Bake, Make, Create

Xuyun Liu sits in a curved sofa chair. Her smiling face, neat bob and rectangular glasses are lit by lanterns that hang overhead. Her calm disposition does not betray her hectic time spent as a Chinese student in Syracuse, nor her life now launching a career. By weekday, Liu works as an architectural designer, but by weekends she is a blossoming baker.

She came to America in 2012 to pursue her master’s degree in architecture from Syracuse University, leaving her home and family back in Xinchang, a small city in Zhejiang Province in the southeast of China.

Liu’s husband, Song, also came to SU to pursue his doctorate, and the couple eventually bought a house nestled in the eastern suburb of Syracuse. The tidy lawn leads to a white house, with plants and succulents lined up near the glass door. In the living room, the painted porcelain hens and ornate anime figurines sit on modern bookshelves.

Amid the bustle of attending architecture school, buying a home and finding a job, Liu developed a sweet new passion – baking.

Food has always been central in Liu’s life. Growing up, she ate a traditional southern Chinese diet made up of all kinds of dishes.

“In classes they always ask you, ‘what’s your favorite food?’,” she muses. “That’s a question no Chinese people can answer.”

“In classes they always ask you, ‘what’s your favorite food?’ That’s a question no Chinese people can answer.”

Ovens are not commonplace in China, and traditional desserts are a far cry from the sugary cakes found in the United States and Europe.

“When I was younger nobody had an oven in their home, I never knew how cakes came out of a kitchen,” Liu says. “There was a bakery with a big glass window, and I sat and stared while they did the frosting the entire day.”

Liu says that when she lived in China, the only grocery stores that carried baking ingredients were in big cities, so she had to improvise. She made tiramisu because it did not require an oven, and ordered her ingredients from an online seller,

When Liu moved to the United States, she found that cakes and baking materials were easy to come by.

She relished the boxes of rich cheesecake she could purchase for only $5. “I liked using the spoon to cut it – I can hear the sound,” she says, grinning. “It sounds delicious. I tried to make that and use a different recipe.”

With an oven and baking supplies at her fingertips, Liu began developing her skills. Her apartment near Nottingham Plaza had an old and outdated oven, so she upgraded to a small countertop oven and began testing out cheesecake and cupcake recipes.

Liu’s friends at SU were eager to taste her creations, and many of them urged her to open her own bakery. The grueling coursework of architecture school consumed most of Liu’s time, but baking became her passion.

As her course load lightened in her last semester, she dedicated more time to experimenting. She made lavish layered crepe cakes, inspired by famous bakeries in New York City. She made six different crepe cake mixes, changing the ratios and recipe with each attempt.

“I find how to make it softer, make it taste better,” Liu says.

Since becoming a homeowner, she has furthered her efforts in her baking experiments, and has begun making specialized birthday cakes for friends and family. Among the most elaborate are a Minion cake and a soccer ball shaped cake, where she used paper stencils to design the gridded pattern.

She wants to utilize modern baking techniques to create unique desserts that are both healthy and beautiful.

She wants to utilize modern baking techniques to create unique desserts that are both healthy and beautiful.

Liu is not the only one in her family who turned her passion into a way to help and serve those closest to her. Much of her knowledge on the intersects of food and health comes from her mother, Wene Zhang, who began studying Chinese medicine two years ago, at the age of 50.

Her mother was a housewife throughout Liu’s childhood, but when her husband suddenly passed away from liver cancer, she needed to find a job.

It was a lucky coincidence that she found traditional Chinese medical care and now has patrons contacting her through WeChat to set up appointments. She can cure a child’s fever in a matter of 30 minutes, Liu proudly says.

“Even at the age of 50, when she feels like she’s really into something, she tries very hard and is focused with a lot of passion,” Liu says. “I am very proud of her.”

Baking desserts is not Liu’s only passion. Tea was an integral aspect of Liu’s childhood. Xinchang is known for its green tea called Big Buddha Dragon Well, and as a child, Liu would go to the mountains after school to pick tea leaves.

“It’s part of my childhood,” she says. “Even before the bakery I always wanted to have a tea house.”

When she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in Hangzhou, China, Liu always admired the quaint houses on the edges of West Lake, and dreamed of owning one herself. At her teahouse, she imagined, customers would enjoy desserts, a hot cup of tea and a quiet escape from reality while overlooking the peaceful lake.