UPPER EAST SIDE — As the mother of a teenager diagnosed with Celiac disease, Denise Cumming would have done anything to make her daughter's life a piece of cake.
As an adolescent, her daughter Olivia was often denied birthday party cakes, after-school pizza or other snacks with friends because of the disease, which is an allergy to gluten, a protein compound found in most products made with barley, wheat or rye.
At home, Cumming always made specialty baked goods for her daughter. Now, she is aiming to make life a little bit sweeter for other New York kids like Olivia with her new gluten-free "cakery" Pip's Place, which opened its doors Thursday on First Avenue between 89th and 90th streets.
"Food is such a social thing," Cumming, 45, said. "It's so sad for a child [with Celiac] to go to a party and not be able to enjoy the food. I'm hoping to make them feel normal."
Cumming says that Pip's Place, (christened after her daughter's nickname, "Pippi") is the first bakery on the Upper East Side to offer goodies like chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, carrot date muffins, pecan sticky buns and chocolate chip cookies made out of entirely gluten-free ingredients.
The baked goods, which range from $4 for a piece of cake to $1.25 for a cookie, are made out of a special flour blend that she created by experimenting with ingredients at home.
Using a combination of white and brown rice flour, potato starch, potato flour, corn starch, and the ingredients teff and sorghum, Cumming says she has created a light and fluffy blend that she calls "aire," which is virtually indistinguishable from "normal" flour used to make cakes, cookies and brownies.
Cummuing said the existing prepackaged gluten free baked goods found in health food stores in the neighborhood are often less than appealing to discriminating palates of all ages.
"The store-bought gluten-free treats taste like sand," she said. "Plus, they're full of fat and sugar."
At Pip's Place's grand opening Thursday, kids from local schools piled in during their lunch break to try goodies like chocolate cake and caramel treats.
Nearly 130 kids and adults piled into the store by 2 p.m., and Cumming said she expected to sell out before the day was over.
Kids like Upper East Side resident Lola Freidenstine, 11, swore that the treats tasted just as normal as if they came from any other bakery.
"I've tried the cookies, and they're so good," Freidenstine said. "I really can't tell the difference."
Tennis player and Chapin student Jane Stewart, 18, had yet to sample the goods, but said that she was excited to sample her chocolate cupcake.
"I'm gluten free, and I'm always looking for good gluten-free products," Stewart said about the dietary choice she made voluntarily nearly six months ago.
"It's a lot harder to find baked goods that are gluten-free than it is to find other gluten-free products, because they require a lot of special ingredients," she added, saying her diet choice had kept her from enjoying a cupcake "in a very long time."
For Stewart, eating a gluten-free diet means more energy, healthy weight loss and a better ability to perform during sports.
Cummings says she understands the choice, especially after watching her daughter devour her treats for the past five years, and ridding her of gluten-induced symptoms like stomach cramps and fatigue.
"It's not even a diet. It's an entire way of life," Cumming said. "But I was inspired to open it for kids like her. Because everyone needs a cookie, right?"