By Vic Dolcourt
Lila Akhzar Latture of Lilajay’s cookies not only has a local following near her Cotati home in Sonoma County, California, but a large following on the East Coast. I interviewed Lila in June after spotting a reference to her cookies on a New York website and being surprised that a local gluten-free baker unfamiliar to me was being lauded 3,000 miles away.
It all starts with family
“I’ve baked since I was eight,” Lila related. “When I was a young adult my little brother was found to be gluten-intolerant. It runs in the family, and I have it, too. So to keep him from eating sweets with unhealthy ingredients I decided to bake for him. This was in the ‘90’s when there were very few gluten-free baked goods in stores. As a wheat flour baker it was almost intimidating to work with what I thought were really strange flours. But over the years I’ve developed my own gluten-free flour mixes and pretty much baked only for friends and family. After a while, Jay (my husband who’s first word was actually “cookie”) convinced me to share my baking with the public – people had to know simple healthy ingredients can taste great! So we went into business. We sell our cookies only through the Internet.”
“Lilajay cookies taste so good because I use only the best quality and freshest gluten-free ingredients, preferably organic. If I can’t source an organic ingredient then it must be GMO-free like the fair trade Guittard chocolate or the Bob’s Red Mill flours we use. I make my own sugar sprinkles because I want to use only natural and healthful vegetable colorings and not the artificial ones,” said Lila. “We’ve developed a following in the five years that Lilajay’s has been in business. It is nice to be mentioned by a New Yorker since New York has its share of amazing bakeries, and it’s also a big foodie hub.” Lila said that the bakery uses bean flours, whole grains, nuts and only the necessary amount of starches to make the cookies work. “Although we manufacture in shared facilities, we adhere to FDA requirements and rigorously use good manufacturing processes to ensure our cookies are wholesome and gluten-free,” Lila related.
Lila custom bakes small batches of exceptionally crafted cookies and brownies that are dispatched to arrive fresh. Lila said, “We want our customers to enjoy the fresh taste of organic Sonoma County butter and the goodness of organic free-range eggs. Since we don’t use any preservatives, we enclose a suggestion card in each order urging our customers refrigerate them and eat them within a week.” My box of cookies came quickly by mail and contained cookies sealed in clear envelopes. Certainly, that keeps the cookies fresher.
“O’Reallyz are one of our most popular cookies. They got their name while we were at a food exhibition in San Francisco. Jay, who has sales instincts, explained to people who came by our table that although the cookies were gluten free they tasted just as good or even better than normal cookies. As you might guess, he was met with a great deal of ‘Oh, reallys?’ from attendees. The reactions of joy and disbelief after trying the cookies were priceless. Instantly the name O’Reallyz was born. The O’Reallyz chocolate sandwich cookie comes four different ways: Original has a chocolate cookie with vanilla dream filling. We also dip original O’Reallyz in chocolate or white chocolate. The fourth variety, reminiscent of a peanut butter cup, is a chocolate cookie with a peanut butter filling.”
“Sugar Mamaz are vanilla-bean, butter cookies with our own organic sugar sprinkles,” said Lila. “These are dedicated to the hard-working mamas everywhere. In addition, I bake chocolate chip cookies, and LJ Thins, which are a thin, crunchy yet chewy cookie with chocolate sprinkles. Lastly, I bake brownies and sell them as is, dipped in white chocolate or dipped dark chocolate.” I thought the brownies were particularly adult–very chocolaty with just enough sweetness to counterbalance the chocolate.
Where to buy Lilajay’s
Lila said that about 60% of the bakery’s business is out-of-state. A number of these orders come through Goldbely, a curated marketplace that explores food, or are referred to Lilajay’s website by Gluten Free, Follow Me, a New York-based website that is a gluten-free food seeker’s delight. The other 40% of the orders are divided pretty evenly between Northern and Southern California. Lilajay has a limited-time offer on its website for free shipping for California orders.
I asked if Lilajay’s has plans to sell in supermarkets. Lila said, “Perhaps if I could find the time for that big a production. However, I like keeping my offerings somewhat limited. It is important that family time comes first. I want to make sure both the cookies and my family get the attention they deserve. I cannot compromise fresh and tasty just to get more distribution. I am passionate about baking, and I want my customers to enjoy what they are eating and to know that real food from simple ingredients with a great deal of love can taste delicious and be good for you. That’s my mission.”
Lila has other cookie favorites that she is working on, but they aren’t quite ready for the spotlight. When they are, you’ll see an announcement on the Lilajay’s website, Instagram account and Facebook page. We can’t wait!