The Bake Sale Returns to Its Political Roots

Bakers Against Racism and other groups of pastry chefs are reimagining the bake sale as a vehicle to raise money for political causes.
By Khushbu Shah
June 19, 2020

Pastry chef Willa Pelini of Emilie’s in Washington, DC, felt a deep sense of urgency after learning about George Floyd’s brutal murder. “I was born and raised in Minneapolis and grew up in the neighborhood where the killing took place. I was thinking what can I do? How do I channel all this weird anxiety in a productive way?” She reached out to fellow pastry chef Paola Velez who is on furlough from her job at Kith and Kin to discuss doing a pop-up, but Velez had bigger plans. “I was frustrated because my soul hurts, and my mind hurts,” says Velez.  “A pop-up felt like a drop in the ocean. So I thought, if there were more of us, how much could we raise?”

That’s how Bakers Against Racism was born. Together Velez, Pelini, and chef Rob Rubba (of DC’s OysterOyster) hoped to convince 80 bakers to make 150 desserts to be sold at $8 a piece. “We figured, if there are 80 of us we could raise $96,000,” says Velez. Within three days of posting the event earlier this month—it has evolved into a massive global bake sale. The team has over 2,400 confirmed participants from 38 states and 15 different countries including Australia, Denmark, and Turkey baking everything from thick slices of pound cake dripping with a bright and sticky strawberry glaze in New York City to earthy and chewy black sesame seed cookies in Paris. 

Bakers Against Racism is just one recent example of a modern and powerful grassroots movement fronted by pastry chefs who are reimagining the bake sale as a vehicle to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for political causes. “Bake sales are a form of protest,” says NYC-based pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz. “They are organizational frameworks that can be used to support or enforce certain values and movements.”

Pickowicz kicked off the movement of pastry chef-led bake sales in 2017 when she gathered 20 local chefs to throw her inaugural Planned Parenthood NYC bake sale. The event was a reaction to the results of the presidential election the previous year and the policy changes that were being made by the Trump Administration. “I wanted to do something based on my love of community and rallying people together,” she says. “And bake sales have a universal nostalgic appeal.” Her first year she managed to raise almost $9,000. 

Kim Alter’s original recipe featured a “birdseed” mixture of puffed grain and brown rice; we riffed on her idea and added some toasted and raw seeds and flaky sea salt to add even more layers of flavor to these updated classic treats. —Kim Alter, Nightbird, San Francisco

Get the Recipe: Birdseed Rice Crispy Treats

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

Since it first began, Pickowicz’s bake sale has grown exponentially, becoming an event that requires multiple detailed spreadsheets, intricate floor maps, and nearly a year of meetings to plan. The line to get into last year’s event was 90 minutes long and snaked down the block outside of Cafe Altro Paradiso where Pickowicz helms the pastry program. By the end of the day, Pickowicz and her pals—a 60-person group, mostly pastry chefs with a couple of savory chefs and cookbook authors mixed in—had raised $100,000. 

The movement has spread rapidly across the country taking place in cities like Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Alabama, and now online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it has raised money to support causes like Planned Parenthood, AIDS organizations, women's leadership programs, disaster relief, and bail funds along the way.

A crisp and sturdy crust transforms the French classic into a grab-and-go hero. Preheating the baking stone is essential to this recipe; it ensures the bottom of this slab pie is crispy and retains its texture for several hours after baking. A beautiful lattice top encases vibrant summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes, and fresh herbs in this vegetarian showstopper. Precooking the vegetables releases their excess moisture and deeply concentrates their flavor.
—Kristen Farmer Hall, Bandit Patisserie and The Essential, Birmingham, Alabama

Get the Recipe: Ratatouille Slab Pie

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

Pickowicz says she regularly gets calls from pastry chefs from every part of the country hoping to throw their own bake sales. “It’s nice being able to help or guide them or give them just the small amount of wisdom I've gleaned from doing this.” In fact, she has received so many calls that she recently launched The Bake Sale Project, which “aims to document the radical potential of the bake sale” while also creating an “equitable, free, collaborative, inclusive, and radical framework for learning and engagement” by providing templates, talks, recipes, contacts, and more. 

The bake sale as a powerful political tool is not a new concept. Since the bake sale originated in the 1800s, it’s been a popular way for people, especially women to raise money for causes. While you might associate bake sales with brownies made from box mixes funding gym equipment for the local middle school, they’ve also been an important political tool: during the Civil Rights movement, Georgia Gilmore, a midwife and single mother of six, organized a robust underground network of black women to sell sweet potato pies and pound cakes door-to-door to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott. Women, who make up the majority percentage of professional pastry chefs, are also the ones leading this modern bake sale movement. 

