How L.A. cake virtuosos learned to thrive on Instagram

Two slices of cakes and a chocolate cream pie
Carrot cake made by pastry chef Hannah Ziskin for her Internet-based cottage bakery House of Gluten.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The 6-inch cake that pastry chef Casey Shea delivered was a barrel-shaped whirl of salted vanilla buttercream, sequined with sliced berries and candied kumquats.

On an early March menu, Shea had presented her customers, who ordered via Instagram, with four cake options: coconut chocolate, banana hazelnut, blood orange with lemon whip and blackberry and a surprise chef’s choice based on what she found at the farmers markets.

A good kind of surprise could be uplifting right now, I thought. Springtime was in view. Maybe there’d be some ripe red fruit layered underneath the frosting?

Sure enough. “I chose to (lightly) step away from citrus and focus on some great strawberries that have started to pop up at the market,” Shea explained in a handwritten card. I carved out a thick wedge and sat down to devour it while reading the details she’d jotted down. The cake was made using White Sonora wheat flour from Tehachapi Grain Project, its crumb both soft and pleasantly dense, and roasted strawberries from McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo. She soaked the layers in mandarin caramel for a winter-to-spring sort of brightness. Then came the richness: drifts of crème fraiche, lightened with strawberry compote, spread between three lofty tiers.

It was a funhouse cake for adults, full of trapdoor flavors and textures that tipped and slid from one level to another.

Baking cakes, pies and a weekly-changing rotation of pastries and selling them through Instagram helped Shea pull together a living after she was laid off from her job in July at the Rose in Venice. Many gifted pastry chefs sought similar entrepreneurial avenues as the pandemic wreaked havoc on their livelihoods. Food writers across the country have reported on the phenomenon, includingKhushbu Shah at Food & Wine,Pete Wells at the New York Times and, most recently,Meghan McCarron at Eater.

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I’ve also been seeking out these newly pivoted cottage industry bakers for the past year and listening to their stories. “I wasn’t shocked to be out of work but it was terrifying,” Shea said recently. “We were five months into the pandemic and it was open/close/open/close down. Living in Los Angeles, I knew that unemployment wasn’t going to really help with rent. I took to Instagram one random day in a panic and I said, ‘Hey guys if anybody wants pie, I’ll make pie.’ There was no real structure to it. I had to make some money somehow and all I know is pastry. It’s literally all I’ve ever done.”

Her audience indeed wanted pie: coffee-cream, latticed peach-bourbon, caramel-coconut crowned with a hill of blueberries. She experimented with jammy cookies and malted brownies. She knew people likely wouldn’t order whole pies more than once a month so she developed pastry boxes with a weekly rotation of treats like cream puffs, macaroons and pie by the slice. For celebrations, she began blueprinting exquisitely detailed cakes.

Los Angeles is an established town of superb pie, nurtured by KCRW icon Evan Kleiman, who hosts the annual Good Eats Pie Contest, and Fat & Flour virtuoso Nicole Rucker. Nonetheless, the era of chefs surviving through pop-up has ushered in some marvels. Edlyne Nicolas Page began her Laroolou kiosk in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, serving glories like Cara Cara orange and cardamom-vanilla custard over graham cracker crust. Local cookbook author and teacher Sonoko Sakai introduced the city to her sister, the accomplished Fuyuko Kondo. Through Sakai’s website, Kondo frequently offers her picture-perfect apple galette: She uses nutty Tehachapi Grain Project flour for the crust and arranges slices of Granny Smiths and Honey Crisps in hypnotic circles, scented with vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and honey.

An apple galette on a plate
Kondo’s galette.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe because I’ve always declared myself forever on #TeamPie, the cakes I’ve consumed lately from independent bakers come across as revelatory. In their organic beauty, their devotion to Southern California’s growing season and their next-level marriage of technical rigor and flat-out joy, they collectively emerge as a new school of Los Angeles baking.

Sasha Piligian, a former pastry chef at Sqirl, founded her May Microbakery and advanced an ethos of cake decorating that brings to mind Michel Bras’ famous gargouillou salad: a blank palate strewn with candied citrus, geometric fruits, flower petals, curving pods and shallow puddles of jam. Piligian’s creations are edible trips to the botanical garden that also manage to be devoid of preciousness. They’re just stunning.

Sisters Kristine and Rose Jingozian and their mother, Karine, operate Rose + Rye out of their home in Granada Hills. They express their heritage in nazook, the palm-size Armenian pastry rolled with fillings such as brandied dates, walnuts and cinnamon. (Piligian also often includes wonderful nazook in her ever-changing “Whatever Sasha Wants” pastry box.)

Rose + Rye’s cakes channel the Armenian diaspora and beyond. Their most towering achievement is medovik, a 10-layer Russian honey cake whomped with burnt honey and painted with sour cream whip. Michelle Polzine arguably makes the country’s most famous version of Russian honey cake at her 20th Century Cafe in San Francisco, but certainly the Jingozians’ take is spectacular. Like a lasagna or a curry, the medovik gets better over days as the sweet and sour elements slowly merge their molecules.

A baking rack with a variety of Armenian pastries
The Armenian pastries known as nazook made by Kristine Jingozian.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Hanna Ziskin’s reimagined carrot cake also keeps improving from slice to slice. She was the pastry chef at M. Georgina in Row DTLA before the March 2020 shutdowns. When M. Georgina closed for the duration, chef-owner Melissa Perello directed her staff to take home the restaurant’s inventory.

“We didn’t know how long it was going to last and I was like, cool, a vacation,” Ziskin said. “I’m happy to cook steak and, like, sit on my couch all day. Aaron [Lindell, who met Ziskin when they both worked at Cotogna in San Francisco] and I ate like kings for a week.”

