At the heart of pastry chef Lutunji Abram’s menu is a succulent peach cobbler.
Lutunji Abram has built her bakery on a magnificent singular dessert: Southern-style peach cobbler. For the last four years she’s sold it at farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores around the Twin Cities — but on Saturday, May 14, Lutunji’s Palate Bakery & Cafe is finally opening in a space of its own. Located on the sunny first floor of the Gatsby Apartments near downtown Minneapolis, the bakery is an exciting addition to both the Elliot Park neighborhood and the local bakery scene, where Southern-style desserts are a relatively rare find.
“It’s a succulent Southern-style, because of its juiciness — it’s intended to be a wet, juicy texture with the peaches,” says Abram of the cobbler’s defining characteristics. “And it’s supposed to be sweet, to be honest. I’ve had people say ‘Oh, you use canned peaches?’ Well, let me give you the history. You’re talking to a researcher now.”
Abram deliberately uses canned peaches for their juiciness — this practice dates to the 1950s, she says, when the Georgia Peach Council founded National Peach Cobbler Day as a way to boost the sales of canned peaches. Her preference is for kosher canned peaches, which meld sumptuously into the cobbler: There’s no syrupy taste, no metallic tang. The peaches hold their form, but separate easily under a fork.
Then there’s the crust. Abram bakes two varieties: a “buttery buttery” one and a vegan version made with coconut oil. The way she tells it, Abram’s vegan crust recipe came about when she was stuck in a demoralizing job search years ago, baking crust after crust in her kitchen to cope. “One day, I literally heard my highest power say ‘Research vegan crusts,’ ” says Abram. “I say my highest power because vegan was nowhere in my vocabulary. … I grew up in a household where your crust was Crisco and lard mixed together, or you were not a baker.”
The vegan cobbler is a close approximation of the buttery buttery: It has the same caliber of sweetness, the same fragrant mix of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The crust keeps its texture — crispy at the edges, doughy and dense in the middle cuts — and the coconut oil’s taste is elevated slightly from the flavor profile of the cobbler, giving the lemon extra zip.
“My nephews love the vegan peach cobbler,” says Abram. “That blesses my soul, because we grew up with the buttery buttery, with a lard crust. My grandma, I’m sure she’s looking down from heaven saying, ‘You got away with this one.’ ” She’s making a decisive bet on vegan baked goods, noting the rising demand for alternatives that retain the hallmarks of classic milk- and butter-rich desserts. Besides the buttery buttery peach and pecan — which are ancillary, really, to her vegan cobblers — Abram’s entire menu is vegan.
She’s also deeply interested in adding nutritive elements to her desserts. At the new bakery, look for red velvet cupcakes made with organic beets and oranges, gluten-free coconut cake bites, and vegan sweet potato pie. Her peanut butter fig cookies are baked with Irish sea moss, a mineral-rich algae. “If I’m going to make an apple pie, I’m putting turmeric in there, because turmeric is anti-inflammatory,” she says.
Since starting her business Lutunji’s Palate in 2018, Abram has been baking out of the kitchen at historic Calvary Church in south Minneapolis — she was offered the space by Pastor Jeff Cowmeadow, who first encouraged her to turn her peach cobbler hobby into a business. Sharing the kitchen with four other businesses, Abrams managed to sell her desserts at grocery stores across the Cities — her new kitchen gives her the capacity to expand sales even more (Goldbelly is a future goal).
Abram raised $70,000 in community donations to open the new bakery and cafe space. She’s also found immense support from local chefs and restaurateurs — from Tomme Beevas and Brian and Sarah Ingram, who’ve had her desserts on their restaurant menus — to Sammy McDowell and Justin Sutherland, who’ve contributed dishes to the menu. Look for turkey pastrami and seitan sandwiches from Sammy’s Avenue Eatery, as well as pimento cheese and crackers from Sutherland’s Handsome Hog.
Abram plans for Lutunji’s Palate Bakery & Cafe to be a community gathering space for the Elliot Park neighborhood, where apartments are abundant but cafes and restaurants are relatively sparse. And, true to her background (Abram holds a masters organizational leadership), she’ll keep the social enterprise element of her business: Lutunji’s Palate Bakery partners with local organizations that help businesses employ youth, young adults, and formerly incarcerated men.
Then there’s the crucial question: Does Abram herself prefer the butter peach cobbler or the vegan? Diplomatically, she likes both — but on the rare occasion she eats dessert, she reaches for the vegan. Her secret, she says, pairing it with cashew milk ice cream.