Jennifer Esposito made a name for herself with her TV and film work, including I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Crash and Blue Bloods. But in recent months, she’s switched reels to launch her latest passion: Her gluten free bakery, Jennifer’s Way, in New York City. There, she creates delicious breads, cookies and other treats to satisfy the tastes-and health-of those with celiac disease. Last spring, she published her book, Jennifer’s Way, chronicling her own personal struggle with the autoimmune disorder. ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper made their way into the bakery as the warm aroma enticed their senses.
Jennifer Esposito [pointing out her freshly baked goods]: So you have a quinoa bread here. That is a sun butter raspberry muffin. That’s a pumpkin chocolate chip. That’s a chocolate chunk. That’s our jelly donut. That’s a cinnamon donut, and that is a jam dot. All this is gluten free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, refined sugar-free, yeast-free.
Esposito: For you it is. (laughs)
Cooper: How do you make something gluten free?
Esposito: You take out wheat, rye and/or barley. That’s why we use things like quinoa. It has no natural gluten protein.
Cooper: What about the sugar content?
Esposito: We don’t use a lot of sugar. We use either honey, maple syrup, or organic, unrefined cane juice. Feel free to taste everything. These have a little bit of sugar because they’re more of a cookie and a pastry, but our breads have a teaspoon of honey and no yeast. It’s made of chia flour and millet and stuff like that. I came up with these alternatives because I was ill, and didn’t want to put in ingredients that I didn’t need, or that were empty. So I started using maple syrup because it’s a natural antioxidant. Everything had a purpose; it’s not just rice flour and tapioca starch. That’s not what we do here.
Lia Martirosyan: Are the breads without yeast more of a flatbread?
Esposito: No. You see these big loaves? They’re delicious, and you would never know that they don’t have yeast. There are lots of different ways of leavening. I had to find them because before this disease I was obsessed with bread. And to think that I was never going to have it again… Coming up with a recipe took years. I would read every book there was on French bread, Italian bread, this bread, that bread, and every book said, “You’re never going to make a bread bread without gluten or yeast.” And that loaf is proof that that’s not true. It’s one of our biggest-selling breads.
You see a cupcake or a cookie or a jelly donut and you automatically think, “Oh, I can’t do that. That’s trouble.” But if I tell you what’s in it—brown rice, quinoa, amaranth flour or chia—you would never say “no” to those things. We get a lot of little kids who come in here and their moms don’t want them to have starch, sugar and preservatives, and we don’t put those things in. I try to show people exactly what they’re eating.
Cooper: After reading your book, I guess the next thing would be pizza?
Esposito: I do make pizza.
Martirosyan: Do you add cheese and everything?
Esposito: No. I top it with things like pear, arugula, figs, olive oil and tomatoes. But no cheese. So it’s gluten and dairy free because a lot of celiacs cannot have dairy, and they suffer because they really don’t want to give that up, either. I haven’t really heard of a celiac who can successfully eat cheese or dairy. There’s usually some hidden pain involved.
My other career was wonderful, and I still do it from time to time. But this feels like where I’m supposed to be. Everything makes sense. Without having those years behind me, I would have never been able to get this far and get this much attention. People really don’t want to talk about this subject in a serious manner, for whatever reason. But you’re screwing with something that’s very, very sacred to people: their food, how they eat, and how they live.
Esposito: “—when I eat this,” right. My symptoms were so all over the map. There are 300 symptoms with this disease.
Cooper: That many?
Esposito: And that’s the thing, you may not know that your symptom is connected to the disease. I’d eat something, and it would make my headache go away, but then my stomach would hurt. So even if I did start to connect the dots in the stomach area—not eating carbohydrates and feeling less bloated—I would still get sinus headaches, because symptoms are not going to instantly go away just because you stopped eating gluten. I had so much damage throughout the years that even after a year without it, I was still going through detox.
Martirosyan: When you were going through the early stages of testing, doctors never checked for an autoimmune disease?
Esposito: No, never.
Martirosyan: Do you know if it always shows up as an autoimmune weakness?
Esposito: I don’t know what specific tests they took, because it’s been so many years, and I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I am now. The usual blood test is for allergies that will cause anaphylactic shock. There’s another blood test that looks at what happens when allergens in food hit the gut. That’s where things show up like, “Oh, you’re allergic to this, this and this.” I never had that. Maybe that would have shown I had gluten intolerance.
They did test me for Multiple Sclerosis at one point, and also ruled out lupus, so I guess they were looking at certain autoimmune diseases, but then my blood work would come back fine. What was showing up, over the previous 10 years, was a tricky liver enzyme. They always wrote it off as an infection somewhere, never thinking that it had something to do with toxins in my body that weren’t getting released. I don’t look at the doctors and feel like they did me wrong; I understand that my symptoms were all over the place. But there needs to be more attention paid to the individual person, rather than looking at a chart and saying, “You don’t fall into this category or this category or this category.”
