It started with a photo of cake.
In the depths of the pandemic in August 2020, at-home baker Elisa Sunga started an ambitious baking project: tackling 20 different cakes from baker Christina Tosi’s cookbooks, Milk and All About Cake. A popcorn cake with sifted popcorn folded into the batter. A banana cake with chocolate hazelnut ganache and banana cream spread between cake layers. Sprinkle-flecked layers of confetti cake. Documenting the project online as @saltedrye, she carefully preserved slices of the project cakes in her freezer.
When Sunga’s cake project was discovered by Tosi’s dessert shop, Milk Bar, it featured Sunga in an Instagram takeover and posted a photo of her cakes. The post, which has received 12,484 likes to-date, piqued the interest of Anabelle Brown, a fellow ambitious professional baker who also followed the Milk Bar account. “I reached out to her because I saw all her bakes are amazing, and to my surprise she responded to me and we became friends really quickly and became fans of each other’s work,” she says. From there, the two forged an online friendship based on baking, from two sides of California — with Sunga in the Bay Area and Brown in Southern California — where they made yule logs, frankenpies, and an icebox cake over the next few months, sharing photos and doing video chats with each other about their desserts.
That connection has since turned into an online baking support group of sorts, the Bucket List Bake Club. Each month, the 7,000-plus dessert enthusiasts who follow the baking group online either participate or watch others as they tackle difficult baking projects together. In the months since its inception, the group took on towering croquembouche, pieometry, kouign amann, mooncakes, and more — with photos of the final product shared online via the group’s Instagram account. Followers offer words of encouragement in the comments of the post, and bakers often share tips on the bake.
Both Sunga as @saltedrye and Brown as @bananabellebrown have solid Instagram followings of 17,000 and 10,000 followers, respectively, where curious followers watched the duo’s baking adventures. Eventually, Sunga pitched the idea of having others join in on their baking adventures to Brown, and in August 2021, Bucket List Bake Club officially launched on Instagram. At the start of each month, Sunga and Brown announce the month’s “bucket list bake” and followers try to tackle the project alongside them. Brown and Sunga plan the baking project for each month in advance, with possibilities planned out for the year, leaving some room for spontaneity, Brown says. They go by seasonality, big events, and holidays, such as mooncakes to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in September. “Highlighting bakes from different cuisines and countries is really important to us,” Sunga says. “We want to make sure that it’s not just all traditional French pastry.”
Once the month’s itinerary is set, followers then send along images of their fanciful bakes to the account. Imaginative takes on milk bread with swirls of matcha and hojicha; honey lavender dome cakes decorated with flowers and fanciful piping; fig-topped eclairs with pastry cream flavored by fig, star anise, vanilla, and cardamom. It’s an internet show-and-tell featuring home bakers from across the world — including, Sunga and Brown excitedly share, a contestant from the Great Canadian Baking Show — showcasing the creativity of the bakers, food, and (in lots of cases) the photography. “I think with the bucket list club concept, it’s fun to know that you’re doing it with a group of people,” Sunga says. “You have this very intimidating bake, but if you’re doing it with friends or alongside a community, I think you’re inspired and more motivated to do it.”
The concept has spread beyond Sunga and Brown’s networks, and each month a beautiful collection of photos of the baking prompt fill the group’s Instagram feed. “It started as kind of a selfish desire for Elisa and I just to kind of keep ourselves accountable, where we can keep checking things off of our bucket list of bakes,” Brown says. “And to see so many people connect with that has been just amazing.” It was the perfect salve for the times, as people were seeking a social life via social media, Brown says.
While the original premise of the group has remained the same in its year-plus existence, Sunga and Brown have noticed ways the concept is evolving. “We started doing it because we couldn’t bake together but we wanted to bake; not physically together, but we wanted to do the same activity together,” Sunga says. “But now it’s cool to see friends tagging each other and actually submitting it as a group. So it’s been fun to see it from this pandemic, socially-distanced baking into more of an activity that friends can share and experience together.” Still, Sunga and Brown have yet to meet IRL. “Even to this day, we haven’t quite met in person — it’s almost like baking pen pals,” Brown says.
In that vein, Sunga and Brown are already prepping for one of their biggest holiday bakes of the year for the club, perfect for groups of bakers: a gingerbread house. But don’t expect the usual, four-walled shacks you’re used to from your childhood; Brown warns this bake takes some game planning, as she learned from a previous attempt at a Grand Budapest-inspired gingerbread house. For the serious bakers, it’ll involve templates and finding the ideal gingerbread recipe for the structure. It’s an exciting project for Sunga and Brown, although there is one downside, they say: “The tough part about starting to get so many submissions is, I want to taste all of these things,” Brown says. “If only you could eat through the screen!”
Follow Bucket List Bake Club and the monthly bakes via Instagram, @bucketlistbakeclub.