Laya Cooperman’s kosher cake business all started with one custom order. It was for a friend, whose husband’s birthday fell on Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. She asked Cooperman if she could make a cake that was a replica of the Beit HaMikdash, or the Second Temple in Jerusalem — its fall is one of the tragic occasions mourned on that day.
To the best of her abilities, Cooperman replicated it in cake form.
“When I look back at it, I kind of cringe,” the Berkeley resident said. “It’s really amazing how much I’ve learned in the past two years.”
Layered by Laya Baking Co., which started as a side gig two years ago with orders from her own community — she and her partner belong to Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley — has since expanded into Oakland, where her kosher cakes and other items are available for pickup.
Entirely self-taught, Cooperman, 32, grew up in a kosher home in Maryland. She began cooking as a teenager after she became a vegetarian, and her mother asked that she begin making her own meals.
She and her partner came West to attend UC Davis and fell in love with Berkeley when visiting friends there. She always loved to bake, and when invited for Shabbat meals, she’d offer to bring dessert. Her friends looked forward to seeing what she would create.
After obtaining her master’s degree in public health in 2014, Cooperman worked in various research positions on such subjects as child welfare and gun violence. But as time went on, she found herself growing dissatisfied with that work.
“I love public health,” she said. “But I realized I do not like sitting in front of a computer eight to 10 hours a day.”
Also an artist and dancer, she knew she enjoyed the tactile and the physical. She enjoyed seeing the fruits of her labor before her eyes, something she never felt while crunching data.
And she loved the collaboration that happens with customers on her custom cakes. “In my former jobs, interacting with others meant sending an email,” she said.
While Layered by Laya started as a side hustle while she worked a day job, she has now quit her job to dedicate herself to it full time.
Cooperman admits she wouldn’t have thought to take the risk without the boost she’s received from others.
“My friends have been a huge part of this with their encouragement, saying there’s this void that’s waiting to be filled,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by how supportive people are.”
When she started in August, members of the CBI community began ordering from her email list. She specialized in 4-inch mini cakes, figuring that one household might not want to buy an entire cake but would want something special for dessert at the end of another week at home.
Recently she began delivering to Beth Jacob Congregation, where Oaklanders can pick up their orders. She gives credit to Heshy Fried, owner of Epic Bites Catering, whose stamp of approval brought in new Oakland customers.
Cooperman is still baking out of her own apartment kitchen and has no official kosher certification, but an implicit trust is there since she is part of the CBI community (her website says she operates with the same kashrut practices as the synagogue). Cottage laws allow baked goods to be sold out of one’s home, but she’s looking to move into a larger kosher kitchen.
We first tried one of her early creations, a lemon-juniper cake filled with lemon curd, for the new year in January. In April, she offered bakery boxes featuring a jasmine lime bar, a strawberry Bundt cake with cream cheese glaze, a salted chocolate cookie and a brown butter macadamia scone, as well as two types of cakes: banana with vanilla bean with Italian meringue buttercream and caramelized bananas, and a gluten-free and dairy-free chocolate cake with layers of salted caramel and caramel frosting.
She’s also been venturing into candy-making and eventually hopes to offer breakfast pastries. She always has one dairy cake and one parve cake on offer and is ramping up her gluten-free options, too, while continuing her custom orders.
Cooperman tends to favor olive oil as her preferred fat for parve cakes “because it provides a lovely tenderness, is subtle and pairs well with floral and fruity flavors,” she said. Safflower oil is used when a neutral taste is needed; organic, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance-certified palm oil goes in the parve frosting.
While Cooperman definitely has carved out a kosher niche for herself in the East Bay, she believes that for her business to be sustainable, she’ll have to grow and market to the nonkosher community as well.
“I really pride myself on the quality of what I make,” she said. She uses mostly organic and local ingredients, especially when it comes to her fruit, which she gets from farmers markets, Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market or neighbors’ fruit trees.
“Around when I was turning 30, I felt it was the time in life to value your own happiness, and that’s a big part of this endeavor,” she said. “I’ve been enjoying looking for the different avenues to serve the community, and do things they didn’t know they were missing. I’ve been liking getting feedback on what people want. That’s a lot of what’s driving this.”
Cooperman will be offering two flavors of cheesecakes for Shavuot: raspberry cheesecake with buttery shortbread crust ($30) and a gluten-free blueberry cheesecake with macadamia crust ($35). Order by May 7. layeredbylaya.com