Cooper: Especially given that there are 300 different symptoms.
Esposito: Yes, and people get used to living in pain. I used to live uncomfortably, fearfully, because of panic attacks, and the anxiety was constant. I saw my mother live that way; she saw her mother live that way. My grandmother died of colon cancer, so I was used to seeing nervous people. But people get used to just taking a pill.
Cooper: I lived in pain for years, but finally got a divorce.
Esposito: You had to do it!
Martirosyan: Did you ever have Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) Therapy?
Esposito: No. I have not. My doctor’s spoken about that, but I have not. I look into everything because like I said, I still deal with it.
Cooper: Lia has some background in what we’re talking about; she’s been all over the world and nobody knows what she has.
Martirosyan: Yes, I have symptoms all over the place. But a few years ago, celiac disease came up, and they were going to do an endoscopy—until they told me it would screw with my vocal cords.
Cooper: She sings opera.
Martirosyan: So it wasn’t safe for me to do that procedure, and I didn’t follow up. And then I read that part of your book about your finding a lump on your neck and your brittle nails. A lump was one of the first things I noticed, and they wrote it off as a virus or my being sick, but I’d never been sick in my life when this all started.
Esposito: I would absolutely check out celiac disease. I saw a woman walk in here on crutches. Her hands were like this. [balled up] She had difficulty speaking. They said she had MS, and she was on medication. Turns out she went to this doctor, and she had celiac disease, through her diet, she started to reverse that. Now her hands can open up.
Martirosyan: That’s interesting.
Cooper: Does gluten have any friends?
Esposito: Seriously. Gluten—especially for people with autoimmune disease—is glue, basically. It holds bread together; it holds pasta together. It’s a binder. That’s why you see it in a lot of things like makeup and toothpaste. But we can’t really digest that in our systems. We don’t have the enzymes to break it down, so it sticks. For me, if I eat a piece of gluten, I know it instantly, because it feels like liquid cement in my throat. That’s what it’s doing in the body, and then it creates inflammation, and inflammation causes disease. Same thing with dairy.
Martirosyan: I read that you shouldn’t cut it out, though, until you get tested.
Esposito: In my opinion, if you’re suffering stop eating it, and see if you feel better. If you have celiac disease, you have damage in your gut. It may not heal in a week, two months, even up to a year—and even then it sometimes doesn’t heal that quickly. I don’t want people suffering any longer. And sometimes I’ve heard where people are off of gluten and they feel better, but they want to get a proper diagnosis, so they have to eat it and then they’re in hell. In an endoscopy, they use an instrument to take a biopsy of your intestines.
Esposito: Blood tests are not always accurate.
Martirosyan: So you had the endoscopy?
Esposito: I had both.
Martirosyan: Did you feel any soreness?
Esposito: I didn’t. I think it’s got to be done correctly, when they take a biopsy of the small intestine they shouldn’t just go down and take one piece, because the villi may be intact in that place.[Inflammation from celiac damages villi, which are small, finger-like projections that line the small intestine and provide a greatly increased surface area to absorb nutrients. In celiac disease, the villi become shortened and flatten out; intestinal damage causes diarrhea and poor absorption of nutrients, which may lead to weight loss.]
So they need to really take a thorough biopsy. I’ve heard many people tell horror stories about getting an endoscopy, where they take one biopsy and say, “You’re fine,” and then two years go by and they aren’t fine. They have celiac, but the biopsy wasn’t done correctly. With me, there were times when I couldn’t walk. My knees would give out completely. And if I get any kind of gluten, that’s exactly where it hits, my knees. I can’t walk. A young girl I know, her mom brought her here. She was 15, having problems, problems, problems. Didn’t know what it was. One day, I saw it in her face, and then she just fell. They brought the ambulance, the doctor, and they said, “She’s got palsy in her face?” It happens sometimes. Turns out she had undiagnosed celiac disease that was causing so much inflammation that her brain was swelling. They had to open up her skull, release the pressure on the brain. She had to relearn how to talk.
Martirosyan: Destroys everything.
Esposito: Exactly. This is a real issue because your insurance company will cover a generic drug, and sometimes they’re not gluten free. So I’m paying out of pocket to get a name-brand drug, and I can’t tell you how many times they didn’t have it. I went to the hospital recently because I had some kind of allergy, and my face started to blow up a little. They wanted to put me on a steroid that I’ve taken before. By the end of that cycle, I had to have a steroid and an antibiotic, which cost me $1,700 for the name-brand drug. Generic drugs, that’s the next hurdle and it’s enormous.
Cooper: Are you saying the pharmaceutical companies won’t tell you—
Esposito: —if it’s gluten free. But their version of gluten free and what a celiac calls gluten free are very different. That’s why every restaurant, every product says, “gluten free,” and then you start asking questions, and you realize, unless that product was done in a separate area, it is not completely gluten free. You cannot guarantee there’s no cross-contamination if you’re using the same line to make a wheat-derived pill.
