Golden ube and red bean mooncakes glow in the pastry case at Belltown’s Askatu bakery. Inside, Askatu’s bakers frost cakes, proof loaves, and decorate dahlia cookies as the percussive rattle of Seattle’s monorail speeds by — a scene close to a Richard Scarry Busytown illustration. Steam billows from the espresso machine, a rack of sourdough emerges from the oven, customers chat in line. Owner and baker Estela Martinez pulls a tray of pastries from the oven, setting them on a rack to cool. She nudges a display of tea cookies and answers a question about mung bean flour before heading back into the kitchen with a new custom bread order.
With a background in biology and master’s degree in public health, Martinez spent years developing innovative protein-rich and nutrient-dense recipes. Before opening Askatu, Martinez studied the biochemistry of proteins to create balanced flour blends with ingredients like millet, teff, legumes, sweet potatoes, and sorghums. (Martinez emphasizes her use of many different sorghums because they each provide a different element.) In her journey to make allergen-free food without compromise, that is, food that tastes better and appeals to everyone whether they have allergies or not, Martinez has accomplished the seemingly impossible. Some customers buy Askatu’s bread for a semi-keto diet, some are vegan, and others just prefer the flavor of Askatu’s pastries. When customers who do not have food sensitivities try her bread, they often remark they can’t tell the difference between it and the wheat variety.
Askatu’s gluten-free baguettes boast a crunchy Maillard crust and beautiful crumb when sliced; a precise mix of proteins create the texture that every nostalgic celiac or gluten-intolerant person longs for. (This might sound like over-the-top praise, but for many, life without bread can feel limiting.) The bakery’s teff rolls are light and airy with an earthy, nutty flavor that compliments everything from savory sandwiches to toast with jam. Unlike most gluten-free bakeries, Martinez never uses xanthan or guar gums. Instead, she studied the chemistry of wheat to scientific-method her way to a dough with the right consistency.
Developing these recipes has been a labor of love for Martinez — and there was a lot at stake. When one of Martinez’s children was diagnosed with over 50 food allergies, including hypoallergenic infant formula, she was at risk of malnutrition if the family didn’t quickly figure out allergen-free meals. Martinez sprang into action, pouring over food science journals and biochemistry research articles at medical libraries. She turned her kitchen counter into a lab bench and got to work, becoming an expert in amino acids and molecular baking. When a family friend tried her new recipes, she suggested that Martinez start a business.
Ceci (“chechi”) bars, one of Askatu’s most popular pastries, are similar to Nanaimo bars. Martinez says the name comes from the Italian word for chickpeas and was created in search of a nut butter alternative because her daughter felt left out at school when classmates raved about how much they loved peanut butter. Through trial and error, she perfected the protein-rich spread. “She would bring a ceci butter and jelly sandwich to school and felt like she was like all the other kids. All her friends asked to share it,” Martinez says.
Martinez is currently working on a new bao recipe, or siopao, as her Filipina grandmother called it. Askatu will soon add steamed bao to their menu with two variations to choose from: one filled with pork adobo, the other with green jackfruit, cabbage, onion, garlic, carrots, and ginger. The bakery is also expanding to offer online tea cookie orders that can be mailed across the country; Martinez recommends emailing orders for bread in advance, as they sometimes sell out.
Festivals and farmers markets are where the bakery originally got its start (Martinez’s son currently works its farmers markets stand). Every other Saturday, Askatu serves customers at the University District Farmers Market, offering many of the same items as the Belltown café location — Instagram is the best place to find its schedules. When the seasonal Queen Anne Farmers Market reopens in June, Askatu will sell bread and pastries there too.
Gluten-free eating has waxed and waned in popularity over the years; but for many, the choice to follow a gluten-free diet has to do with real food sensitivities or an autoimmune disorder like celiac disease, one of the most common genetic disorders worldwide. The exact number of celiacs is unknown because of socioeconomic and racial disparities and unequal access to health care, but historically, rates of diagnoses increase as access to health care and quality of life improves. When bakeries like Askatu offer products that are the same quality as breads made from wheat, barley, and rye — think deliciously soft interior, preserved within a hard crust — the dining experiences of those living with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease can only be made better.
Martinez’s eyes become wet as she recounts stories of customers with debilitating food allergies: the bride whose Hungarian family loved her dobosh wedding cake and couldn’t tell that it was gluten-free; the mother who had pie with her son for the first time in 20 years; or the customer who got to have cake for the first time on their 29th birthday. Askatu prepared allergen-free lunches for celiac nurses who vaccinated people during the pandemic. At a recent cake tasting, the grooms requested a lemon and lavender wedding cake, decorated with hibiscus and cherry blossoms in a nod to their Korean and Japanese heritage. “That’s why I did this,” Martinez says. “My child has to be able to have some cake on their birthday.”