These bagels and breads don't crack like sticks when bent, nor taste like cardboard. Mina Makram has tried most of the commercial gluten-free items out there and made sure what he bakes covers new territory -- a delicious one. Ducks & Dragons, his tiny bakery launched in early 2015 in San Mateo, produces Montreal-style bagels and baguettes that deliver the pleasing properties of wheat-based comfort food.
His bread is moist (although it contains no oil), springy and has a nice crumb, toasting like a dream. There's no distracting sour aroma of apple cider vinegar (frequently used in gluten-free products). His bagels are dense and nicely textured but not rock-like, with the shiny outside that proclaims having been boiled, like a bagel should be but often isn't.
With the gluten-free craze continuing to skyrocket, Makram's petite output is being gobbled up by his growing fan base. Followers include the miniscule proportion of people actually diagnosed with celiac disease -- the serious autoimmune disorder that can damage the lining of the small intestine after the consumption of the gluten in wheat, barley and rye -- as well as the many more individuals who have decided they want to cut gluten out of their diets for a host of reasons.
Makram himself is one of those who determined that carbohydrates can be problematic when it comes to health. In fact, this is what led to the creation of Ducks & Dragons. Obese since childhood, he decided to reinvent his diet and lifestyle beginning four-plus years ago, weighing a distressing 400 pounds at the time. "I used to eat anything -- pizza, fast food, whatever," he recalls. "I didn't know about nutrition."
He also didn't exercise and increasingly found that even short walks between buildings at work -- he was then a research engineer for GE Healthcare -- were an ordeal. "I'd break into a sweat," he explains. "I was wasting so much time because I was waiting for the elevator."
His personal overhaul involved learning to ride a bicycle for the first time, then expanded to workouts at the gym -- where he met his girlfriend -- and the reconstruction of his diet based on healthy principles. Makram sampled "all the various diets -- low fat, low calories -- but I didn't like the food," he says. "Eventually, I came across the low-carb diet and I adopted that and started seeing results. I stuck with it for three-and-a-half years," losing half his body weight in the process.
Learning how to cook and then creating his own recipes were his saviors when it came to dieting success. Explains Makram: "I wasn't miserable. I was happy about the food I was eating and it made it easier for me to diet."
His bakery originally grew out of a quest to make a tasty gluten-free pancake, which took some work to perfect. Says Makram, "People would eat it and say, 'Wow, this cannot be healthy!'" And naturally, people kept urging him to sell his subsequent creations, which later led to a booth at a farmers market.
Then he was hooked. "It's very satisfying and I'm passionate about it," he reveals. "I've see the improvement in people's lives and that has its own rewards.
"I had two customers who broke into tears after they tried my bread," remembers Makram. "They said, 'We have not had bread in years because everything (non-gluten) out there is horrible.' I've got customers whose kids are celiac and they love it. And a lot of people just buy the bread because it's good bread that's healthier. Because of the ingredients I use, everything is high fiber. There are 12 grams of fiber in the bagels. That's a lot compared to a normal bagel."
Tasting Makram's products, it's hard to believe they're gluten-free given the pleasing resemblance to regular breads. His baguettes have an appealing yeasty aroma and airy texture punctuated with ground flaxseed while his Montreal-style bagels -- smaller, sweeter and denser than the New York kind -- include one particularly popular flavor featuring a hit of chile and an abundance of toppings.
The backbone ingredients for Makram's products are almond, coconut, tapioca and arrowroot flours along with egg whites, psyllium husks, xanthan gum and yeast. With no culinary training and no youthful cooking experience, he had no ground rules to get in the way of his research.
"A lot of the techniques I use would give a traditional baker a headache. The techniques and proportions are very different from what a traditional baker would use for a similar product," he says. His laboriously created process is a secret and defies what bakers believe is possible when making almond flour baked goods.
Determination also helped him refine his recipes, since his go-to mode for many things is not to give up until the goal is reached. Before creating the bakery, this remarkable discipline was seen in many successful outcomes that might have challenged others, like extinguishing his Egyptian accent through force of will after arriving with his family in the United States at age 16 and, of course, losing a massive amount of weight.
He also credits his technical background as a useful asset in launching his currently one-man bakery. "Once an engineer, always an engineer," he says. "That's how I was able to develop this. I looked at it as an engineering problem and I went at it one step at a time."
However, when it came to naming his operation, his inspiration was sentimental rather than nerdy. "Growing up, my dad gave my mom the nickname of Ducky," he explains. And his girlfriend, who loves dragons, has also been a caring, involved advocate. "Baking is a labor of love and these two women supported me through the whole process," he reveals.
Ducks & Dragons carved a more arduous path than many gluten-free bakeries. As Makram notes, "The non-gluten food market is saturated with people doing sweet (things). When you put sugar in it, it doesn't taste bad anymore. Bread's a lot trickier."
As he busily engineers new processes to expand his output to meet demand and contemplates hiring some helpers, it's clear he has achieved his initial objective. Future-wise, Makram is also increasing his product line, with non-gluten pizza crust imminent and "a lot more in store," he enthuses. "I have three-and-a-half years worth of recipes!"
The most telling fact is that his baked goods are yummy enough to entice consumers who don't care a fig whether they include gluten or not. Says Makram: "People like their carbs in the form of bread and bagels but now there's a healthy option and it's delicious. It makes it easier to stick with a healthier lifestyle."
Ducks and Dragons Bakery
1007 Howard Ave., San Mateo (in KitchenTown commercial kitchen)
Tel: (650) 690-5073
Facebook: Ducks & Dragons
Farmers' markets: College of San Mateo (Saturdays 9-1 p.m.); San Carlos Hot Harvest Nights, 4-8 p.m. (May-September)
Available: Berkeley Bowl and Farmigo