Did you hear? Dominique Ansel introduced his first vegan Cronut.
Ansel announced the one-weekend-only special on September 20, the day before its limited drop, in an Instagram post marked #ad. The Huckleberry Hound-colored rice pudding inside the pastry was brought to us by Upward SW 6239, a hue that paint conglomerate Sherwin-Williams deemed its 2024 Color of the Year. In the words of the paint company’s “director of color marketing,” it represents “the gentle forward momentum in all of our lives.” (In official speak, Ansel was “inspired” by this paint — “inspired” being a “gentle forward” way of saying “sponsored.”)
Ansel wrote that the new placid tone led him to dream a dream of “making the first-ever vegan version of the Cronut®” — 10 years after the trademarked pastry was first introduced. (He used the ® twice in the announcement; once for the Cronut, once for Sherwin-Williams.) “We were so excited at the results and how we could push forward with entirely new techniques, flavors, and ingredients,” he wrote.
You would have thought no one had ever tried to make a vegan pastry before. Still, let’s give it up for Dominique Ansel and this major crossover event. When we look back in a few years at the vegan eclairs available at every pastry shop and wonder, When did the VC-funded normalization of vegan pastry start? this might be the answer. Because until rather recently, some might have said vegan pastry was the final culinary frontier, and butterless croissants (or their hybrids) a seeming impossibility — or paradox.
Try to imagine baking something you love — a cupcake or a babka, maybe — without butter, dairy, or eggs. It probably presents as an unsolvable logic puzzle. It’s not just that those ingredients have defined what we think of as patisserie in the French sense, which is the foundation on which Western pastry is built. It’s that they’ve done so because they provide not only structure for most of our desserts and baked goods, but also what we identify as the flavor or texture. For instance, we describe things as “buttery” or “creamy” or “custardy.”
So how could you possibly have a croissant without butter? A panna cotta without milk? A custard tart without eggs? And if you could, would they still count as themselves?
Incredibly enough, in the last two decades, talented chefs have been proving that desserts without dairy indeed not only count, but also measure up and sometimes surpass our ingrained platonic pastry ideals. The practitioners who have dedicated themselves to this micro-discipline may be outliers, but they’re responsible for the most significant culinary advances we’ve seen since people like chef Ferran Adrià and physical chemist Hervé This blew our minds with their studies of cooking on the molecular level, applying knowledge of chemical compounds and reactions to culinary processes.
Jen Yee, the founder of Bakers Bench in Los Angeles, who handled all the viennoiserie for Konbi, Craftsmen and Wolves, Bouchon Bakery, and The French Laundry before that, was quoted as saying as much in a story for the Vegetarian Times: “I would personally argue that since El Bulli [put molecular gastronomy on the map] in the ’90s, and other chefs caught on after they published their book in the early 2000s, food technique hasn’t really changed,” she told the outlet.
Yes, she was talking about vegan cooking in general, but it wouldn’t be so outlandish to say that baking is the most active site of innovation in vegan gastronomy. It’s not like the savory side, where for many cultures around the world pre-colonization, cooking without dairy or eggs was the norm. Pastry as we know it (i.e., the mastered culinary art of confectionery, breads, viennoiserie, and composed desserts) is a Western phenomenon. There isn’t really another precedent to draw on for inspiration when veganizing it. And aside from a handful of cookbooks or trusted blogs geared to the folks at home, there’s not much out there to offer bakers, no universal vegan pastry guide or recipes to work from.
There’s an exciting upside to this. Without a standardized rule book to follow, people who want to do vegan pastry get to figure out a lot of stuff for themselves. As Alicia Kennedy, culinary cultural critic and author of No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, describes it, “There’s that vibe of, We’re just trying something. I think it’s so essential to vegan food ... they’re trying to do the food everyone loves, but better. It is a way to create a cuisine.”
Kennedy points to several places representative of this adventurously experimental ethos. At the vegetarian diner Superiority Burger in New York City, some of the food, like Darcy Spence’s new and already-famous coconut cake, is “accidentally vegan”; at Pietramala in Philly, Jeremy Hrycko comes up with inventions like his chocolate-adjacent “corn amino.” But it’s at small, local bakeries, from San & Wolves Bakeshop in Long Beach, California, and Just What I Kneaded in LA to Terms of Endearment in Brooklyn and Peaceful Provisions in Beacon, New York, where you’ll find people making strides in areas previously thought impossible.