This snack cake catches the eye with its ripe red plums, toasted almonds, and glistening sugary crust, but the tender cake hidden underneath is the real star. The moist cake has tight crumb, but a trio of butter, sour cream, and chunks of thick, sweet almond paste make it exceptionally tender. —Miro Uskokovic, Gramercy Tavern, New York City

Get the Recipe: Almond-and-Plum Snack Cake

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

It’s easy to see why this movement has taken off: Bake sales are an incredibly accessible way to support causes you believe in. “I am not interested in these grand galas and political benefit dinners where it’s $10,000 a table to have things cooked for you,” says Pickowicz. “I wanted to create something that would be really accessible for everyone in my community to participate in.” 

Unlike the spendy gala dinners, for about $5, attendees can pick up high-caliber desserts—such as custardy slices of turmeric and raspberry pie and zippy kolaches—by some of the best pastry chefs in the country, whose desserts might be hard to access otherwise. 

Tart raspberries add a sweet burst of flavor to this custardy pie. A pinch of black pepper adds a mild savory note, while turmeric tints the filling with its vibrant golden hue. A custard will still jiggle slightly when fully baked; pull this golden pie from the oven when the edges are set and the center wobbles a bit for the silkiest, creamiest texture. —Maura Kilpatrick, Oleana Restaurant and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, Boston

Get the Recipe: Turmeric Custard Pie with Raspberries

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

And it’s an affordable way to fundraise. “I have no money to give,” says food stylist and former pastry chef Alexander Roberts. “But I can bake.” So Roberts put together a plan to sell a handful of cakes—crafted from layers of tender victoria sponge, homemade jams, and fluffy Swiss meringue buttercream—to raise money for the LA Bail Fund and BLM. He was hoping to sell four or five cakes through his Instagram for $30 a piece. So far, he has managed to sell nearly 50. “It’s more cake than I ever made in my career total as a pastry chef,” he says with a laugh. So far, Roberts has managed to raise $1,500, so far through his online bake sale called Bake Sale 4 Bail. “It’s more money than I could have ever donated myself.” 

It’s also a joyful way to support a cause. “There are so many emotions going on with everyone right now and anger is a super important emotion to acknowledge to harness and feel but it’s not sustainable,” says Pelini. But to her bake sales “a joyful expression of unity and activism and joy is a sustainable emotion.” 

These lacy cookies are studded with tart dried apricot, salty-sweet chunks of toffee, and sweet milk chocolate for the perfect combination of flavors and textures. Be sure to rotate the pans during baking to ensure evenly baked, perfectly crisp-chewy cookies. —Nicole Krasinski and Kathleen Kwuan, State Bird Provisions, San Francisco

Get the Recipe: Toffee-Apricot Oat Cookies

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

These bake sales haven’t just helped raise money—they’ve also helped strengthen the sense of community among their organizers. Pastry chefs don’t often get the spotlight, says pastry chef Zoe Kanan. “I feel like I made countless friends that I've interacted with in all kinds of ways, in person and online, since I started doing these,” she adds. “It has brought me to other communities and people that I wouldn't have known about otherwise,” notes Pickowicz. It’s not unusual for pastry chefs to travel to participate in bake sales in other cities, too. In Nashville, pastry chefs like Sasha Piligian and Kanan, who both were at Pickowicz’s event, gathered once again, this time for a Halloween-themed bake sale thrown by Piligian’s then place of work, Lou, to raise money for a local non-profit.

Velez says these bake sales are also a way for people to get to know their communities better. The Bakers Against Racism team made the decision to decentralize where the fund raised would go, instead empowering each participant to do their research and pick an organization that will positively impact their own communities. “My goal is not to have one organization get all of the donations, but each donation that is raised go somewhere that is absolutely necessary.”

Oven-roasted grapes develop a concentrated, caramelized flavor; paired with tequila, they give these deeply purple ice pops a grown-up twist. Use seedless grapes to prevent the juice from turning bitter when pureed. Blanco tequila works best in these boozy ice pops since its clean, unaged flavor lets the fruity agave shine through, a perfect match for sweet roasted red grapes. —Fany Gerson, La Newyorkina, New York City

Get the Recipe: Grape-Margarita Paletas

Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry