Deby Curcio comes from a long line of excellent Italian cooks, so when she and her husband, Jim, sold Kula’s Café in Dillon a few years ago to concentrate on producing their gluten-free baking mixes, Deby knew some of her biggest supporters would also be some of the hardest palates to win over.
“My dad, I trick him all the time,” she said. “He eats it and he devours it, and then I say, ‘You know, I made that gluten free.’ I like to trick people, especially family members because they’re your hardest critic, and when you can put something over on them, you know that you’ve succeeded.”
The couple launched Toosie’s Gluten-Free in 2011 with a goal of continuing to “trick” people with baking mixes and flour that have all the flavor and textures of wheat flour without any of the gluten.
Born of necessity
Toosie’s was born of necessity when Deby became gluten intolerant after having a health crisis. Her immune system shut down, leaving her with multiple chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue and many other digestive problems.
“Finding out that gluten was one of the issues and eliminating the gluten helped me to repair my gut,” she said. “Your gut lining becomes more permeable. Eliminating the gluten helped me heal that, and your digestive system is tied into your immune system, so healing your gut helps you have a healthy immune system.”
The Curcio’s started doing gluten-free baking commercially at Kula’s for one of the chiropractors who had an office next door to the café, Jim said.
“Deb had some health issues, so she knew gluten-free baking,” he said. “We started to do a ton of gluten free. We needed to do gluten-free pancakes, and we started doing it in bulk. She started creating all these mixes because we needed to, and then we decided to sell the café and start doing all the mixes.”
Deby is a chef by trade, and she and Jim owned a large restaurant on the East Coast for almost 15 years before coming to Summit County. She said she worked on the formulas for her Toosie’s mixes for a couple of years, starting with family recipes and bits and pieces from her restaurants and playing with ingredients so that they would work at any elevation.
“Gluten free in itself just reacts differently,” she said of baking at altitude. “It’s the main reason why you don’t need the high-altitude adjustment. I was able to get my formula so that it would turn out perfectly at sea level or high altitude.”
It was also important that the flour be a one-to-one substitution so people could use it in their own family recipes without doing a lot of math.
“That was one thing that I wanted to do with the all-purpose flour was to simplify it so it’s a cup for cup substitution,” Deby said. “If you have grandma’s banana bread recipe that you love, you can sub regular flour for our flour and it will turn out.”
Full line of products
The Toosies Gluten-Free label includes cake, brownie, bread, pancake and muffin mixes, as well as its signature all-purpose flour. Each mix has a slightly different blend of several types of flours, Jim said.
“You have to use a mix to get the right consistency,” he said. “We were trying to do a complete range of products, so when people wanted to bake something, they could do it. Some people do one certain kind of flour, but my wife really cares about the textures and flavors; everything should taste the way it should be, like a normal pancake, muffin, cake or brownie.
“The all-purpose flour is for more delicate type baking, but for breads, you need a different texture and makeup.”
Deby said she uses brown rice flour as a base instead of white rice flour to add nutritional value to her products. She said people have asked her why she doesn’t just make brownies and cakes and muffins and sell the finished products, but she said because of all of her chemical allergies, she’s chosen to be a big proponent of additive-free and color-free cooking.
“If I was to produce a product like that, in order to make it shelf stable, you have to use chemical stabilizers,” she said. “I still believe that people should make things from scratch. You can use organic, and you know it’s a real product that you’re putting into the brownies or whatever it is you’re making.
“We’ve also simplified the recipes with the mixes to where, with the muffin mix, when you add milk, you can use almond milk, rice milk, vegan butter — it still will turn out. There’s still some flexibility to adapt it to other food allergies that you have.”
Reduce stress, increase nutrition
By choosing some of the most common items that people bake, Deby said she’s been able to make Toosie’s Gluten-Free a pretty well-rounded product.
“With the bread mix, you can do pizzas and cinnamon rolls, anything yeasted,” she said. “I’m proud of it because I named it after my mom who I lost to cancer about seven years ago, and she was the one who taught me how to cook. I can keep up the tradition and honor her, and it makes everyday life a little less burdensome.”
There’s a lot of extra stress and work that goes into your daily life when you have to be mindful of gluten, Deby said, and it’s been rewarding for her to do demos where people say they can’t tell the difference between her products and those made with gluten.
“People tell me it’s better than any chocolate cake they’ve had, even without the flour,” she said. “When you have an allergy, you don’t feel like you are suffering because this is what you have to eat instead of ‘normal flour.’ The ingredients are still real; it’s just a blend of flours.
“To be able to see families ease what they have to do, cooking two or three meals, or a birthday party and they have to make two cakes — I’ve put out a product that takes the burden off of these mothers who can cook just one meal because you can’t tell the difference.”
Deby did point out that just because her products are gluten free doesn’t mean you should overindulge.
“A brownie is still a brownie; it’s still sugar, butter, eggs,” she said. “We’re not telling you to eat a brownie every day because it’s gluten free, but we want to give people, if they do want to have that treat for a birthday, special occasion, it’s very palatable. People who have diet restrictions; I know what they go through because of the food restrictions I’ve had. I didn’t want people to suffer because they have an allergy.”