Since its advent in 1965, the DeCal program, short for “Democratic Education at Cal,” has allowed students to create their own classes under faculty supervision outside of the traditional curriculum. With over 150 courses ranging in topics from “Sign Language in Healthcare” to “The Development of Kanye West’s Artistry,” there is a DeCal for everyone. But according to surveys, Berkeley's Baking DeCal holds the title for the most popular among students.

The “Life Skills: Intro to Baking” DeCal attracts about one thousand applicants across all majors and class standings each semester, but only about 60-70 lucky students are admitted into the course. The Baking DeCal embraces all experience levels. After reviewing baking fundamentals and culinary creativity techniques in class, students create their own recipes at home which are then sampled in the following class period.

I recently had the chance to talk with four of the six Baking DeCal’s instructors. Michelle Zheng, the DeCal's head facilitator, is a fourth year Economics major, Talia Wenger is a second year Molecular and Cell Biology major, Meagan Tang is a second year Economics major, and Devyn Donahue is a second year Data Science major. Here’s what I learned about the masterminds behind the course.

Q: How did you start baking?

Chloe Lee

Michelle: I started baking the first semester the Baking DeCal was offered. I actually didn't know how to bake beforehand, but after taking the class, the instructors asked me to facilitate the following semester since I was constantly asking questions.

Talia: I’ve never baked formally, but I started baking as a kid with my siblings and parents. Usually, the kids were responsible for making dessert, so I started by helping my older brothers and sister baking. Eventually, I became the main baker in the house. 

Meagan: I used to watch a lot of Food Network with my family when I was younger and was especially fascinated with the baked goods I’d see. Around the age of 5 or 6, I started picking out recipes from the shows and trying them out and eventually started experimenting with recipes of my own. 

Q: What do you enjoy the most about baking?

Eileen Wang

Talia: Baking is pretty versatile and flexible; I like playing with recipes to make them fit my preferences. If you understand the basics of baking (what ingredients do, why you need certain temperatures or methods of preparation, etc.) you can start changing things up. It’s also communal: friends always want to get in on it.

Meagan: I think what I’ve always enjoyed most about baking is actually just everyone’s reactions to my baked goods. Ever since I was little, I loved how even something so simple I created could make others so happy in return. Their joy would always become my own, and it’s such a great feeling for me. 

Devyn: I love the joy it brings people when you give them a warm chocolate chip cookie or anything else you've made, it makes me never want to stop! Every year my family and I make plates of 10 or so different desserts and bring them to all of our friends and family to spread some Christmas cheer, because what says Christmas more than sugar?

Q: What has been your favorite recipe to bake?

Chloe Lee

Michelle: It would be either puff pastry or croissants. My favorite recipe is Tartine Bakery's homemade croissant. If you start from scratch, it takes about three days to make. The outcome is great, because it's buttery and flaky, and it's really fun to make.

Meagan: My favorite is definitely my apple pie recipe. Not only is apple pie my favorite dessert, but it's also the very first thing I ever baked. It was for my family’s Thanksgiving party, and I’ll admit it definitely could have been better. But I loved all of the components, and it’s what really cultivated my passions for baking in the first place.

Devyn: My favorite thing to bake is my Crack Pie recipe. Just as the name sounds, it is literally addicting. It is a more difficult pie to make, with a homemade cookie crust and a rich milk powder, egg yolk, and brown sugar center. I make two servings each Thanksgiving, and we all sit around them with a spoon—not even taking the time to scoop out slices.

Q: What inspired you to teach this course?

Chloe Lee

Michelle: When I first started teaching, I didn't have the same breadth of experience as other facilitators, so it was a challenge to learn additional techniques. Since then, it's been fun tweaking the techniques I've learned, and it's really gratifying to have past students email me about what they've made with the techniques they learned.

Talia: A lot of people think baking is difficult and requires a huge amount of skill and time. This course gives me the opportunity to show people—specifically my fellow Cal students—that baking can be easy and fun. You don’t have to be a professional to bake, and it can be a ton of fun.

Meagan: I used to teach my little cousin how to bake all the time. Just last year she told me she was going to start her own baking business because of me, and that she’d already started receiving orders! Watching her grow from the lessons I gave her has been something really special for me to see and has inspired me to teach others the joy of baking as well. 

Q: What is your most memorable experience teaching this course?

Eileen Wang

Michelle: Sometimes, the memorable experiences are the funny ones. One time a student tried making cream cheese brownies, but because English wasn't their first language, they thought cream cheese was any type of cheese. They ended up using cheddar cheese in their brownies. Other times, we're really impressed when students go above and beyond, such as decorating an entire cake.

Talia: It’s really exciting to watch students learn from their mistakes. One thing I really stress in class is that butter and cream cheese should be at room temperature before whipping them. A couple of students took this advice to heart and decided to microwave their butter to soften it. They ended up melting the butter, and their buttercream was far from a frosting. But apparently, the buttercream was still delicious.

Devyn: The most memorable experience—as tedious as it is—is reading almost 1000 applications. So many applicants have shared their experience of burning down their kitchens or absolutely failing during their baking adventures. 

Q: Have you learned anything new after teaching the course? 

Eileen Wang

Michelle: I've learned so much about teaching and baking. I knew nothing about baking my sophomore year, but my junior summer, I catered for a vegan and dairy-free wedding event. I definitely had to make a huge leap in my knowledge, and what motivated me was the fact that in order to teach, I need to know so much more than my students.

Talia: I’m always learning from my co-facilitators: how to work with a team, new recipes, the best baking techniques. I’ve also learned that there are a lot of ways to do the same thing. Students consistently will try a new technique or new recipe for their weekly baking assignments and share it with us. It’s so fun to watch students branch out and get excited about baking, or even start teaching their friends.

Devyn: In teaching the DeCal I have learned that it's a lot more than just being a good baker—there is so much science behind all the techniques that I was previously unaware of. I always knew to have stuff at room temperature or not to mix the batter too much, but I never knew the science behind it until now.

These four baking maestros taught me that baking is a wildly fun adventure. It's an activity that can be enjoyed with others, and it offers a chance for you to get your creative juices flowing. Moreover, baking does not require a specific level of talent or particular academic discipline. These four ladies prove that it's never too late to get started. So what are you waiting for? Try your luck and apply to the Baking DeCal next semester. Maybe you'll be one of the seventy applicants and become Berkeley's next baking star.