A two-time Cupcake Wars winner on the chemistry of vegan baking

Melissa Nyman

Doron Petersan, of Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats and author of Sticky Fingers' Sweets, is a vegan baker who won Cupcake Wars -- twice. Rebecca Sheir, host of Metro Connection, quizzes Petersan about food science, winning Cupcake Wars and the two vegan products she is still trying to perfect.

Rebecca Sheir: The number of vegan restaurants and bakeries is steadily on the rise, but many people may still resist or just outright dismiss the idea that cooking or baking without animal products can lead to something that actually tastes good. How do you explain to people that vegan baking can indeed be delicious?

Doron Petersan: I always talk about the science behind baking and how food science is food science. It's not necessarily about the individual ingredients, but it's about the chemistry behind them. There are wonderful qualities to an egg, but there's a reason why it does what it does. If you can find other ways to get to your end product without using those animal products, then it's going to be the same process and the same chemistry. I explain that a little bit in our baking book, how we get there and how we work our recipes backward. We'll take a muffin and we know the texture that we really like and the flavors that we want, and we work backward from there using some of the concepts, techniques and the ways that we've come up with those textures and flavors.

RS: So, for instance, the egg. The egg does what?

DP: Everything.

RS: It makes things fluffy, it does some emulsification. So how do you go about tweaking that in a vegan way to achieve the same results?

DP: Over the years, we've experimented a lot. And I did not invent baking without using eggs; there were some recipes out there that I could look to and see how they came up with their end product and how they were getting there. There are quite a few older recipes from the 1940s and 1950s where they didn't use eggs and animal products because they were rationed, and even before then, during World War II. It was really easy to find recipes that didn't use eggs in the baking; we've taken those recipes and worked off of them.

We use a chocolate cake recipe that uses baking soda and vinegar, and the tricky part there is making sure that your flavors are strong enough that you don't taste baking soda and vinegar. So you have to know how to move away from those flavors that you don't want and pick up the ones you do.

RS: When it comes to baking vegan, what is the hardest thing to duplicate -- the hardest animal product that you then have to turn into vegan?

DP: That's such a mean question. There are two products that we are constantly working on, that we've never gotten to the point where we absolutely love them and will serve them to anyone other than us. One is whipped cream; stable whipped cream is really difficult. We can get a really great delicious whipped cream and then after about 10 minutes it starts to fall apart. The other thing is pate a choux eclairs. It's torture. It never comes out as good as we remember -- it is the bane of our existence, and we will never stop trying.

RS: One of your big forays into the mainstream was your appearance on Cupcake Wars. You actually had two wins on the show: first on a regular episode and then on the all-stars edition. When you received the call to first go on the show, were you surprised that they had selected you, a vegan baker from D.C.?

DP: No. We think of ourselves as a bakery that happens to be vegan, so I think in a mainstream way every day. I don't think of myself, "Well, we can get away with this because we're vegan," or "It's OK if this is this way because we're vegan." No. Everything has to be great and everything has to just be stellar. We have to be better than everybody else in order to be associated with the people that are maybe not as good as our products. Because it is vegan, there is still that little bit of fear that people might have.

So when they called me I was like, "I don't want to do it. That sounds crazy. I'm running a shop here. We have stuff to do. We have orders to fill. That's nuts. No way." Then I had watched the show and got a little bit of anxiety and also just got excited; I like the competition, I thought it would be fun. So Jenny Webb, our head baker, and I shuttled off to Los Angeles and we won. And then we had to keep it secret for 3 months.

RS: That's the beauty of reality TV.

DP: Totally, that was the worst part. And then we did go back again and did not win the horrible second time that we went. But then we were invited back again on an all-star show and we were dead serious. We did not smile once on that episode and we won. That, for us, was really the proof in the pudding, as they say.

 

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