Mollie Rose Dutton-Starbuck believes everyone deserves a treat. That’s why she’s made it her goal at the Mollie Rose Baking Company to make treats as accessible as possible to everyone. By creating a line of completely vegan baked goods and treats that are also accessible to people with dietary or allergy restrictions, she doing just that.
“Everything is vegan…no dairy, no eggs, no animal fat. There is some gluten-free stuff. I make products with no soy and in a peanut-free environment. I also make a lot of things with agave and maple syrup. I have family members who are diabetic, so I’m sensitive to that, too. Even people with health problems can enjoy a treat,” Mollie Rose said.
“I wanted to make something for everyone so no one feels like they can’t have. Everyone needs some sugar every once in a while. You can’t be totally sugar-free 100 percent of the time,” she said.
A mostly self-taught baker, Mollie Rose started baking in earnest as a high-schooler. Although her mother would sometimes bake bread at home and she has an uncle that attended the culinary academy, Mollie Rose started her forays into baking by experimenting with how to make baked goods healthier. One of her first projects was making low-fat eclairs using non-fat milk.
She quickly found that she enjoyed feeding others. From there, the baked goods she made for friends and working at a bakery as a teen eventually morphed into creating elaborate dessert parties either for friends or for life events such as birthdays or wedding and baby showers as she grew older and went through graduate school. Despite having pursued environmental studies as an undergrad and also getting a master’s in education, getting into the food business has been something she’s wanted to do.
“When I heard about the homemade food law, I thought I would get my kitchen certified to get into the food business,” she said. “It’s always been a passion.”
After finding out she had a dairy intolerance in her early 20’s, Mollie Rose became much more conscious about making foods that everyone could eat.
“There’s more goods out there for people with dietary restrictions, but it needs to be done even more. If you have high cholesterol, you should have low cholesterol stuff without animal products that aren’t loaded with butter or fat. If you’re allergic to eggs, you still want to have a cupcake every once in a while without the fear of an allergic reaction,” she said.
Learning how to make substitutions for common baking ingredients such as flour, milk or eggs has been a process of experimentation. For someone who teaches environmental science part-time to fifth graders, the chemistry of ingredient play and recipe development using non-traditional ingredients has appealed to the scientist in Mollie Rose. And not only does she make substitutions, but she often makes those substitutions from scratch herself, such as making her own almond milk or making her own gluten-free flour combinations.
According to Mollie Rose, finding egg substitutions is the most difficult. Milk can be replaced by nut milks and apple cider vinegar can be added to liquids if they needs to be curdled, like buttermilk. For eggs, she’s used things as diverse as silken tofu or bananas, sometimes even ground flax with soy or coconut milk yogurt since eggs are usually a binding agent. To create the rising action for fluffier cupcakes, she’s combined vinegar and baking soda.
Mollie Rose originally started making her own gluten-free flour mixtures because most commercial gluten-free flours require you to use xanthan gum with them. Since Mollie Rose tries to avoid using processed foods and xanthan gum is chemically separated when derived from plants, she decided to make her own flours. Her flour mixtures tend to contain brown rice flour, almond flour, tapioca, flax or millet. She sometimes also uses garbanzo bean flour, but is careful in using it since she finds the flavor can be “overpowering if you’re not careful.”
“I like experimenting and trying new flavor combinations—putting cardamom into things or combining Meyer lemon and rosemary for marmalade, cranberry orange pie. When things go wrong, it’s a little sad—deflated cupcakes or things that didn’t turn out—but you learn from it,” she said.
Mollie Rose stocks her products seasonally. While she is responsible for making all the sweet treats, her boyfriend and partner Ben is responsible for all the breads they sell. Sales are currently done through the company website or at local food fairs and they’ll soon be selling through GoodEggs. They feature numerous different baked goods, from cookies to muffins to cakes, including monthly cupcake specials and seasonal hand pies. Jams are also a seasonal product, and she tends to have one sweet jam and one with a more “unusual” or savory element in stock at all times.
What drew you to food?
I love food. There’s that quote, “Never trust a skinny chef.” You can’t keep eating all the product. I made stuff that I like, that I want to eat, that I might not be able to find with my restrictions. Not only do I have a dairy intolerance, but a sensitive stomach, so I can only eat small amounts of stuff. So cooking for myself, discovering I loved it, having the people I made stuff for love it and visiting my uncle. I spent time as a child in a restaurant, and I remember my uncle telling me I’d end up working for him when I got serious.
I love working with food. It gives me a sense of creativity and I love of eating delicious things. I’m not an artist; I can’t draw or paint for the life of me, but I can bake. That’s the only thing I can do that’s artful. Everyone else in my family is an artist. I have to craft food. I guess it was my palette. Taste palette, artist’s palette? I always make really bad puns.
Why baked goods?
I thought about doing a catering business or possibly having a restaurant, but the idea of a bakery instead of being a chef, you can bake your stuff and then interact with people without feeling like you’re stressed out and your interactions are “I need this and this and this from you.” I used to work the register at a bakery and it was nice to have that interaction, to get suggestions from people. I worked in customer service for so long that the idea of not having a face-to-face didn’t make sense.