“We felt like we could be more creative,” says Jen Evans, lead baker at vegan Little Loaf Bakeshop in Poughkeepsie, New York, where you get the sense that she and her boss, head baker Colleen Orlando, could probably make their peanut butter pretzel croissants or pesto-feta danishes with one hand tied behind their backs. “We could kind of throw the rules out the window. We could, you know, do things our own way.”
Without a codified prescription for getting from point A to point B, when it comes to making, say, an opera cake, everyone comes up with different paths. They use different ingredients, and those ingredients require different techniques. For a practice that relies on ratios, that means not reinventing the wheel but entirely changing the way you build it: You must revamp each step in the construction of a croissant to get a result that still resembles a croissant.
This is where molecular gastronomy becomes directly applicable. If you can’t use eggs but you want to achieve the same reaction eggs have in a recipe, you have to ask yourself, What makes an egg an egg? You’re looking at the chemical composition of the most basic ingredients; it’s molecular-level stuff.
“I’ve trained myself to think, Salt and fat and sugar make really tasty pastry … and really, pastry is just a combination of those things and sometimes flour,” Hrycko says. He was a savory chef in his past life and still likes “getting weird with goos and textural breakdowns.” He finds the “whole gastro thing” particularly apposite here because, in his opinion, “Vegan pastry requires a lot of that snuck in there, or things don’t work.”
Hrycko’s engaging in both the practical (the goos) and theoretical (textural breakdowns) aspects of molecular gastronomy. But for pastry chefs like Yee or Philip Khoury, who oversees the massive pastry department at Harrods in London, vegan baking is more about the fundamental principle than it is the style with which we’ve come to associate that type of cuisine. Since writing A New Way to Bake: Re-Imagined Recipes for Plant-Based Cakes, Bakes and Desserts for the home cook, Khoury has moved away from the commercial, incidentally plant-based stabilizers or “goos” of Hyrcko’s toolkit toward accessible pantry staples that already happen to be vegan.
In that cookbook, Khoury rebuilds recipes to accommodate readily available products. He offers up his pound cake as “one very specific example of unlocking the functionality of ingredients through reformulation” and explains how he reconfigures the rote ratio of the classic recipe, which is 1:1:1:1 — equal parts sugar, eggs, butter, and flour. This is the formula pastry chefs rely on for the traditional spongy texture of most pound cakes. It works because hydrated flour will behave the way it’s inclined to when you cook it: It gels and creates a tough structure, Khoury says. Eggs do something similar. The butter becomes necessary because you need fat “to shorten the texture and make it softer, and tenderize the product,” he says. Jettison the egg, which is mostly water, and the whole thing gets thrown off. There’s no liquid to hydrate your flour, and you lose a gelling agent. The vegan fix would be to replace it with water or a plant-based milk, but when you do that, as Khoury discovered, you have to reduce the fat by 60 percent “to allow the flour to do its thing. Otherwise you’d end up with a texture that either falls apart or is really dense.”
In short, he says, “You have to readjust the whole formula,” or, really, come up with a new one.
Of course, as you remove or replace ingredients, the quality of the ones you rely on becomes of greater import, which was something of a problem up until around 10 years ago.
“We have easy access to better spices, whether it’s Diaspora or Burlap & Barrel, [and] better flour,” Kennedy says. “Everything that makes everything else better also makes vegan baking better.” And that’s great, but if you’ve got a lousy butter or dairy replacement, especially in recipes like those for Khoury’s pound cake or Yee’s kouign amann, your excellent cinnamon isn’t going to save you.
Fortunately, the range and caliber of vegan milks and (to a lesser degree) butter have also shifted for the better, Kennedy notes, because the collective understanding of the composition and optimization of these products has improved.
“Those are where I’ve seen the big advances,” she says. It’s eggs that continue to elude even the canniest pastry workers.
When aquafaba, the cast-off sludge of soaked chickpeas, arrived on the scene, many of them believed it was the second coming. Alas, it’s proven a false prophet.
“I hate aquafaba,” Khoury says. “It serves a purpose. But this idea that you can put aquafaba into everything as this magic egg replacer is completely false. It shares absolutely no similarities to eggs or egg whites, except for the fact that it is mysteriously good at helping with emulsions. And it does foam, but it doesn’t gel; it doesn’t have any of the features that we commonly associate with egg whites.”
