Vegan Wins Cupcake Wars

VegNews talks to Cupcake Wars winner Sticky Fingers Bakery and C’est La V Bakeshop for behind-the-scenes scoop.

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First, vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli won Food Network’s Cupcake Wars with her stunning Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake and Crème-filled Chocolate Orange with Candied Orange Peel cupcakes. Now, two more vegan pastry chefs—Doron Petersan from Sticky Fingers Bakery and Kim Garr of C’est La V Bakeshop—have faced off against each other and two mainstream bakers for a Cupcake Wars’ grand prize, $10,000 and the opportunity to showcase their cupcakes at a Food Network event. And the winner? Petersan took home the top prize with her winning vegan cupcakes and shares all the behind-the-scenes of her climb to the top.

Garr got her start baking at Leda’s Bakeshop in Los Angeles and convinced the owner to let her whip up a line of vegan treats. The bakeshop closed in late 2008, prompting Garr to open her own bakery in early 2009. Sticky Fingers, hailed as “Best Bakery” three years in row in Washington City Paper’s Best of DC Readers’ Picks, got its humble start in Petersan’s kitchen. After many taste tests, the bakery moved into a tiny basement shop in Washington, DC, and Petersan now runs her vegan cupcake empire from a lovely, center-of-it-all location with a dedicated team who bring sweet treats and tasty eats to the DC-area. VN caught up with these talented ladies moments after the show aired to get the inside scoop on what it takes to bake under fire.

VegNews: How did you get on Cupcake Wars?
Doron Petersan:
The show’s producers contacted us and asked us to apply. Since we had a bricks-and-mortar store and we sell online, I think that intrigued the show’s producers and gave us a little bit of an edge. When they contacted us, I wanted to do it 100 percent. In our audition video, I’m jumping around in front of the store. Our baker Jenny, my assistant on Cupcake Wars, and I showed off our personalities and lots of pictures of cupcakes.
Kim Garr: A casting assistant from Cupcake Wars called me to audition after seeing my blog. (Take a peek at Kim’s audition video.)

VN: What was it like competing on the program?
It was crazy. It’s just as crazy as when you’re watching it. When Chloe was on the show, I remember thinking, “I could never do that. That’s insane.” The competitive nature of the show is not how I normally operate. I’d rather just chat with everyone, especially when I realized Sticky Fingers was part of the competition. But I definitely felt good about being on the show.
DP: Competing was so much fun. It’s serious high energy and I loved every second of it. The clock is huge and ticking right above the tables the entire time. You can see it from everywhere you are like it’s staring down at you, heckling your every move. There is so much chaos from the other teams, to the cameras, to the judges eyeing you. It’s serious!

VN: Tell us about the ingredients they offered you and what cupcakes you made.
In the first round, you have to pick two ingredients from the options that they give you. Our episode had a comedy theme to it, so we had ingredients like canned ham and whipped cream. Half of the ingredients weren’t even vegan. The vegan items we could use were bananas, seltzer, kumquats, lima beans, and kiwi. For the first round, I decided on a coconut kiwi cupcake with lemon curd filling with coconut buttercream and fresh kiwi. I knew it would be a huge risk for me to make my own vegan lemon curd, but to me, it was an opportunity to show people that you could make a really good vegan version. I also knew there was a chance this wasn’t going to work in the 45 minutes I was allotted.
DP: We made a chocolate seltzer cake cupcake topped with ganache, banana crème frosting, and caramelized bananas for the first round and named it the Gilbert Ganache-fried.  The second round was 50 percent presentation and 50 percent flavor with the theme being the All-Star Comedy Show After Party at the infamous Ice-House Comedy Club for their 50thAnniversary. We did a ginger cupcake filled with brandy-peach filling, blueberry frosting, and topped it with a talking blueberry including a word bubble made from fondant. This cupcake was named the Blueb Sagget in honor of the working blue comics we love so much. Next, was the signature-drink cupcake for the night—a vanilla cupcake filled with kiwi-curd, topped with strawberry frosting and garnished with a strawberry filled with a shot of rum. Lastly (and our personal favorite) was the star of the evening, the George Caramelin. It was a chocolate cinnamon cupcake, filled with bourbon caramel, topped with bourbon vanilla frosting, more bourbon caramel, candied pecans, and a fondant gold star and the number ‘50’ to signify the 50th anniversary. The idea of naming the cupcakes made us laugh out loud. We decided to stick with it in hopes the judges would get it and giggle too.

VN: With the clock ticking, how did you keep calm under pressure?
I didn’t. I was yelling, moving as quickly as possible, dropping stuff. It was a total mess in our kitchen. I had serious adrenaline the entire time.
KG: I don’t know that I totally did! Making a cupcake, filling, and frosting under 45 minutes is not your typical or ideal baking scenario. Honestly, there’s so little time you can’t really think about it. You just have to keep moving.

