The story of Berkeley’s Crixa Cakes, and its array of espresso-soaked tiramisus, sour-cherry pies dusted in sugar, flaky kiflis with poppyseed filling, and other decadent treats that have garnered a devoted following, starts a quarter century ago with a lot of pain and a classic novel.  

Berkeley native Elizabeth Kloian had suffered a knee injury from fencing, which took many surgeries and years to resolve.

On painkillers in a post-surgery haze one day, her leg strapped into a continuous passive motion machine, she “could hear the snap and crackle and pull of that scar tissue growing back,” she said. 

During two years of therapy, Kloian, who had been working in a UC Berkeley lab doing cell research, wondered what she’d do with herself if her leg healed.

“I realized that if I can ever walk normally again, I wanted us to open a bakery,” she said.

When she recovered more fully than she ever thought she would, she opened Crixa along with her partner in life and business, Zoltan Der.

Crixa Cakes: The bakery is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 2748 Adeline St. Suite C, Berkeley. Check Crixa’s website for the latest menu. 

She took the name from the novel Watership Down, which she read while undergoing treatment. “Crixa,” in the rabbits’ Lapine dialect, means a crossroads of two horse paths. 

Crixa Cakes first opened its doors as a wholesale bakery in the Fruitvale district of Oakland in 1998. In 2000, it moved to its current location on Adeline Street, coincidentally an old horse stable. Kloian and Der steadily built a loyal customer base, weathered the pandemic and supply chain woes, and, as they celebrate their 25th anniversary, have begun contemplating what is next for themselves and the bakery.

Tapping immigrant roots

From the beginning, Crixa distinguished itself by modeling a European bakery. The couple believes in making desserts from the old country that are less sweet than their American counterparts. Kloian is a stickler for particular staple ingredients, some of which aren’t widely available here, as she wants the flavors to be just so. Dairy, eggs, butter, flour and fresh fruit come from local purveyors, but chocolate and liquor are imported from Europe. And aesthetically, the pastries and cakes evoke another time and place, as well.

The Kifli pastries, for example, crescent-shaped and filled with honeyed poppyseeds, are based on a Hungarian recipe (late 1800s to early 1900s) from Der’s mother Luci. The apple cake recipe is from Elizabeth’s maternal Russian grandmother, Elizabeth Butakov, also from the turn of the century.

Crixa’s apple cake is made with the recipe Elizabeth Kloain’s grandmother used. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Kloain, 55, is of Russian and Armenian ancestry. Although she is not an immigrant herself, she feels she was shaped largely by the immigrant experience. Both sets of grandparents came to the United States in the 1920s after World War I.

“Food is sometimes all you have left,” she said. “If you’re coming with what you can carry, what you’re carrying in your heart is what you left behind. A lot of that is the cultural stuff, which is often food.”

When she was growing up, her “Babushka” (Russian for grandmother), who lived within walking distance from her family in North Berkeley, was known for her apple cake.

“You’d come home from school on one of our wet or foggy Berkeley days, and she’d have an apple cake on her sideboard, just out of the oven, under a cake dome,” Kloain recalled. “The dome would be tipped open, as it was steaming and still warm. You’d smell it when you walked in, it was a bit of heaven.”

Crixa’s apple cake is nearly identical to the one her grandmother made. It’s light, incredibly moist and only slightly sweet. Large chunks of apple and walnuts are evenly distributed throughout.

“Food is sometimes all you have left. If you’re coming with what you can carry, what you’re carrying in your heart is what you left behind.”

Elizabeth Kloain

Der, 60, is of Hungarian descent, but was born in Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) after his family fled Hungary while it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. His parents came to the United States in 1962, when he was less than a year old, settling in Lancaster, Pa. He came to the Bay Area with plans to attend Cal, but he ended up working in film production until they opened the bakery.