Dissatisfied with the vegan replacements that were available, some bakers opted to make their own from scratch. Khoury has as much distaste for aquafaba as he does for what he refers to as “margarine,” or vegan margarine that is interchangeable with vegan butter. He won’t use it at all. He hated it before he switched over to the plant-based side, so why would he start using them now? Instead, he’s formulated a couple of successful alternatives — one a combination of chia butter, cacao butter, and coconut oil processed at the same temperature but “with better-quality ingredients,” and another with almond paste, a carrot-derived product for coloring and a form of nutritional yeast, that “tasted fantastic.”
Over in Kingston, New York, Maresa Volante has been mixing her own butter since she established her bakery, Sweet Maresa’s, in 2011, when options for vegan commercial baking ingredients were still extremely limited and uninspiring. DIY butter was more economically viable and allowed her to create the kinds of desserts that weren’t available to vegans — pistachio-cardamom crumb cakes, Earl Grey shortbread, tarts with frangipane and cherries or chocolate ganache and hazelnuts.
“The butter situation is probably the toughest thing,” Volante says, 12 years in. “We make all our own butter for all that. It’s a huge undertaking. We have a machine we use almost exclusively for that. It’s a 10-quart food processor ... and then it’s just somebody’s dedicated job for a whole day a week.”
When Kennedy’s bakery was up and running, she too made her own from-scratch “baking fat,” as she calls it, using a combination of coconut oil and coconut milk. It was cost efficient and gave her more control over her final products.
“That’s one of the cool things about vegan baking,” Kennedy says. “You get to control things that a traditional baker would never think about controlling because it’s so normal for butter to taste like the flavor of butter. The flavor of butter is the flavor of butter, and you don’t think about it, whereas with vegan baking, you have to.”
This results in two things that are also pretty cool about vegan baking. The first benefit is that you can showcase your featured ingredients or produce, whether that’s chocolate or fennel pollen or fresh figs in season, because the flavor of butter or eggs or even cow’s milk isn’t getting in the way. The second benefit is that vegan bakers are able to hone truly distinct styles. If each person’s butter is unique, not just in flavor but also in composition, their baked goods are going to taste equally unique; they’ll have notably different crumb structures and textures. People often throw around the word “signature” to describe a person’s cooking or even a standout dish. But nowhere is that term more apt than here.
Kennedy singles out Volante for exactly this.
“When you see someone like Maresa, she’s doing these things,” she says. “They’re replicating something, but she’s using really interesting techniques that no one would have used a while ago. It’s not about nailing a flavor or a texture. It’s about getting somewhere new in terms of what is possible.”
Volante doesn’t always go for the obvious comfort baked goods of nostalgic Americana, which has been the tendency of many of her peers. But even when she does her classic chocolate chip walnut cookie or, more recently, a white chocolate macadamia cookie, they taste distinctly like her own. A lot of this has to do with her butter and the way she thought about making it. “It’s pretty flavorful, and it’s salted,” she says.
It’s not the only thing that distinguishes the DNA of Sweet Maresa’s products, but it’s a huge part of it. Were she to try making the same things with another vegan butter, one she bought off the shelf or that another baker formulated, it wouldn’t come out the same; they might fail. It happened to Yee. After she switched the brand of vegan butter she uses in her croissants, they started “coming out weird,” she says. The replacement had a different fat content than its predecessor, and it screwed up the entire recipe. But if another baker had developed their recipe using Yee’s alternate choice, their croissants probably wouldn’t come out weird at all — unless they switched brands too.
Although still in a free-for-all state of development, the butter scene has improved significantly since the desultory Earth-Balance-or-bust era when, according to Ashton Warren, who headed up the Fragile Flour bake shop in New York City’s East Village and now operates a custom business, “Vegan butter was all vegetable oil.” (That refined palm oil-based, margarine-like product is still available at supermarkets and often the only option, but its saltiness and bitter aftertaste make it a poor choice for pastry work.) Kennedy mentions Miyoko’s European-style cultured vegan butter and says she only wishes it had existed when she was operating her own vegan bakery 11 years ago. Named for its creator, Miyoko Schinner, it entered the market in 2014 and for a long time was available in limited quantities at specialty stores around the country. Early in 2023, Schinner was removed as CEO of her own company, which as of 2021 had received an influx of $52 million in funding and embarked on an ambitious growth plan. Miyoko’s is sold at Target and Walmart these days, a sign of its corporatized success.
