Welcome to the March 2022 edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Tina Cromwell from Bam Bam Bakery. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.
Flour. Butter. Eggs. These are staples in baking as much as wood, stone, and metal are in construction. But, one Portland baker has proved these ingredients aren’t essential. With “chemistry, a little bit of magic, and a lot of trial and error,” Tina Cromwell’s gluten-free, vegan chocolate cake is just as delicious as one laden with flour, butter, and eggs.
Tina and her husband, Lance, own and operate Bam Bam Bakery, the city’s first exclusively gluten-free bakery. Founded in 2011, The Cromwells purchased the business in 2017. And, while they kept most recipes unchanged, they adjusted some to accommodate more dietary restrictions. Others, like the bagels, are new creations.
As someone who has struggled with gluten sensitivity since childhood, Tina can attest to how difficult it can be to find a tasty substitute. “When gluten-free alternatives first came out, most of it wasn’t very good, and some people are still skeptical. But our stuff is really good. You can’t even tell the difference,” she asserts.
Before taking over Bam Bam, Tina studied hotel and restaurant administration at the University of New Hampshire and worked in San Francisco and Napa Valley under prominent chefs like Wolfgang Puck. She returned to Maine just as the state’s food scene was gaining traction. She served at Primo for three seasons and has held nearly every position at Fore Street on and off for fourteen years.
Last summer, Bam Bam relocated to the former Cakes Extraordinaire space on Brighton Avenue. The bakery is open Friday and Saturday from 9 am to 3 pm. In addition to cookies, cakes, and other confections, Bam Bam also has savory items like chicken pot pie and lasagna. Continue reading to learn how many alternative flours and starches Tina uses, her favorite Bam Bam treat, and where she goes for a gluten-free meal in Portland and beyond.
AA: Did you create all the recipes at Bam Bam?
TC: Not all of them. I bought the recipes but tweaked quite a few, like the chocolate cake is now vegan. The egg replacer makes it fudgier, so no one complains. We also came up with a ridiculous bagel recipe. Our bagels are so good, and they’re gluten, dairy, soy, and nut-free.
AA: What ingredients do you use to replace gluten?
TC: We have fifteen different flours and starches that we use in different combinations depending on what we try to achieve. We use a variety of flours like garbanzo, sorghum, millet, and rice. For binders, we use xanthan gum and psyllium. It’s the most bizarre baking I’ve ever done in my life. It’s chemistry, a little bit of magic, and a lot of trial and error.
AA: Do you accommodate any other dietary restrictions?
TC: Yes, we are a go-to for people with food allergies because so many people with celiac disease are also lactose intolerant or have an egg allergy. It’s difficult to find baked goods that don’t have cream, butter, or eggs. We try to make as many items as possible with vegan butter or plant-based milk.
AA: What is your favorite item at Bam Bam?
TC: My favorite is the caramel delight bar with a brownie base, dried cherries, pecans, peanuts, chocolate chunks, caramel, and sea salt. It’s sweet, salty, crunchy, nutty, and chocolatey.
AA: What are your customer favorites?
TC: We make a chicken pot pie that is ridiculously delicious. The secret to making the pie crust is eggs, which isn’t traditional. We have avid fans for that one. Our cinnamon roll is also a customer favorite. The process is so different than what you’d expect. The dough is goopy and has to be put between plastic wrap to roll it out.
AA: What are your favorite restaurants in Portland?
TC: Going out to eat for me starts with asking, “Can I eat anything here, and do I trust them?.” Even if the menu says gluten-free, there’s the risk of cross-contamination. If they have a dedicated fryer, I’m there.
AA: Do you know of any restaurants with dedicated fryers?
TC: Sinful Kitchen is one. The owner, Dave Mallari, has celiac disease. It’s my go-to breakfast spot on the weekend. I get the gluten-free waffle benedict. Another one is Saltwater Grille in South Portland. They have outdoor dining and a view of the Portland waterfront. It’s beautiful. I had fried scallops for the first time in probably fifteen years, and I think we’ve been back three times since. $3 Deweys on Commercial Street also has a gluten-free fryer and vegan options like a jackfruit barbecue sandwich.
AA: Have you discovered any new gluten-free spots?
TC: I recently tried Sticky Sweet. Two sisters own it. They make plant-based ice cream and have all of these crazy flavors, like maple coffee and key lime pie. It was the first time I had a waffle cone in a long time.
AA: Where have you had a particularly memorable meal?
TC: I have to go with Primo. It is hands down my favorite restaurant. A good portion of the menu is already gluten-free or has a gluten-free substitute. The salads are so good because she has her own garden. The last time I went, I had the whole-roasted Branzino, fried zucchini blossoms, and cornmeal cake with fruit and housemade ice cream.
AA: What other restaurants outside of Portland do you recommend?
TC: There’s a restaurant in Ogunquit called BeachFire with lots of gluten-free options. I had their peanut butter and jelly burger. It was really good. MK Kitchen in Gorham has more upscale gluten-free options. We recently ordered takeout. I had the risotto and fried brussels sprouts.
AA: One last thing. What is the BamBamBulance, and when can we expect its debut?
TC: The BamBamBulance is basically a generator on wheels. It’s not a traditional food truck because we don’t need propane or cooking abilities. It’s more like a mobile retail space. We also plan on using it for events, like mobile cupcake parties. We’re in the process of applying for the permit and hoping to launch this summer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, Brian Catapang, Kelly Nelson, Lee Farrington & Bryna Gootkind, and Jake and Raquel Stevens.
The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.