Cupcake Wars champ Doron Petersan on Sticky Fingers' Sweets

Doron Petersan is the owner of Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats shop in Washington, D.C., but folks around here know her as the vegan cupcake warrior who slayed the Food Network's Cupcake Wars and Cupcake Wars All-Stars competition, alongside Sticky Fingers' head baker Jenny Webb.

Petersan's become something of a cupcake celebrity -- such a thing is now possible, thanks to the Food Network -- and a hero of the vegan community for her steadfast refusal to use any animal products in her recipes. Tonight she's rallying like-minded locals -- including Beet Box and Vegan Van (a Westword Best of Denver 2012 winner) -- in support of her 7:30 p.m. appearance at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, where she'll be signing copies of her new cookbook, Sticky Fingers' Sweets: 100 Super-Secret Vegan Recipes.

We caught up with her to see if she'd spill some secrets in advance.

Westword: In your book you start out talking about baking science and the fact that the ingredients we normally associate with baking science -- milk, butter, eggs -- are fairly easily replaceable with vegan alternatives. How complicated does that science get? Obviously your book is an effort to simplify it and take some of the mystery out of it.

Doron Petersan: Once you understand what is happening in the interactions between various ingredients, you can apply it to other situations and applications. We don't use a lot of super-difficult forms of food science; there's all sorts of crazy stuff that you can do, but we try to keep it as simple as possible so that it's easier for us to mimic, for example, what eggs would do in a recipe, or what milk would do. Sometimes it's as simple as replacing cow's milk with soy milk or almond milk, and then in other cases it's a little more difficult when you have to think about mixing technique and baking time and cooking temperature, you know, the physicality of food science.

Why give up your super-secret tricks of the trade now?

In baking and especially in the pastry world, more so than with restaurant-style cooking or savory cuisine, there's always been this sort of proprietary baking alliance of the world, where everybody tries to keep their baking secrets close to heart because they don't want anybody to copy them. It was the same way for us when we started: We were very protective of our recipes. But I remember being frustrated when I started to have questions -- how does this work with that? how does that work with this? -- and I needed specific vegan information, and there just wasn't anybody to ask. I wanted somebody to compare notes with and ask questions of. I really feel that by creating this book, breaking down the myths and giving up the secrets, that it opens up some doors and pulls down some of those walls. There's no point in trying to promote this way of eating as being easier and enjoyable and less expensive and better for you if nobody knows how to do it! That just doesn't make any sense. So, yeah, I'm spilling some secrets. You can go almost anywhere now and find really amazing vegan or vegetarian savory food, but it's still somewhat difficult to find really good vegan baked goods. And if you can't find them at a great local bakery like Sticky Fingers, then I want you to be able to make them yourself. The basic food science behind vegan baking shouldn't be some terrifying secret.

Can you tell us a little bit about Sticky Fingers and the kitchen where most of these recipes were developed?

We're a tiny little bakery in Washington, D.C., and we used to be even tinier. I started working on the business in 1999 and we first opened our doors in 2002. We had absolutely no clue what we were doing. We just thought it would be really fun to have a bakery and we thought it was a great idea to cater to people like ourselves. When we opened the shop it was about making sure that vegan products were available, for people who were vegans or vegetarians or had food allergies, and really making sure that it tasted great, and that nothing tasted "vegan" with all the negative connotations that word had developed for some people. We got a really good response, a lot of people coming into our tiny little basement shop, and we managed to keep our doors open for six years before we moved into a bigger location. And once we did it was amazing: We doubled our gross overnight, literally opened our doors and were twice as busy. We're grateful for the support that everyone has given us and it's brought more attention to what we're doing, which is really the big picture for us: We want to make sure that people know that this is an actual, acceptable form of baking and form of foodie cuisine.

Vegans and vegetarians must be the easier sell, but you've obviously managed a broader appeal, both in your shop and on the Cupcake Wars shows.

Who we're really marketing to is open-minded foodies, people who really enjoy fun food and want to eat delicious food that doesn't taste "vegan." Just because there's no eggs or dairy in it doesn't mean it won't be the best thing you've ever tasted -- I swear! There is still some customer education that has to happen and there is that hurdle to get over, but it's getting smaller and smaller. It's an exciting time for Sticky Fingers and for vegan food in general.

What was the whole Cupcake Wars experience like for you? I imagine there was bias against you going into it.

When we were asked to be on Cupcake Wars it was terrifying. We were right in the middle of a bunch of different things: My business partner had recently decided to move on from the business and we were restructuring. I was like, "This is silly, I can't go on TV, I'm running a bakery! I'm a business owner I have no time for this television stuff!" But we went on and won, surprising everybody. For us our success came out of taking ourselves really seriously, on the one hand, doing what we do extremely well, and fine-tuning ourselves in order to be able to perform under pressure on a show like Cupcake Wars, but also not taking ourselves too seriously, on the other hand, and making sure it was fun. We were kind of tongue-in-cheek and silly about it so as not to scare everyone away.

In your shop you have some savory stuff in addition to the cupcakes and other sweets, but the new book just focuses on the desserts. Do you find that for people who are considering a vegan diet the desserts they're attached to are a sticking point to making the rest of that lifestyle commitment?

Whenever there's something that you really enjoy but you can't make it match the diet you're following or the lifestyle you're following, you just don't -- you don't give it up. People who absolutely adore sweets aren't trying to replace them with bad tasting crunchy health food sweets for the sake of being vegan because it's not the same thing. So for those folks, and there are a lot of them, we're making sure there are traditional favorites that are egg and dairy free but look and taste just like the treats that you grew up with.

Do you feel like you're making converts?

I can't say that we're changing people into vegans everyday, but I think we're definitely opening the doors to let people see that it's not something that's terrifying. You can have your cake it and eat it too, and you can find things out there that you love when you're changing your diet and trying to eat more plant-based foods. You should start by looking for foods that you enjoy anyways.

Here in Denver we have a long-running vegan bakery, a vegan pop-up market every month, a new vegan market in the works, and several vegan food trucks. It feels like a food scene that is growing here. Do you think it's happening in isolated spots, or, as you're out taking the book around, are you finding other vegan communities and vegan scenes that are growing everywhere you go?

Absolutely. I've been vegan for a pretty long time and I like to travel and meet new people, do I do make a point of seeking out vegan food and vegan scenes, if that's the right word, looking for vegan restaurants and grocery stores wherever we're traveling. In the past year it's been amazing to see how much new stuff is popping up, and especially vegan bakeries. We were in Portland last weekend and there are four vegan bakeries! And if not a standalone vegan business, just about any place you go into now has a vegan alternative.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book, something you'd recommend as a great point of entry?

My favorite recipe in the book is the coconut cake. That's very important, when you're doing the article, to mention that the coconut cake is very delicious.

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Colin Bane
Contact: Colin Bane