Warren is a fan of Violife, which also produces a range of products and is available at Target and Walmart. And at Mah-Ze-Dahr, a bakery with locations in New York City and the Washington, D.C., area, founder Umber Ahmad is releasing her first vegan product — a non-dairy adaptation of her “Devil in Ganache” layer cake. She formulated it using Country Crock’s Plant Butter with Olive Oil, which combines palm-derived canola oil and olive oil.
“It has a real creaminess to it, and boosts the flavor note of chocolate similar to butter,” Ahmad said in an email. “I started developing this recipe while in Missouri at my uncle’s funeral, so I used what I could find at the supermarket (hence the Country Crock).” She plans to shift to a brand called Flora, which makes a similar product for professional use and is distributed by the company behind Violife, but she’s keeping her options open.
But what if everyone used the same butter from the start? You might begin to see some uniformity. It would certainly allow more pastry chefs, including professionals like Ansel who aren’t steeped in the ways of vegan baking, to produce a wider range of dairy- and egg-free sweets, but it might come at the expense of the individuality that allows people like Volante to do what she does.
No matter how exceptional the product may be, things could start to get boring. Recipes could be standardized, a canon or hierarchy of techniques imposed. On the one hand, it would level the playing field. On the other, well, it would level the playing field.
We’re not there yet, but we may be on the way. In July, Susannah Schoolman launched Tourlami, a company that produces premium-quality vegan ingredients for professional pastry chefs and bakers, beginning with butter that, unlike those shunned by Khoury and used by others for lack of alternatives, isn’t made with palm oil. A pastry chef who helped open Belinda Leong’s B. Patisserie and B. on the Go in San Francisco and Richard Hart’s Bageri in Copenhagen, Denmark, among others, Schoolman started noticing a confluence of developments once she adopted a vegan diet seven years ago. First, the “explosion of plant-based foods in grocery stores.” Second, the gap between the reality that roughly 68 percent of the global population are lactose intolerant and what restaurants continue to offer their diners. Third, people “became a lot more mindful of their well-being and what they were eating” during COVID-19, she says. Fourth, the pandemic has also forced restaurants to figure out how to get more people in the door.
Enter Schoolman and her two vegan butters: the Premium for all your laminating and pie-crust needs, and the All-Purpose for your chocolate chip cookies or the buttercream on your cakes. Her thinking is similar to that of Impossible Meats. Although her butters aren’t born in a lab and are cocoa butter-based (which makes them more stable than their palm oil-based counterparts and, due to their high fat content, removes the need for egg replacements in some recipes), like that fake-meat company, her focus is on restaurants and not vegan restaurants.
“I want everybody to use this butter,” Schoolman says. “I think everyone can benefit from having it — any bakery, any restaurant, any hotel. There are so many restaurants that could benefit from having a plant-based dish or two or three on their menu. It also opens up a revenue stream. We don’t want to say it’s about the bottom line, but it is.” And like Team Impossible, Schoolman has venture capital backing to get the job done.
So far, she’s been making the rounds in New York and Southern California. Early clients include Eleven Madison Park and Win Son, which is planning to put some related items on its menu. Superiority Burger has expressed interest, as well. She isn’t ignoring bakeries; Nick + Sons is on board, for one, as is Maman and, but of course, Ansel, who used Schoolman’s butter in his paint-backed Cronut.
Schoolman is approaching vegan bakeries, too. She didn’t do so initially because she assumed they’d already developed their recipes with whatever vegan butter they’d chosen and wouldn’t be so keen on reconfiguring them to accommodate a new product, no matter how good. They’re simply not her primary target.
She’s just getting started, and she may have been first to market, but it’s inevitable that others will follow, manufacturing better or more diversified vegan butters and whatever else at varied price points for professional use and, eventually, home bakers.
Today, it’s the Cronut. Tomorrow, a croissant at every Starbucks. Progress — or “gentle forward momentum,” as they say — comes with a price.
Charlotte Druckman is a New York-based journalist and author.
Cole Wilson is a photographer residing between Brooklyn and Hudson Valley, New York. He is an enthusiast of all things food and beverage, and owns too many mugs.