Always a pet lover, she began volunteering first with a veterinarian and then with an animal shelter and control agency.
After work one day, she sat down to eat a turkey sandwich. But she couldn’t take a bite. She’d just assisted with a surgery on an injured dog, and the meat looked too similar to the dog’s open flesh.
Petersan was despondent. She’d grown up in a close-knit family; her mother was Italian, her father was Jewish and food was at the center of their lives. Vegetarianism would mean brutal deprivation.
But she saw no choice. Her work with animal control had changed her. The first day on the job she saw 50 homeless dogs euthanized. Petersan was increasingly appalled by the lack of connection between people and animals.
She asked her Italian grandmother to start cooking her favorite meaty dishes and gathered her family for a going-out party. “I was force-feeding myself my grandmother’s meatballs and chicken cutlets. I thought that was it, so I was like, ‘Bye-bye everything I knew,’ ” says Petersan, who often appears in pictures looking like a roller-derby pin-up, with bright red lipstick and a blunt fringe of bangs. In person she is softer, more natural. The bangs have grown out, the tattoos on her arms are covered by a pastel knit sweater and only the holes of piercings along her ears and bottom lip remain.
She is confident and chatty, with dark eyes and a brunette ponytail she frequently twirls around her index finger. She is 39 now and has come a long way since that first month of hummus and tofu and not too much else. This is turning out to be a year of fruition for Petersan: The shop is thriving, she was recently named champion of “Cupcake Wars: All-Stars” on Food Network, her first cookbook comes out Feb. 15, and in September she and her husband adopted a baby boy named Ezra. All of which is overwhelmingly wonderful and would only be better, she says, “if I didn’t need sleep.”
Petersan moved to Washington in 1996 to be with her husband, also an animal-rights activist, and took a job with the Humane Society. But she soon burned out on the heartache that went with the job and enrolled at the University of Maryland to study nutrition and dietetics.
A class on food science altered her understanding of what was possible within the parameters of a vegan diet. She had been experimenting in her kitchen for years by then, trying to re-create family favorites without using animal products and getting mixed results.
Now she started to work backward; understanding, for example, the role eggs play in leavening a cake and figuring out how to achieve that same reaction with other ingredients.
She started with Italian rice balls and cannoli, the things she missed most. “I called my grandmother and asked her for the recipe, the traditional recipe,” she says. “I want to look at what are the things that people really take from that flavor and what was in the texture. I think the first time I made [cannoli], it was just a cracker shell with some really good vanilla pudding.”
But she was hooked on the process and by the time she graduated in 2002, she knew she wanted to open a bakery. “There was nothing that was vegan on purpose that was delicious, or that you couldn’t resist,” she says.
She began renting kitchen time at a bakery in Dupont Circle in 2000. When that business closed in 2002, she took over the space. By then she had taken on a partner, and the two of them sketched out a business plan on a sheet of loose-leaf paper.
“We had no idea what it was going to take,” she remembers. “We were so naive, and thank God we were, or else we never would’ve opened. We just had gusto.”
They didn’t put the word “vegan” on their sign and didn’t mention it to customers who didn’t ask. “That’s the true test, right?” she says. “Do you have a line of people out the door or do you have a line of just vegans out the door?”
Both carnivores and vegetarians scooped up their sticky buns and brownies, and in 2006 the business moved to a bigger space in Columbia Heights. A retro oven and refrigerator were brought in to hold condiments and the cabinets were painted mint green to give the feel of a 1950s kitchen. By then, Petersan’s partner had moved on to tour with a rock band.
The bakery’s menu expanded to include breakfast and lunch dishes, and the shop garnered interest from bakers in Korea who came to train with Petersan for several weeks before returning home to open an outpost of the Sticky Fingers franchise in Seoul. Sticky Fingers also launched a wholesale business, packaging its products for resale at Whole Foods and other local stores.
Last year Petersan got a call from Food Network, offering her a spot on the baking competition “Cupcake Wars.” She was pitted against another vegan baker and two others who used dairy products. Petersan won.
“I thought it was going to be a long shot. But also that we absolutely have to win this because we’re the underdog,” she says. “So we went in it with full guns blazing.”
The secret, she says, is in using high-quality ingredients and knowing how to work with them. Instead of butter, she uses non-hydrogenated margarines and shortenings. Soy milk, coconut milk, fresh fruits and nuts “are imperative,” as is really good chocolate and the restraint to not overmix a cake batter.
In her second time on the show, she was cut in the second round, but Petersan was invited back for an All-Stars lineup. That time she and an assistant won with a collection of rock-and-roll-inspired cupcakes that included the Salt-n-Peppa, a “chocolate bourbon smoked pepper cupcake” with salted caramel, vanilla bean frosting and a tiny pair of headphones made of fondant.
Each time the shows aired, the line at the counter grew a little longer. Sticky Fingers now sells thousands of cupcakes each week. People have begun asking to have their pictures taken with Petersan. It’s an odd thing to be a semi-celebrity vegan, but she’s not complaining. “The bigger picture is to show that vegan food is not scary,” she says. “It’s not a bad word, and my mission — my passion — is to prove it.”
Petersan had been tossing around the idea of a cookbook for years but wasn’t sure the already-crowded market needed a new addition. An agent persuaded her otherwise, and within weeks a publishing house bought rights to the book.
“Sticky Fingers’ Sweets! 100 Super-Secret Vegan Recipes” will be released by Avery next week. Petersan writes with cheeky delight, relaying insights on nutrition and food science between recipes for Boston Creme Cake and tiramisu.
Petersan and her husband also had been working on an adoption for years. In September they brought home an infant with round cheeks and skin the color of milk chocolate. “He’s delicious,” Petersan coos as she beams at a picture of Ezra on her cellphone.
Today she is three parts exhilarated, one part exhausted.
“It’s like everything that you ever wanted happened at once,” she says. “But it’s awesome, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Vegan Champagne Cupcakes With Passion Fruit Frosting