On a hilly street in Oakland, Rachel Caygill’s bakery is in the middle of a suburban block. She runs Green House Bakery out of her, you guessed it, green house. Under California’s cottage food law, her licensed pop-up kitchen operates out of a built-out basement. Having tasted one bite of her strawberry buttermilk layer cake, any doubts about trying a home cook’s baking skills are immediately quashed. After a particularly bad day, Caygill’s layer cake turned my blue mood into a cheerful strawberry pink one.
Two things surprised me most about the pastry box I picked up—her mastery of several types of dough and the quality of her finishing techniques. Some bakers excel at pies or cakes, but as I made my way through every pastry, it seems like Caygill can make it all—from a fruity frosted doughnut to a multilayered blackberry Danish with a perfect crunch. Should Caygill one day relocate to England, she’d be a shoo-in to make the finals of The Great British Bake Off.
On weekend days, two or more times a month, hungry people can line up at the Caygill home, hoping to secure some of her baked goods. She posts the items online once the ever-changing menu is finalized. Folks who plan ahead can preorder a $35 box that they can retrieve on the front porch. The hitch is that the pre-orders sell out within minutes. This is, after all, a bakery with over 10,000 Instagram followers. Social media has been a good friend to Green House Bakery.
While she was on a walk around the neighborhood, Caygill told me that the business would have been very different without social media. “My husband and I always say, you gotta start something, and then it’s going to tell you what it is.” That’s what happened with Green House. “I started it with a general direction, and it has definitely taken on a life of its own,” she said.
When she started, Caygill and her husband had just had their third child on the heels of buying their green house in East Oakland. “We didn’t have enough money to pay the bills,” she said. Out of necessity, Caygill started some freelance copywriting work, but that made her want to “squeeze my brain out of my head.” And, as many other trained chefs did during the pandemic, she decided to start a home-based business. She could bake at night or during naps while her kids were asleep. “I dropped off a menu to all our neighbors, to everyone on the block,” she said. Initially, she thought Green House would take special orders for individuals and for offices.
In that first year, the Instagram account grew quickly. “The amount that I could do has grown at the same rate as my business, until last year,” Caygill explained. “Now I can’t meet the demand, but I’m okay with it. I don’t ever want to be big.”
She also finds beauty in the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again. “That’s how you get good at something,” she said, adding, “You do it until you start to wonder, ‘What would happen if I did this?’”
Some of Caygill’s pastries are as refined as anything you’d find in a French patisserie. That’s why she hesitates to describe her approach as nostalgic or as Americana. But her father and her grandmother are the two primary influences who are fixed in her culinary memories. “When I’m baking things, it’s stuff that either I grew up eating, or that I grew up wishing I could eat,” she said. Her father’s primary hobby was experimenting as a home baker and cook. “He was always making fruit-forward desserts, like pies and cobblers,” she recalled. He also entered cooking contests.
“He entered an avocado contest and made a whipped avocado pie,” Caygill said. “It sounds gross, but in my memory it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten, almost like a key lime pie.” At the time, she thought, “How do you make a pie out of an avocado?” His approach to experimentation has stuck with her. But she also remembers baking alongside her grandma using church cookbook recipes. “We’d use a box of cake mix and a can of peaches— these 1950s housewife recipes.” Caygill says she’s always trying to recreate those desserts, but in a more organic way.
Having worked in New York and Los Angeles, Caygill doesn’t rule out the possibility that Green House would have succeeded in either place. But she has found that, especially in Oakland, there’s a strong sense of people wanting to support their own communities. “They know if I’m having a bake sale or pre-order that they can message me and tell me what they want,” she said. They get first dibs, and they’re not going to wait in line for it. “And if I have leftovers, they always go to my neighbors’ porches.”
With spring and summer fruits at hand, Caygill shared her go-to crumble recipe.
Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble
By Rachel Caygill
This is a very loose recipe that can be easily adapted to any fruit that you have on hand. I like to make a large batch of the streusel topping and store it in the freezer for an “in case of emergency” dessert. The streusel topping can be made with whatever flour you want. For a softer crumb, use the recipe provided with all cake flour. If you don’t have any, all-purpose flour works well too. For a heartier, more graham-like flavor, use half whole wheat flour. My favorite is Sonora flour from Capay Mills. You can bake this in an 8”x8” pan, or double it and bake it in a 9”x13”. I often bake it in a cast iron skillet.
FOR THE STREUSEL
150 grams (3/4 C.) granulated sugar
128 grams (3/4 C. packed) dark brown sugar
450 grams (about 3 1/2 C.) cake flour
1 tsp. salt
225 grams (2 sticks) melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or extract
FOR THE FILLING
12 oz. strawberries, tops removed and quartered
12 oz. rhubarb, cut into 1” pieces
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
150 grams (3/4 C.) granulated sugar
15 grams (2 Tbsp.) flour
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped or 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
30 grams (2 Tbsp.) cold butter
Preheat the oven to 350° if you have a convection oven, or 375° if not.
TO MIX THE STREUSEL
In a large bowl, add both sugars, flour and salt. Whisk together and use your fingers to break up any clumps of brown sugar. Add vanilla to melted butter and pour over the flour mixture. Use a fork or your hands to mix together until evenly moistened. You should have a crumbly mixture with unevenly sized clumps. Set aside.
FOR THE FILLING
I mix this part right in the baking vessel. Combine sugar, vanilla bean and orange zest. Use your fingers to massage the zest and vanilla bean into the sugar. Add cornstarch, cardamom and salt and whisk to combine. Pour this mixture over your prepared fruit, add lemon juice and cold butter, then mix again.
Pat fruit mixture into an even surface and sprinkle with a thick layer of the streusel. You’ll use about half of what you’ve prepared, and you can freeze the rest for another use.
Bake in a preheated oven for 35-45 minutes, until the streusel has browned and the fruit mixture is thick and bubbly. The filling will be translucent. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before eating. Serve with ice cream, whipped cream, or my favorite, just cold heavy cream poured right on top.