Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
“We’re very busy,” says Claudia Crişan, “and I’m always surprised about it.” Her modesty may be genuine, but there’s no cause for it, as she’s the force behind Crişan Bakery and Edible Art Gallery at 197 Lark Street in Albany. “We don’t do any advertising,” she explains, “so it’s nice that we’re doing so well.”
Well enough that, just over a year ago, she closed the café portion of the establishment in order to concentrate on the orders that pour in for specialty cakes and pastries. She and her husband, Ignatius Calabria, opened the bakery in 2008, and established the café as a place to enjoy a pastry, gelato, and coffee even while salivating over display cases of their incredible creations.
Actually, the café hasn’t vanished. It moved to the Albany Institute of History and Art, “where it’s similar to what we used to have here. And you’ll find many of our classics there, like the devil’s food cake, the porcelain cake” – coconut, genoise – “our olive oil cake with lemon, and a very nice carrot cake, because it was one of my obsessions to create a good carrot cake.”
As for her storefront, “we split the space in two,” she says, “so we have a tiny tasting room in front, and the back, where the cases were, is now highly air-conditioned, which is especially good for the summer.” If you’re in doubt about the cake for your wedding (or whatever function), she’s happy to meet with you in that tasting room to allow you sample your options. “And I love the weddings,” she says, “because it’s such a happy occasion for whoever’s ordering it.”
Her own marriage was the result of a chance meeting in a Philadelphia college, but her story goes back to a childhood in Romania, where she grew up in a family of bakers. “So, really, I’ve done this since I was very little, helping my mother. At first I was just putting things on plates – but I remember watching my mother make things and feeling frustrated by certain parts of the process. I always got excited by decor, of course.
“But it was difficult for us then, because of what I would call a Communist diet. We didn’t have most of the things we have now to use for baking or decor, so you had to be very creative with minimal ingredients. Now that I think back, I realize that most of our recipes are very simple, but emphasize the ingredients they contain. So decor is, like, the last hurrah. My mother’s cakes were very beautiful but very traditional, and she always had a very interesting personal touch. You could always tell my mom’s cakes from everybody else’s.”
The child grew up with enough creative talent to win a place in local high school for the arts, “but there was no place for creativity in post-Communist Romania. To get accepted to an arts university in Romania was – not impossible, but once you were there, you had to become what your teachers were, and paint or draw in the style that your professors were doing. And I couldn’t do that at all.”
She paid her first visit to the U.S. while a high-school freshman, traveling with her sister on an exchange program to San Diego. “We were here for about a month, and we visited some universities, and that’s all it took!” When the time came to apply to colleges, “I wanted to be on the east coast. I got accepted at Alfred University, and I was interested in the Chicago Arts Institute. But I ended up going to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and that’s where I met my husband.”
Calabria was a music major, an accomplished guitarist who earned a master’s degree in music education. Crişan went on to the Royal College of Art in London where she earned her master’s in metalworking while learning to make wedding jewelry. But she turned that to the concept of creating consumable art, and soon she and her husband-to-be were dreaming of their own bakery.
Calabria’s aunt and uncle, who had moved from NYC to Woodstock, discovered that the Lark Street space that once housed Carosello Bakery and Roberto’s Italian Deli was available, so the young couple bought it and spent many months in renovation.
She and her crew make almost everything from scratch, including such difficult items as puff pastry. “I have salespeople coming in all the time with mixes, and I don’t even talk to them. If you’re doing this, you should be doing it the way it’s done. The only thing we buy is the fondant we use, and I don’t think there’s a big difference in flavor.”
And she’s a fan of local ingredients whenever possible. “We use Cabot butter, King Arthur Flour; we use Callebaut, a Belgian chocolate; we get our eggs from Feather Ridge Farm in Columbia County, and we use Meadowbrook for milk and heavy cream – it’s the best heavy cream I’ve ever worked with. We have this amazing cake that I can only make with that cream, the fior di latte, it has a crème Chantilly, with the whipped cream folded into some meringue – it’s a very beautiful white cake, and very low sugar, too, which is nice.”
Now, nearly a decade after opening the bakery, does the work still feel creative? Crişan pauses to consider the question. “Once you start working,” she says, “it becomes a daily routine that kind of submerges your creativity, but at the same time it allows the mind to want to create – it’s funny, because the way I go through the creative process is to think about the idea, making mental sketches over and over again, and each one builds on the previous one.
“The only thing I have a problem with – the most difficult part of this process – is the time constraint. Most of the things we make have to be refrigerated, because we don’t use any preservatives. So it’s a very short time that one has to finish it – and then to consume it!”