For a while, she delivered bread she baked to childhood friends and soon she realized she needed to work. She advertised her pies on Instagram and started taking custom orders for cakes. She came up with a name for her nascent business: House of Gluten. Lindell began making Detroit-inspired pizzas — he calls his enterprise Quarter Sheets — and Ziskin makes desserts, including slices of creamy numbers she calls “slab cake.” They operate out of their home in Glendale.

I remember Ziskin’s plated desserts at M. Georgina — her fondness for custardy textures playfully interrupted by something crisp, her penchant for dialed-back sweetness. Her carrot cake funnels everything she knows about fastidious restaurant sweets into a nostalgic classic. She folds apple butter into spice cake batter to boost moisture and acidity. She concocts a cream cheese mousse of sabayon folded into cream cheese and labneh with whipped crème fraiche and dashes of salt and malic acid. (“It’s way more complicated than it has to be,” Ziskin said, though I’d counter that the result is genius.) Roasted pecan caramel kissed with orange blossom water sneaks up with gentle crunch. Vanilla bean-muscovado Swiss meringue buttercream encases four magnificent layers.

Even imagining the ways that apricots and cherries might show up on Instagram cake menus when my birthday rolls around at the end of May, I also can’t envision blowing out candles on top of anything but Ziskin’s carrot cake.

As with all pop-ups that have sprung into being since 2020, running a bakery out of one’s home kitchen or temporary commercial space takes its toll. Most of the chefs I’ve mentioned have posted some variation of the message “I’m exhausted and taking a break” in the last six months. As the pandemic abates, many of these chefs will likely return to semblances of professional permanency: Shea is consulting and hopes to work in a team setting again; Ziskin and Lindell are seeking out a restaurant space.

These chef-entrepreneurs have also shared their talents at bake sales over the last year to help feed restaurant workers and to support movements like Black Lives Matter and Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA. The grass-roots fundraiser is evolving in society. Maybe you also grew up seeing cars plastered with the bumper sticker that read, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” Our country feels more broken than ever.

We have every right to feel cynical about entrenched American notions of nostalgia and belonging. The bake sale still has power, though. A community can come together in self-directed agency. Pastry chefs have also found new agency by pushing their imaginations and culling loyal customers on social media apps. Intricate cakes and dreamy pies exist in some measure to heal our souls. Occasions should be celebrated. Bake sales headlined by our most determined, brilliant pastry chefs always sell out faster than anyone ever expects.

Four small pies in a box
A pie flight from Laroolou: clockwise from lower right, the Budding Cream, Springtime Buttermilk, Coconut Cream and Sir Salted Earl.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A shortlist of favorite micro-bakeries

Butter Bakery Pasadena: Devonna Banks specializes in crisp-soft cookies and gorgeously decorated cakes. She’s currently accepting custom orders.

House of Gluten: Hannah Ziskin’s cakes are as smart as they are sigh-inducing. Some creations roll with the seasons; her carrot cake is a year-round marvel.

Fuyuko Kondo: Sonoko Sakai’s pastry chef sister makes one impeccable dessert: an aromatic, photo-ready apple galette. Check Sakai’s website for availability.

Laroolou: Edlyne Nicolas Page operates her weekend pop-up in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, selling mini-pies and the soft, nearly spherical cookies she rightly calls “thiccies.”

May Microbakery: Star pastry chef Sasha Piligian is a master of the artful cake. Her flavors read wild (“sesame chiffon cake, blood orange lime curd, cream cheese buttercream, honeycomb”) but they land on the palate just right. She also makes fantastic pies and weekly pastry boxes.

Pavé Bakery: Christina Hanks and Jacob Fraijo create an eclectic rotation of viennoiserie. I have loved their apple kouign amann and their hazelnut and Meyer lemon Paris-Brest, and I’m always excited to see what’s next.

Red Bread: Pastry veteran T. Rose Wilde is an innovator in the Internet bakery genre; Red Bread predates the pandemic. She excels in whatever ways she uses seasonal fruit — in pies, jam tarts, monthly pastry boxes and in cakes like vanilla malt butter cake laced with slow-roasted rhubarb.

Rose & Rye: The cakes made by Kristine Jingozian and her family (10-layer Russian burnt honey cake, the cardamom, orange and almond “Persian love cake” with raspberry-rose buttercream) are delicious spectacles, priced in the three figures and made for a crowd. Order a mix-and-match box of nazook, Armenian pastries rolled around fillings like brandied date and walnut or matcha strawberry.

Casey Shea: Trust Shea, who offered a weekly menu with delivery over the past year but is currently accepting custom orders only, to wander the farmers market and return with inspired ideas for a “chef’s choice” cake.

Sugarbloom Bakery: Sharon Wang expresses the pluralism of Los Angeles via laminated dough. Order her kimchi and Spam musubi croissant, pan au chocolat, white miso kouign amann and brioche cinnamon rolls online for pick up in Glassell Park.

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The L.A. Times Dinner Series event with Enrique Olvera

Chef Enrique Olvera, the force behind Mexico City’s Pujol, Manhattan’s Cosme and the recently opened Damian in L.A.’s Arts District, will be one of the big names at the next L.A. Times Dinner Series event, a four-course meal in Los Angeles and New York on April 24. In a conversation themed around awards season and hosted by L.A. Times arts and urban design columnist Carolina A. Miranda, Olvera will be talking with filmmaker, screenwriter and award-winning director Fernando Frias de la Parra (“I’m No Longer Here”). The L.A. meal from Damian (to be picked up by diners before the event) features costillas enmoladas (with pork ribs and belly, kimchi, and mole negro.) In New York, the meal from Cosme centers around the restaurant’s duck carnitas. Tickets are $105 per person, with a minimum of two tickets per household. The charity partner for the event is Project Angel Food.