It seemed like something I could do that was exact. Baking is precise. You know your reactions. It’s a lot more of a science and that’s my background. I can follow a recipe but I do know how I can make alterations without changing it to something that people don’t recognize.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I had a roommate out of undergraduate who I worked with in the past and we were baking buddies. She’s still big on baking and cooking from scratch. She introduced me to making jams. Living with her really showed me the creativity of it. She wasn’t vegan, but would try things. I learned techniques from her and it reignited my passion for baking because in undergrad, the first two years I didn’t have a kitchen. The extent of my baking was slicing pre-made cookie dough. She introduced me to…new things, how to change it. Eventually I took off on that…and I started doing things on my own, involving others in taste testing. Stuff in high school was from recipes—I might have changed something to non-fat milk. Living with her was the first time where I can change the flavors and use a base recipe but do a different mix-in or match this flavor with this flavor.
She was a big inspiration, in addition to my uncle, visiting his restaurant as a small child.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Taking it one day at a time because my problem is thinking about all the things I want to do without thinking about how I’m going to get there. Take one step at a time. What now, then what. It’s good to have goals, long term and short therm. It’s also good to give yourself a step by step process. Learning that’s been a bit of a challenge. I have to have people reel me back in and say ‘How are you going to do that?’. Also having a sense of what you can do in the moment.
Live in the moment. Also have a sense of humor. If you fail and you feel bad it can be debilitating. But if you look at something and think, “This looks funny,” then you can laugh and move one. That’s what I tell myself. You can’t have anything without failure.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced? It depends. Outside of myself it’s the monetary stuff. I want to grow big but to do that I have to do small steps. Personally, another challenge is trying to decide if I wanted to continue teaching for longer or commit myself to the bakery because I like teaching and being with my students but my passion is really the baking. My de-stress was going into the kitchen to make muffins…If I’m going to struggle either way I might as well do something I love and still be able to work with young people. That was an internal struggle more than anything else.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The best thing is being able to share my product with people. A lot of things I’d be making anyway, but I can’t eat it all, so it’s great to share it…Food is communal in my family anyway…food is what brings people together. Not to be cliché, but eating good food inspires good feelings. It’s inspiring. I love being around it and seeing people enjoy it.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
One of the things that I can’t just a few of, I have to eat the whole bag, are the cinnamon glazed almonds. I can’t just start and not eat a whole bag. Gluten-free scones. I can eat one and be full for three hours. It’s not just tasting good but feeling good about it. I know it’s a complete protein—it’s rice and beans, a tasty thing I can eat for breakfast and be smart and healthy. My favorite thing to make though is jam—the process of making it, watching the sugar dissolve, watching the steaminess in the kitchen. That’s probably why I make so many things—I just enjoy making it.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Vicky from Brown Dog Mustard. I found out she’s also a social worker, and I’m so impressed that she can do this mustard business on top of her full-time work. I really admire the ladies at Hella Vegan Eats. Their story is cool. They were married and they seem to have so much. I really love their food. I’m not vegan, but I love their stuff and I’d go and support them any day. I actually reached out to them to see if they had any advice—they seem like they’ve been doing so well.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
This is hard. I’ve thought about this before. It’s one of those conversations my friends and I periodically have because it changes. I guess I would just gorge myself. Zachary’s deep dish pizza—any kind that doesn’t have meat in it. A slice of my mom’s turkey meatloaf—she makes amazing turkey meatloaf that I haven’t had in a long time. My step mom’s egg nog—she makes an egg nog that will knock you on your face—I haven’t had that in a long time. Ooooo, my uncle’s chicken liver paté—he makes the best chicken liver pate. Probably some latkes—I like my friend’s—potatoes and onions. It’s not the healthiest meal in the world!
For dessert, I would have this caramel apple cake that I made with friends in high school and I can’t for the life of me find the recipe again. This delicious apple cake that we ate like half the cake when we made it—I’d make that again.
Favorite Bay Area resto/food/chef?
I was born in the East Bay, so that’s kind of a tall order. I love Delancey Street Café in San Francisco—it’s very nostalgic for me. We’d go to celebrate my mother and grandma’s birthdays. I love what they do for the community in general.
Quality of food? It depends on the type of food. One chef that I really like—in particular because she was the chef at a restaurant that my mom and brother and I used to frequent—is Cindy Deetz at Caffe Venezia in Berkeley and now at Elevation 66 in El Cerrito, next to the theater. When she was a Caffe Venezia they made their best food. We’d go for most occasions—high school graduation, mother’s birthday, others’ birthdays. Before I had my wisdom teeth pulled, it was my last meal.
Fat Apples in El Cerrito—the best pumpkin pancakes I’ve ever had. They’re the best I’ve ever had. And they serve it with real maple syrup, no fake syrup.
Mollie Rose Baking Company
Photos courtesy of Mollie Rose Baking Company.