Chances are, if you’ve eaten a baked good from Cedar Ridge Café and Bakery in Maplewood, you have eaten something vegan — and you might not even have known it. The café has been quietly expanding its selection of vegan items — mostly sweets but also some savory food — to the delight of its customers.
All the doughnuts are vegan, as are the zucchini bread, fruit-filled hand pies and homemade granola bars. At least one type of muffin and cookie are vegan each day; on some days there are vegan Bundt cakes, brownies and other items. Two savory choices are the delicious vegan tuna and the hummus, and the cafe is planning to add more. They also will make special order vegan birthday cakes.
“Making vegan food is my passion,” said Michelle Mancuso, Cedar’s vegan baker. A three-year employee of the cafe, Mancuso is completely self-taught. She pores over family cookbooks and recipes for inspiration, and then experiments until she gets it right. “If I find a recipe I like I’ll ‘vegan-ize’ it.” (Follow her on Instagram @veganmedusa to see some of her delicious vegan treats).
Mancuso began selling her vegan items at festivals and events. One day, she brought Cedar Ridge co-owner and head baker Joe Ramaikas a tray of vegan cupcakes. He and his wife Felice sampled them, and both were sold.
“We started offering vegan items because of Michelle’s influence, honestly,” said Ramaikas, who owns the cafe with chef Paul Holtzman. “I’d also watched the documentary Forks Over Knives which Felice and I found inspirational. We’re both omnivores but have reduced the inclusion of meat in our meals. We’re not vegan but there’s definitely a health benefit to reducing animal products in your diet.”
Although Cedar Ridge doesn’t always promote the vegan part of its menu, word is definitely getting out. Positivitea, a vegan cafe in Verona, now carries Cedar Ridge vegan baked goods and has a standing order twice a week, said Mancuso. (They learned about her doughnuts through her Instagram posts.) Other bakeries and restaurants have expressed an interest as well.
And customers who follow vegan diets, or just want to limit animal products, have started to find the cafe. On a recent Friday afternoon, a woman who works at a health food store in Morristown came in for something sweet, and was thrilled to learn that as a vegan, she had so many options at Cedar Ridge.
“At least three times a day people come in asking” about the vegan items, said employee Esther Wald, who works behind the counter. Some want to know what vegan means (for those who don’t know, vegan food does not use any animal products, so there is no cow’s milk or butter, and no eggs).
Others are just excited to find vegan baked goods, which are not so common in this area.
To make her baked goods vegan, Mancuso employs substitutes for animal products such as vegan butter, soy, almond or coconut milk, and oil or flax in lieu of eggs. Sometimes she doesn’t tell a customer they have ordered something vegan until after they’ve tasted it. Their response is always surprise, because they haven’t noticed a difference from the taste of “regular” baked goods.
Ramaikas said Cedar Ridge has been increasing its vegan menu as a direct response to customer requests. “I think more people are…taking the whole ethical approach as well,” he said, adding, “Michelle motivates me as much as I support and appreciate her talents.”
Surprise fact, said Mancuso: She is actually not a huge fan of sweets and doesn’t eat much dessert. “I just like making them,” she said. (She does taste her finished products to make sure they are up to scratch.)
Meanwhile, her doughnuts are putting Mancuso and Cedar Ridge on the vegan baked goods map. Offered every day in a wide variety of flavors, from the esoteric (rosewater pistachio, pineapple chili, blueberry basil) to the comfortingly old-fasioned (milk and cereal, banana chocolate, “Nutella” made with homemade vegan chocolate hazelnut spread), the doughnuts are made fresh and with local ingredients whenever possible. They are cake-style, as opposed to fried.
Colorful and tasting as good as they look, these doughnuts are difficult to resist. It’s no surprise they sell out every day.
Cedar Ridge Cafe & Bakery (410 Ridgewood Road Maplewood, NJ, 973-327-2286, firstname.lastname@example.org) is open Tuesday through Saturday 8-5 and Sunday 9-2 p.m. They serve breakfast and lunch, and also do catering. Follow them on Facebook.