A seriously vegan path to indulgence
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL MANSFIELD
Maresa Volante might be New Paltz’s best-kept secret, and she’s definitely its sweetest. Tucked away in a building on North Front Street, just off New Paltz’s bustling main artery, the vegan bakery Sweet Maresa’s is housed adjacent to friend and fellow treat-maker Lagusta’s Luscious (see EHV’s 2013 Fall issue). While Lagusta and her team (Volante being part of this team as a part-time shop manager two days a week) serve up piping-hot mugs of cocoa so rich it’s almost chewable, Maresa operates a one-woman team in the back, whipping up baked goods that are as satisfying to the sweet tooth as they are to the conscience.
More than just sharing a bit of storefront, Lagusta and Maresa are good friends, and devoted vegans, too. Co-conspirators, if you will, dedicated to busting the myth that vegan sweets don’t quite hit the spot, both the ladies’ products fit the “dessert” genre with ease, satisfying even the most insatiable of saccharine cravings. Introduced about five years ago, Maresa credits her friend Lagusta for educating her on the fine art of chocolatiering and helping her get her start, which Volante did in earnest in May of 2011. For both women, the partnership has worked out well. As Maresa says herself, despite not having an official storefront, customers manage to follow their noses to her shop: in food-conscious towns like New Paltz, word of good grub travels fast. Maresa primarily busies herself making preordered desserts for weddings, birthdays and other special events, but she has a staunchly loyal fan base that tends to follow her every move via Facebook. Latest on the Facebook feed is a vanilla cake frosted with hibiscus buttercream and stuffed with rhubarb preserves. Where else can you get that?
Jasmine in winter, pansies in spring and a
kaleidoscopic mix of zinnias, chicory and the
trumpets of honeysuckle grace Maresa’s pretty
cakes come summer.
NO BUTTER, NO DAIRY, NO PROBLEM
Due in no small part to talent, another important ingredient in Sweet Maresa’s success is the business’s niche market. In the world of vegan baking, sourcing treats that are full of flavor and finger-licking richness sans butter, dairy and eggs can be a real challenge. The road to truly indulgent vegan sweets has been long and full of learning for Maresa too: Just last year she spent all of January (“vacation” time for her business) perfecting what is now her pièce de résistance: the vegan macaron. As winter wore on, she made and re-made the little treats, refusing to let egg whites, which traditionally provide the lift in these celebrated meringue-based confections, rule the recipe. Eventually it paid off. Sweet Maresa’s vegan macarons are now available online, made to order and ready to be shipped virtually anywhere in the world.
But Maresa’s treats aren’t just some vegan consolation prize or pale approximation of the original. Each lovingly made and decadent morsel is exceedingly satisfying, thanks to her liberal use of coconutbased products. Describing her customers Maresa contends, “more than half of my customers are not vegan, but nobody is missing cow’s butter when they eat my coconut butter–based buttercream, and nobody is missing eggs when they eat my vegan macaron.” One Facebook follower vouches for Maresa’s confidence, exuberantly commenting “nice rack!” on a photo of the latest tray of macarons being pulled from the fridge. Your average consumer, however, balks at the confines of the vegan diet and wonders why a baker— those devilish pushers of all things irresistible—would choose such a moderate and limited ingredients list. After all, doesn’t “butter make it better”? Naturally, Maresa has a different take on the issue: “I think the real question is, why not veganism? Plant-based foods are proven to be better for our bodies, there is no cholesterol in anything I make [that’s correct, coconut oil is high in saturated fat but contains no cholesterol], and subtle flavors shine through when they aren’t overpowered by heavy butter, cream and eggs. Besides, if you can live well without harming others, you might as well!”
That thoughtful awareness of the whole farm-to-table structure feeds into Maresa’s ongoing dedication to using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. In fact, by devoting herself to such ethical and upstanding principals she is icing the appellation “baker” with another meaning altogether: treats aren’t just about decadence but reverence, too. Rooting herself in New Paltz, she’s spoilt for choice when it comes to supporting local, organic farms, except for one vegan essential: nuts, as they are just not a plentiful or viable crop in the immediate area. So what does Maresa do? Fly to California to meet nut growers face to face, like Fat Uncle Farms in the Central Valley and the fine people at Santa Barbara Pistachio. Since her business essentially depends on word of mouth, it pays even more than usual to get good reviews. Getting subpar ingredients is not something she’s willing to risk: “I cater to folks who like organic, as-local-as-possible sourced food that tastes really good and looks pretty. It feels better to buy my products in bulk from people I know than from a random distributor where I don’t know the source or freshness.” Baking, after all, is also about the painstaking process of recipe perfection. Everything has to be just so.
…Treats aren’t just about
decadence but reverence, too.
In New Paltz, farmers markets are a veritable smorgasbord of fresh, seasonal foods. Among Maresa’s favorite treats to find their way into her baking are gooseberries, currants, buttercup squash and lemon thyme. Building her desserts around each season’s offerings, Maresa makes what she calls the “Market Special” to keep things exciting for customers. The treat’s presentation and ingredients list changes to best fit what’s at hand. Close acquaintances with a number of berry producers in the area, she knows where to go for all her strawberry needs, too: “It’s nice to know the varieties of strawberries that are grown by local organic farms and how best to use each one. I like Taliaferro strawberries best for jam, Bradley Farm strawberries for toppers and cake decorating, and Evolutionary Organics has great frozen berries and can help out in a winter pinch.” The results of all this berry-centric wisdom are mouthwatering: towering cakes oozing natural sweetness, adorned with animal-friendly buttercream roses, while jars of preserves line her cupboards, just waiting to fill customers’ mouths with the flavors of a Hudson Valley summer.
In a final flourish and a trademark move, most of Sweet Maresa’s originals are topped with a floral accoutrement. Jasmine in winter, pansies in spring and a kaleidoscopic mix of zinnias, chicory and the trumpets of honeysuckle grace Maresa’s pretty cakes come summer. Glass containers of a whole rainbow of flowers—some candied, some not—sit on the shelves of her kitchen. Her famous macarons even get homegrown flowers: she checks her pomegranate and jasmine plants for decorations daily. More than just a pleasing signature, these baked-in blooms are emblematic of the meticulous and conscientious ethos that presides at Sweet Maresa’s. Gracefully folding meaningful values into the debaucherous and sticky world of desserts, Maresa manages to make the mixture work, without sacrificing any of the pleasure, allowing customers to have their proverbial cake and eat it, too.
25 North Front Street, New Paltz