“Whatever life immigrants like my grandparents had before, they didn’t get to have that life here,” Kloain said. “For that generation, you fitted yourself in where you could, and sometimes the only thing you brought with you was food. Food was a way to connect you to the people you left behind.”

And, she added, “We’re not just making things from places from our own heritage, but they’re from a time or era, when a lot of Europeans were coming here and starting bakeries.” She noticed that the European bakeries she remembered in the city from her youth were shutting down.

“We didn’t want that to fade away,” she said.

Both self-taught, Kloian is primarily the chef. They describe themselves as “nerds” in regards to the research they have put into their recipes. They have traveled in Europe to sample the recipes at their source, and hunted down cookbooks published decades ago. The recipe for Crixa’s saffron bun is English and dates back to the 1700s.

Customers crush on Crixa

When the bakery opened, Kloain and Der secured a few wholesale accounts early on, but they credit the growth of the internet, and particularly online reviews, with propelling the bakery to success. 

“When Yelp was new, it was a wonderfully optimistic and exciting website rather than the place it turned into many years later,” said Der. “There was so much enthusiasm for a new discovery, we’d get visitors from the city and the South Bay.” 

A few articles in local media boosted business as well, until they were having “explosive” weekends.

Crixa’s loyal customers argue it takes just a sample of one of their carefully crafted confections to become a devotee.

Crixa cakes has made between 700 and 800 different items in its 25-year history. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Like Vicky Kelman. She remembers tasting a lemon cake at a birthday party years ago. She’s been a loyal customer ever since.

“It was the most delicious cake I had ever eaten,” she recalled. “I needed to know where it came from and who made it.”

Ask five fans for their favorite item at Crixa Cakes, and you are likely to get five different answers. No wonder, since, according to its owners, in its 25 years they have offered between 700 and 800 distinct items. They now regularly rotate between 70 to 80, which change with the seasons.

“If I were going to be marooned on a desert island, I’d want the quaresimale,” said John Ewing, about the Lenten almond cookie from Sicily. “It’s got this crunchy texture on the outside, but the interior is chewy and substantial.”

Herbert Bock gives the highest praise he can give to their apple pie: “It’s better than my mother’s.” 

“The reason that any place survives 25 years is its customers,” Der said. “During COVID, they supported us because they were glad we were still here. We’ve felt so supported by our customers over all of these years. They’ve been wonderful.”

A pandemic pivot

For most of its life, Crixa functioned as a café as well. 

“COVID was a huge shock,” Der said. They closed for the initial three weeks of lockdown, but, as the pandemic dragged on, they realized a new business plan was needed. 

“We didn’t know what else we’d want to do, so we pivoted and built the online store,” Der said, with customers picking up their orders at the door. 

COVID also introduced a host of unanticipated supply-chain issues. Flour was scarce for a time, and the price of eggs skyrocketed. Then, a major cake-box factory shut down, making it hard to procure new boxes for their treats. Still, they soldiered on, but the cafe portion has remained shuttered. 

“We appreciate the many fond memories of Crixa Café expressed to us by our customers,” Der said. “We miss those days as well. The bakery is keeping us busy, and we do not have plans to reopen the cafe anytime soon.”

The sour-cherry pie from Crixa Cakes is another customer favorite. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

While Kloian and Der aren’t thinking of closing down or selling just yet, they are thinking about their legacy. They have aspirations of writing a cookbook, but that would take time they simply do not have as long as they are running the bakery. 

They are also open to selling it, eventually, if the right people step forward.

Kloian said watching her regulars’ children grow up before her eyes has been an unanticipated reward of being in business for so long, but she has started contemplating life after Crixa. 

“I love my industry and I love my trade, but it’s a brutally hard business,” she said. “It’s physically demanding, mentally demanding and emotionally demanding.”

Nonetheless, if anything has got them through two and a half decades and a pandemic, it’s perseverance.

And Kloian likes to think that trait runs in their blood. “It’s perseverance that got our families out of Europe and to the U.S.” she said. “It’s the same thing.”

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...