Connection, community and gajar ka halwa cheesecake: Denver bake-off excites cooks of all sorts

Listen Now
4min 38sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
RRegan Cary, Andee Bray and Gavin Saffian, from left, assemble croissant pastries at Rebel Bread, Sept. 25, 2023.

Shivani Upadhayay decided to enter Rebel Bread’s inaugural baking competition from the moment she spotted an Instagram post about it.  

“I just thought that the best things in life happened spontaneously,” laughs Upadhayay. “So, I was like, why not?”

Upadhayay classifies herself as a home cook and, more recently, a baker. Like a lot of people, it’s something she started experimenting with during the pandemic lockdown, as a way to cope. 

“And a lot of it came from wanting to rewrite my relationship with my country, which is India,” Upadhayay said. “And the best way for me to always do that is with food.” 

She now hopes to share her love for sustainable and mindful baking with others. Her entry in the baking contest? A gajar ka halwa cheesecake, combining the flavors of Indian carrot pudding — which she describes as “spicy, floral and earthy” — with a traditional cheesecake.

She’s going for the Cake category. Bake Fest also offers cooks a chance to claim victory in categories that include cake, pie, bread and chocolate chip cookie.

The contest is the brainchild of Rebel Bread’s founder, Zach Martinucci, to celebrate the company’s fifth anniversary. Rebel supplies its creations to local cafes and farmers markets, and also runs classes for all levels of home bakers.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Rebel Bread founder Zach Martinucci. The inaugural Denver Bake Fest Takes Place October 7 at Rebel Bread.

The contest will take place Saturday, Oct. 7 at Rebel Bread’s headquarters on South Broadway in Denver. The pastry-loving public can purchase tasting tickets and help determine the People’s Choice Awards. There will also be panels of judges for each category, and winners get gift cards to local coffee shops. 

But the real prize, according to Martinucci, will be bragging rights.

“I'm really hoping we'll showcase the creativity that's out there in Denver. It's meant to be for both home and professional bakers,” Martinucci said. “We really just want to see all the fun things that people are making at home that they're wanting to share with the community and just be really excited about them.”

Photo courtesy of Joy Williams Clark.
Lyla Hubner prepares for Denver Bake Fest from her family’s home kitchen.

Second grader Lyla Hubner created a recipe for the 12 and under category inspired by her step-dad’s favorite dessert, key lime pie, but with a colorful twist of her own: Fruity Pebbles.

“The Fruity Pebbles kind of reminded me and my mom of two Asian ingredients,” Hubner explained. “Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.” 

When it comes to what Hubner enjoys about baking, she has a surprising answer: all the math and science it can involve — the chemical reactions that turn raw ingredients into finished goodness and the arithmetic required to calculate the measurements for a double batch.

The contest also attracted the interest of cottage baker Jeff Nixon. Nixon runs his business, Spruce House Bread, from his home in Centennial. Like Upadhayay, it took the lock down to get him started as a baker.

“I had never baked prior to the pandemic at all, ever, except for a tube of cinnamon rolls from the grocery store,” said Nixon. “But the pandemic happened and everybody and their brother was doing it, and I thought, ‘okay, I'll try the sourdough thing.’”

Nixon said the hobby caught on for him in a way he never expected, as a way to reconnect with people during that time of isolation. 

“Bread became a way — an excuse, really — to meet my neighbors, to connect with my neighbors again, to connect with my coworkers,” he said.

Connection is also his reason for entering Bake Fest, where he’s competing in the Bread and Baker’s Choice categories.

“As a cottage baker, I'm in my basement by myself, baking. And while that's awesome for me, and what I need for my life… I'm looking forward to meeting other people who are passionate about the same thing I am.”

All told, more than 80 bakers have tossed their oven mitts in the ring for Bread Fest. That level of response came as a surprise to Martinucci; when he first announced the contest, he was expecting just a baker’s dozen or so to sign up. 

“It started with an Instagram post and 25 people signed up in the first two days,” he said. “That part's still kind of wild to me. But we're just taking it and designing the event for them now.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the contest as 'Bread Fest.' It's name is Denver Bake Fest.