All photos by Ericka Xanthe
Paris is no stranger to love stories. Among the symphony of baguette crust crackling, the burble of street side cafes, and the proximity of art and history, dreams and desires emerge and manifest. But Ericka Xanthe’s recent visit to France was less a discovery of love than a reminder of it. Baking had always been a passion, and Paris showed her how much more it could be.
Bringing Paris to Berkeley
As one must do in Paris, Ericka frequented bakeries in the middle of sight-seeing, and there she met entremets, small cakes covered with a mirror glaze that are a study in layers, textures, and flavors. “I was like, what are these desserts, and why don’t we have them in America?” she asks. “I decided, when I get home, I’m going to make one of these.”
So she did. It was blueberry, and the act of creation—and the first bite—were profound. “There was something inside of me that said, this is what you’re supposed to be doing and you can do this,” she says. “I felt really empowered. The fact that I am given the ability to bake and to do what I love and to be able to translate that into a business was astounding.”
It’s no surprise that Ericka—or the Pastry Priestess, as she’s sometimes known—was a quick study when it came to baking: she had spent a decade getting an education in Michelin-starred restaurants. Though she was working front-of-house, her natural curiosity and passion propelled her to learn from every chef and line cook she could, asking questions, discovering the nuances of dishes, studying how ingredients worked and came together—“I needed to know food,” she confesses.
Pastry was always her favorite haunt, where superlative pastry chefs, from Rikki Garcia to Melissa Chou, let Ericka watch, observe, and learn as they prepared gourmet creations that Ericka still remembers fondly a decade later. “These women, specifically women of color, have really inspired me and inspired me to bake,” she says.
Engaging the Senses
After a culinary school stint at Laney College, Ericka debuted the Berkeley-based Layers by Xanthe in 2019, a bakery with everything from wedding cakes, entremets, and cakes just for fun (the raspberry yuzu is a crowd favorite) to high tea and sweet and savory pastry boxes delivered to your home.
“When I was thinking about my baking, cakes have layers, every layer is different. As a person, we have a multitude of layers. With these cakes, a different layer of myself goes into it. No cake is the same. No person is the same,” Ericka explains of the inspiration behind the name. (Xanthe is her middle name, meaning “golden” in Greek.)
For Ericka, baking, and the sharing of it, is spiritual. There is magic to assembling something beautiful from disparate parts, of communicating feelings through frosting and flour, of connecting with loved ones and strangers by making something uniquely theirs.
“When people eat my cake, I want for them to feel as if it was made for them. That they were thought of, loved, that the process included them, that they are important,” she says.
Layers by Xanthe provides custom cakes—“If you can dream it, I can do it,” Ericka asserts—but there are few things you won’t be able to order. For one, American buttercream. You can’t regulate the sugar in it, and Ericka prides herself on balance. “I want you to taste the bitter and the sweet within the bite. I want you to taste all the flavors,” she says. “All those layers should be defined and clear.”
No Dreams Deferred
COVID and the recent social unrest has rocked the nascent bakery – as the economy and jobs feel uncertain, people are less likely to regularly indulge in creative, artisanal cakes. Luckily, Ericka has a strong core of regular customers, and she says that some of the biggest challenges she encounters come from herself.
“We give ourselves these obstacles, we tell ourselves that we can’t do it,” she says, citing the difficulties of comparing herself to other bakers on social media. “But it doesn’t matter,” she adds, “Because when people taste my stuff, they get it.”
That’s why there’s a Dylan Thomas quote on the bottom of her website: it’s a reminder to have faith in your dreams and yourself, even when things become difficult.
Another way to counter difficult days? Cake.
While Ericka’s currently planning her new, seasonal fall menu, the venture she’s most excited about is giving away current favorite desserts for free.
People can submit the names of Bay Area-based friends and families into a raffle for the chance to win a birthday cake, wedding cake, or a cake for cake’s sake, and Ericka will randomly select a name to receive one of her creations, suffused with her typical creativity. Expect feuilletine or edible flowers, elegant embellishments that add a touch of artistry and personality to each creation.
It’s important to do this, Ericka says, because she has gotten to live her dream – and she wants to use her talents to brighten the lives of those around her during a difficult time.
“I never thought my passion could be someone’s bright spot,” she says. “It’s my way of giving back. It’s about making someone’s day better.”