This pastry chef is baking alternative flours into some of the best pastries in Los Angeles.
When we think of alternative flours, we tend to go to a dark place, literally: We imagine damp, heavy whole-grain breads and cookies so dense that they almost aren’t worth chewing. In the hands of Los Angeles pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, though, White Sonora wheat lends nutty depth to croissants without sacrificing outer flake or inner softness, and spelt flour helps her achieve the perfect silky Danish dough.
These flours are higher in protein than the all-purpose white ones you’ll find on grocery store shelves, which are engineered for versatility and durability rather than nutritional value. But they also have different, often more assertive flavor profiles, which is why Jullapat uses them in the pastries and breads she bakes for Friends & Family, the restaurant and coffee shop she co-owns with chef Daniel Mattern. “They are incredibly flavorful,” she says. “You can make delicious pastries and breads with these individualized, full-of-personality varietals.”
In addition to croissants and Danish pastries, her case is stocked with delicacies like ricotta semolina pound cake, rye chocolate chip cookies and buckwheat banana bread. They’ve won over customers and critics: Food & Wine and The New York Times have named Jullapat one of Los Angeles’s best bakers. The late Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer, was a particular fan of the sticky oat donuts.
Chefs are always talking about how much ingredients matter. If you want to eat something delicious, it helps to start with something that was already pretty tasty to begin with: a perfect tomato or a beautifully marbled piece of steak. It’s the same for flours, says Jullapat.
She credits Nan Kohler, who runs a local mill called Grist & Toll, for a significant portion of her success as a baker. Grist & Toll makes small-batch flours from heritage strains of wheat — White Sonora and Red Fife wheats are two of Jullapat’s favorites — as well as non-wheat grains like barley, teff, buckwheat and oats.
“The fact that she produces such beautiful flour is more than 50 percent of the battle,” says Jullapat. “Our recipes are important, and how we treat the grain is important. But she really has done most of the work for us. By the time we put it in, we know we’re gonna succeed.”
Working with these grains also allows her to rethink her relationship to pastry, which has long been a field dominated by the French culinary tradition — at least, in professional kitchens. “I feel like when you go back to your grains, you go back to your recipes,” says Jullapat. “For a long time, there was this assumption that if you were a professional baker, you would make patisserie pastries: We would make mille-feuille and choux pastry and know everything about chocolates, mousses and mousselines. The education was so universalized in kitchens that you were at risk of losing your own heritage.”
For instance, White Sonora wheat doesn’t have the gluten content of a traditional sourdough boule — the crumb it creates is too delicate for the crags that characterize the perfect loaf. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a failure as a bread flour, full stop. It’s perfect for the softer, Cuban-style sandwich loaves that Jullapat turns out for lunch services at Friends & Family.
Jullapat sees her work as part of a larger movement toward getting people interested in the origins of their bread, in the same way that they’re interested in where their coffee, chocolate, produce and meat are grown. But she acknowledges that shifting tastes from white flour and its industrially standardized baked goods is an uphill battle, so what she makes has to be really, really good. Luckily, these flours don’t just add nutrition or social conscience to her baking; they give familiar-sounding foods — cookies, cakes and breads — entirely new dimensions of flavor.
“You can use the salt in your kitchen in your cooking — you can season with salt forever — and you’ll eat fine,” she says. “But you can add all these herbs, spices and seeds and you’ll have a completely different spectrum of food. That’s exactly what grain is: It’s your spice cabinet.”