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June 22, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Gluten-free kid bakes his way to inspiring success

It’s hard enough for adults to give up the foods they love. What happens when a kid hears that his health depends on saying goodbye to cookies and cream puffs and other favorite desserts?

For Dominick Cura, diagnosed with celiac disease at age 9, the answer was to find a way to reclaim those forbidden treats. He became a home baker, learning from cookbooks, developing his own gluten-free foods — and then sharing the message with other kids and even adults that a gluten-free diet isn’t the burden it might seem.

Now 13 and a 7th grader at Hamilton Middle School, he’s been spreading the word through his self-published “Eternally Gluten-Free” dessert cookbook, in stores including Secret Garden Books, Top Ten Toys, Flying Apron, and Third Place Books in Ravenna. The Ballard teen will do a cooking demonstration at 11 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday) at Manna Mills in Mountlake Terrace, and a book signing from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Ballard Farmers Market.

“I guess I wanted to increase knowledge about celiac disease,” he said. (The disease is triggered by eating foods containing gluten, including wheat. It damages the lining of the small intestine and can affect nutrient absorption.)

“Only 2 percent of people with celiac disease know they have it, the other 98 percent of people have lots of weird problems and no idea what’s going on,” he said.

As a hungry teen, even beyond the overall goal of increasing knowledge, it’s also a generally good thing when you can bake a tray of richly frosted carrot-cake cupcakes made with rice flour, good enough to serve at any classroom celebration.

Cura was diagnosed with celiac disease through blood tests and an intestinal biopsy after a year of dragging illness.

“He was very sickly looking,” said his mother, Marilyn, with a drawn face, exhaustion, and constant joint pains.

Though his health improved when he changed his diet, he didn’t greet the diagnosis with joy. “I found that almost everything I saw and wanted to eat had gluten in it and I could no longer have it,” he wrote in the book. “I felt so mad that I had to change my whole lifestyle.

“It was also very weird because I had a disease, which sounds so much more major than just having an allergy or intolerance of some food. I was horrified.”

The beginning was tough, with he and his family researching acceptable foods and finding their way past common traps like canned goods labeled “natural flavorings” (which may or may not contain gluten.) They discovered alternate ingredients like quinoa pasta. And eventually, he began baking on his own from cookbooks, and then inventing his own recipes. Like many modern kids, he would text his mom asking her to pick up ingredients at the grocery store – only his list included necessities like almond meal and tapioca flour and xanthan gum.

It’s been trial and error. His first angel food cake was “a rock,” he said. He’s still a little scared of messing up macarons. (So are plenty of professionals.) But page by page, he built up plenty of successes to share. His tres leches cake is one of his favorites, and he leaned on his mom’s Italian heritage to create his cassata cake.

There are still days when it’s hard for him to see others eating food he can’t have. But for the most part, “we’ve discovered how kind people are,” said his mom. One parent baked gluten-free scones for the whole class. A teacher inspired him to start writing. At this point, he sees celiac as the turning point that pushed him toward accomplishments he wouldn’t have otherwise achieved. He and a group of friends have made cooking videos (that’s one of them above) and sold their gluten-free pastries.

Now, people tell him he’ll be a great baker some day. But that’s not his career goal. He’s hoping to become a movie director. The first project, already in the planning stages? A documentary about celiac disease.



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