VN: What do you think the perception is now of vegan bakeries post-show?
When Chloe was on the show, it was huge. Now there’s an episode with two vegan bakers. We’re exposing people to the vegan lifestyle. I hope it makes people curious and piques their interest and that it starts changing the way people look at food. If people are curious, now they can try vegan cupcakes just by ordering them.
DP: I think we are getting there and definitely making our mark. It’s not a coincidence that two vegan bakers have won the show. In another episode this season, a non-vegan team included a vegan cupcake in their spread! Even professional bakers are realizing that vegan baking methods can hold their own in the mainstream baking world, which has, up until now, been ruled by eggs and butter. Those aren’t the only two ingredients you can use in baking that taste great, or that give you the results you desire. It’s now two seasons in a row where dairy and eggs took a back seat to healthier and tastier alternatives. And what about creativity? Thinking on the spot and coming up with tasty combos while quick on your feet is nothing new for us vegan bakers. We’ve been doing this for years!

VN: Tell us what it was like for you on the show from start to finish. Was it nerve-wracking? Exhilarating? Thrilling?
All of the above! Walking into the room in front of the judges made me weak in the knees. I was smiling so wide my face hurt, and then we started baking. Everything after round one is a blur! I seriously don’t remember much of anything other than the clock and the cupcakes. During round two when Jenny set our peach filling on fire, I shouted, “Put it out before you burn it! There isn’t time to make it again!” You know it’s stressful when your biggest concern in a fire is burning the peaches. Manners go out the window. We were at war to prove that the vegans could win, again. Our bakery is busy. We’ve had some seriously crazy days with more orders than we could keep up with, but this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This was my first time making 1,000 cupcakes in less than two hours, designing and building a display, and training four new bakers what you wanted them to do as they were doing it. There was a point where I wanted everyone to stop baking and count to make sure we had enough cupcakes. Jenny had to scream in my face, “just keep going,” to bring me back to reality. It worked. Our years of hard work both testing the recipes and the waters paid off. I’m proud of what we have accomplished but even more excited about where veganism is today. I can only hope that vegan fare gaining acceptance in the culinary, gastronomy, and pastry worlds can mean better things for the animals.

VN: How did competing on Cupcake Wars elevate your skills as a baker?
It was a shot in the arm for me. I had to be willing to share my recipes so I had to really work on different flavor combinations. The show got me in the mindset for getting more creative, and now I’m excited to make new flavors for my customers. It also gave me the courage to work on cakes. As a kid, I dropped my dad’s birthday cake—so I had a thing about cakes. After the show, it pushed me to try cakes again.
DP: It upped the game for sure and inspired us to dig into our recipes and get more from them. Really, I think we just saw other baker’s flavors on the show and combos and thought, “I want to eat that.” Hunger is the only motivation we need to come up with new, exciting desserts. Last week Jenny made a ginger coconut cupcake that was insane. I now have a renewed love affair with everything coconut and can’t find enough combos to curb my desire. Being on the show made us take a look at what we do and how, and has given us the confidence to go bigger and better.

VN: Any advice for vegan bakers who want to audition for Cupcake Wars?
When you make an audition video, the more you are yourself and let your personality show, the better. I’m not into food coloring, glitter, or decorations. I want my food to look like food, so I use organic, all-natural ingredients. It was important to me that I go on and do what I do, confidently. Do your best. You can feel positive about the fact that you did your own thing. Also, get ready because it is a crazy, but great, learning experience.
DP: Bring everything you have to the table. The competition is fierce and the judging, even more-so. Florian Bellanger and Candace Nelson are the cupcake aficionados. Create flavors to knock their socks off and keep the creativity high to keep them on their toes and wanting more. That is the secret to success on Cupcake Wars.

VN: What baking tips do you have for home bakers to make delicious cupcakes like yours?
First of all, don’t be afraid. You’re just using different versions of sugar, fat, flour, and binding ingredients. Let go and just try it. It took me a long time to be comfortable with failure in the kitchen. I’m a real perfectionist so I’d test a recipe and be upset if it didn’t work. I finally got to a point where it’s not a big deal any more. It may take a couple of tries so don’t be hard on yourself. There are so many great cookbooks out there, like Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. There are plenty of resources for vegan baking.
DP: Work backwards! Decide what you want your end result to be and go from there. Too often the flavors and combinations of ingredients can get tangled together, fighting for your palate. Think about the textures and flavors you want in your sweet-treat. Fluffy and light, go for baking powder and egg replacer as your leveners rather than baking soda and vinegar. Baking soda and vinegar work great with chocolate cake but can overpower your lighter flavors like vanilla and coconut. Learn from our mistakes and use them to your advantage. Using coconut milk or cocoa butter in ganache will result in a smoother product. Soymilk absorbs lots of water and in our case, pulled any and all liquid from our ganache in round one causing it to dry too fast. No one wants sludge-like ganache!

Hungry for cupcakes now? Whip up a batch of Doron Petersan’s Chocolate Seltzer Cupcakes or Kim Garr’s delicious Coconut Kiwi Cupcakes.

Want more inside scoop on Doron and Kim’s experience on Cupcake Wars? Join the VegNews Twitter Chat Wednesday, March 9 at 6pm PT to meet these TV culinary stars!