I was gonna start this article with an indictment of the Chinese Bakery Industrial Complex.
I was gonna talk about a decade of cakewrecks and disappointment, of a thousand hopes risen and dashed, culminating in a lifelong distrust of Asian doughnuts. All of those intricate layered stacks of promising frosting that, in the end, turned to nothing but vanilla-flavored tears. I was gonna explain that making a cheesecake just isn’t that goddamn hard, that there’s no reason for it to come out tasting like a wheel of gelatinized milk tea and Red Number 20.
How do you take something so beautiful, strip it of its essential nature, and produce something that is the same but without soul? The uruk-hai were bred with the blood of elves — remember that.
But now I’ve been to 1979 DIY Cakeshop, a make-it-yourself café and DIY kitchen on the west side of Jiugulou Dajie steeped in a thick miasma of estrogen, kitschy Polaroids, and sugared-up children, and my shit-talking sails are all out of wind.
I went in on a Sunday afternoon, planning on throwing something together for a friend’s birthday.
“First you choose what you wanna make,” said this really nice chick, handing me an apron. “Then you pay, then we get started.”
Pricing is all-inclusive depending on what you’re there to do, and each project has an approximate creation time. Six-inch cheesecakes run about 250rmb, with baked varieties clocking in at 3-4 hours, fridge-set cheesecakes at 2-3 hours. You can also do traditional frosted cakes, cupcakes, chocolates, and those pressed Chinese sugar cookie things that are not so much cookies as they are tiny bricks of smith-forged black currant and pig iron. I went for the no-bake strawberry cheesecake, turning my back forever on mocha, mango, and regular.
“I can still decorate this with frosting, though, right?”
“You wanna frost a cheesecake? …Okay.” Cake lady was cool with pretty much everything.
Look, let me spare you the nail-biting suspense: I made the cake start to finish — the 1979 staff talk you through the whole process, weighing ingredients step by step — and yeah, I get it now. I get the discrepancy in taste sensations. A Chinese cheesecake is more mousse than cheesecake — there is whipped cream where the condensed milk ought to be, and there’s this really weird part where they ask you to melt cream cheese in a double-boiler. No one uses any vanilla or salt, and no one knows what a graham cracker is.
Maybe this is just ego, but it felt kinda bizarre being talked through a process I’ve done a thousand times at my mother’s knee as if I’d never seen a springform pan before.
“This is an electric mixer,” said cake lady, “Don’t stick your fingers in the blades before you turn it on.”
They took my baby away after I’d poured the mixture into a cake mold, threw it in a fridge, and told me to go amuse myself for an hour and a half. I spent thirty of those minutes cringing while these two kids put eight metric tons of frosting on a rainbow cake base so spongey, you could cut it with scissors.
One trip to the mojito stand next door, and I’m back in the saddle with a bunch of piping bags. I took WeChat votes for decorating ideas and ended up with “booze, pickles, and Miley Cyrus.” Aw, yeah:
You know, actually? This shit wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad at all. I had apocalyptic expectations, but the final product ended up tasting like a mild-mannered strawberry yoghurt on an Oreo base. Everyone at the party was pretty down with it: I was soliciting complaints and there weren’t any.
Curiosity satisfied, I doubt I’d go make their recipes again, but I bet you could pop in and throw them some money to use their sweet equipment and materials, maybe buy some crap to decorate Christmas cookies with. They’ve got pretty good ovens, a cabinet full of silver dragees, and some crazy baker’s chocolate that ripped its branding off of Durex (like ya do):
1979 DIY Cake Shop is open daily from 9:30am-10pm. They're located at 125 Jiugulou Dajie, just south of the Gulou stop on subway lines 2 & 8. Find it on a map here.