Martirosyan: How long have you been off gluten?
Esposito: Probably five years now. Now I’m a functioning human being. I wasn’t functioning towards the later years, when I finally got diagnosed. Now I’m functioning in a big way. But I also went 30-something years without a diagnosis, so the longer you go, the more damage there is.
Martirosyan: I’m thinking about the woman you mentioned with the dexterity issues who was diagnosed with MS. The fact that you say her fingers are straightening out is a huge deal because it’s rare to impossible to reverse atrophy.
Esposito: Huge. She was in a wheelchair, and she’s walking on these crutches now. But she sat here and clearly told me, “I’m doing so much better, but I cheat sometimes.” But you just can’t cheat. Not safely.
Martirosyan: I figure if you have a solid diagnosis, and you’re feeling bad why play around?
Esposito: I don’t understand it either, but it’s a hard thing to switch in your mind, because food is a basic need, basic fun, basic social aspect of life.
Martirosyan: There was a time, I tried going vegan, which was kind of unheard of, because there weren’t many options out there. I was doing more lentils and beans. I lasted six months. So what’s the difference between vegan and gluten free?
Esposito: Vegan is taking away any animal products. What we’re doing is taking away the gluten that’s in breads, pastas, cookies. With a vegan diet you can eat bread and pasta and all that stuff. It’s a completely different thing. That’s why when I went vegan for a while—because I tried every diet under the sun—I would feel a better, but then it wouldn’t last because I was still having pasta and bread. Though I was eating a ton of vegetables and all this other great stuff. These days, they pump so much stuff into our food to grow it quicker, keep it on shelves longer, make it fluffier… So the natural gluten that was in these products is no longer being able to just be what it naturally is. Things have become so over processed that we can’t function any more.
Cooper: So your place in all of this seems to be to create breads, cakes, and tastey desserts?
Esposito: I always tell people this. These are the things that you absolutely cannot have out in the world: You can’t have bread, a cookie, pasta. But occurring in life is beautiful naturally gluten free food. You should be eating that fish, vegetables, meat, beans. Those are all naturally gluten free. Again, if it’s processed, then it could be added. But naturally gluten free foods are everywhere.
Cooper: So you found this is what was missing?
Esposito: Yes. Before this, we weren’t baking with quinoa, chia and amaranth flour. They’re not light and fluffy, and they can be tricky to bake with. These are different flours and grains that people weren’t using before. There’s a difference.
Jennifer Esposito gluten free recipe
Sweet Potato Scones MAKES ABOUT 36 SCONES
Maple sugar has antioxidant properties and you can sub it in equal amounts for regular sugar. If you can’t find maple sugar, you can use coconut sugar, date sugar, or even brown sugar, but those have much lower antioxidant and nutrient values.
1 cup sweet potato puree (bake and mash a sweet potato, or use
1/2 of a 15-ounce can sweet potato puree)
3/4 cup rice milk (or milk of choice)
1/3 cup grape-seed oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
11/2 cup almond flour 1/2 cup arrowroot starch
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup quinoa flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
1/3 cup maple sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon fresh dried vanilla (or 1 teaspoon liquid vanilla)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup maple syrup (for brushing on top of scones)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the sweet potato, rice milk, oil, and lemon juice (if using liquid vanilla, add here). In a separate bowl, combine almond flour, arrow-root starch, brown rice flour, quinoa flour, pecans (if you’re using them), maple sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, xanthan gum, dried vanilla, cloves, and salt. Whisk out lumps. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and combine with a wooden spoon. Take a heaping tablespoon of batter and drop on the baking sheet. Place in the oven for about 15-17 minutes (longer if you want firm texture and/or slightly browned bottoms). After about 11 minutes, or when the tops of the scones get a bit firm, brush maple syrup over the tops and then continue to bake. These scones will keep in an airtight container or Ziploc bag for at least a couple of days, or up to a week in the refrigerator
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies MAKES ABOUT 36 COOKIES
For this recipe, it is absolutely crucial to use certified gluten-free oats, because other oats contain gluten. I was able to have oats later in my journey, but not in the beginning, so you’ll want to be sure you can tolerate oats before you make these-not everyone can. The duration of the baking depends on how crispy you like your cookie.
3 cups certified gluten-free oats (important that the packaged is marked as gluten-free!)
1 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup maple sugar, date sugar, or coconut sugar
1/4 cup arrowroot starch
1/4 cup sorghum flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup grape seed oil
1/3 cup applesauce (no sugar added)
3/4 cup raisins
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a mixing bowl, combine the oats, brown rice flour, sugar, arrowroot starch, sorghum flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and xanthan gum. In a separate bowl, combine the maple syrup, grape-seed oil, and applesauce. Using a wooden spoon, slowly mix the wet ingredients into the dry a little bit at a time. When dough is thoroughly combined, add raisins. Place tablespoon-sized pieces of dough on the baking sheet and bake for 15-25 minutes. These cookies will last about a week stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator…