earns Burns slightly more than a dollar per cupcake (cupcakes sell for $2.75 apiece), barely enough to cover baking costs. But she said it's worth it to get her name out.

And the word is out — she recently found a kitchen space on Madison's east side and will become a wholesaler by mid-August.

Meanwhile, she still has a teaching career. The summer is free for baking and business endeavors, but during the school year, she devotes late nights and weekends to her culinary efforts.

"My long-term goal would be having a café that's completely gluten-free, where someone like me could go in and not be told that I can't eat something," she said. "There are so many people out there with gluten intolerance."

She hopes to create an atmosphere in which gluten-free customers wouldn't have to stress over the possibility of getting sick from what they eat, while providing taste and flavor that all customers will enjoy.

"I feel honored to help people with gluten issues find treats that taste the same — if not better — than what they remembered."

To try some of Burns' recipes, or to contact her about her gluten-free treats, visit


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