When Baruch Ellsworth enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he couldn’t have known he’d eventually end up running a fully vegan pastry program in Healdsburg someday. Nevertheless, after a career working at restaurants including Campton Place, the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco under Ron Siegel, Seattle’s Canlis, and three-Michelin-starred Benu and SingleThread, he now finds himself dealing in dishes made sans animal products. At Little Saint, he’s the executive pastry chef behind a 100 percent vegan menu, yet Ellsworth says throughout his career, most people in the kitchens where he worked were not making food — and certainly not desserts — with plant-eaters in mind. “When someone came to us with a dietary restriction as vegetarian or vegan, the chef would be like, ‘What the hell is a vegan?’” Ellsworth says.
Ellsworth says his interest in vegan desserts comes from a desire to make sure his friends and family who opt away from ominvorism feel included. As a chef, though, he’s passionate about making sure non-vegans walk away wondering how a cake, tart, or cookie was just as good as a classically made dessert. Ellsworth has found the task of baking vegan pastries even more complicated by the animal products sometimes buried in ingredients typically thought of as vegan-friendly. For example, bone char is often used to refine commodity-grade sugar, meaning it’s not always vegan. Finding reliable substitutes for eggs, butter, and milk is the easy part in comparison to determining what techniques will allow vegan pastries to match up structurally to classics, but Ellsworth relishes the challenge. “My whole underlying goal here is to make the guests walk away saying ‘I can’t believe that’s vegan,’” he says.
Take the tangy buttercream icing Ellsworth uses to top carrot cake cupcakes. It relies on a combination of aquafaba — the bean run-off that’s a much-beloved ingredient in the plant-based community for its egg-like binding properties — sugar, cream of tartar, and xanthan gum to fully replicate egg’s capabilities. Since Little Saint pumps out so much hummus, chickpea aquafaba can be upcycled for the cookies for the next day. The entire process still relies on vegan alternative products, such as Vör aquafaba powder; this synthesis of made-in-house and purchased ingredients is the backbone of Little Saint’s desserts.
When it comes to other pastries on the menu, including the hazelnut pain au chocolat, the taste is just as important as the physical shape. The low-moisture content alternative butter Violife achieves similar lamination to the European butter used in classic croissants. Chocolate sourcing that’s sustainable and ethical — in addition to vegan — is also key. Ellsworth opts for Valhrona and Tcho, which recently went fully vegan, as the companies provide more than just the naturally vegan dark chocolate. That means all the chocolate in the restaurant’s hazelnut pain au chocolat and chocolate babka maintain the lighter, sweeter flavor profile of its non-vegan counterparts. For the chocolate tart, Ellsworth banks on a decadent ganache of mostly plant-based heavy cream and dark chocolate with dashes of agave syrup and salt. The tart shell itself uses a whole pound of “butter.” For heavy cream, dark chocolate, and butter, Ellsworth subs in alternatives from Minor Figures and Just Egg.
While all of the morning pastries and bakery case items are available all day, the restaurant also serves a litany of desserts that are ephemeral, plated vegan courses, too. At Second Story, the restaurant within a restaurant on the second floor of the building, Ellsworth gets a chance to make meltable, perishable, more experimental desserts often featuring seasonal fruits. Mousse, ice cream, and riffs on that chocolate tart are all items that may rotate through the plated multi-course menu. “If it’s a perfect peach,” Ellsworth says. “We’re going to highlight it. We don’t want puddles of chocolate foam.”
Such experimental recipes come from Ellsworth and the whole baking team including head baker Lorette Patzwald who formerly headed up Flying Goat Coffee. The team makes traditional buttercreams but opts for plant-based butter or whips up a cashew cream cheese replication. He’d kick himself not to mention the maple glazed doughnuts, too. The sourdough starter that feeds the enriched dough supplements ingredients including candy cap mushrooms creating delightful balance. But it was hard-won: At first, achieving the desired glazing consistency and temperature with plant-based ingredients was challenging. Focusing on the proper ratio of liquid to dry ingredients and consistency led to the product Ellsworth’s selling today. “They’re tremendous,” he says.
Vegans and vegetarians don’t need to be sold on new vegan restaurants, as they’re usually in the know, Ellsworth says. Instead, this robust menu, from morning peanut butter gianduja cookies to evening chocolate tarts, is for all the trepidatious diners looking to get a taste of the plant-based life. “I’m not creating vegan food. I’m not creating health food,” Ellsworth says. “I’m creating from what I have. And everything is rooted in the tenants of pâtisserie.”
Little Saint is open Thursday through Monday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 25 North Street, Healdbsurg