Sunlight spills across the tables at Kyra’s Bake Shop, a modern and airy space on Lake Oswego’s A Avenue. It’s a weekday, and the cupcake clock near the entrance marks noon. Every table is full at this destination bakery, where creative cupcake flavors lure visitors from across the country.
Bakery founder Kyra Bussanich is a three-time champion of the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” program, having wooed judges with creative flavors like Lemon Basil and Chai Spice. But what Bussanich considers her greatest success is that her cupcakes were the only gluten-free creations in each competition. “It was a win for the entire gluten-free community,” she says of her multiple awards, “proving that gluten free can be delicious.”
Bussanich found her calling unexpectedly. “It was all an accident,” she says. “I really just wanted to have something that I could eat.” At the age of 20, Bussanich was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that prompted her to eliminate most processed foods from her diet, including pastries and baked goods, some of her favorite indulgences.
She began experimenting in the kitchen, baking with alternative flours, determined to concoct delicious gluten-free recipes. “I was also working a desk job that I didn’t really enjoy,” she says. Her husband asked what she would do if she could do anything. “Without even thinking about it, I said I would go to pastry school.”
After graduating from the Le Cordon Bleu’s patisserie program, she worked as an assistant pastry chef and catered orders of gluten-free cakes for friends, then friends of friends. The custom catering business grew rapidly and led to an opportunity to go on “Cupcake Wars” in 2010. “Once that show started airing on the East Coast, I had thousands of people wanting to share their story, place orders, and just congratulate me for what I was doing,” she says.
Bussanich’s initial victory on the show inspired her to open her first bakery, which was the size of a small studio apartment. “That’s really what started me down this path. I never intended to have my own bakery,” she says. “I had no idea there was this need out there.” Following her third appearance in 2012, she made plans to expand further, and in the fall of 2014, opened a 35-seat cafe and bakery.
Each morning at 4:45 a.m., one of 11 staff bakers clicks on the ovens and begins whisking, stirring, tasting and baking. Bussanich’s priority in the kitchen is simple: “I don’t want it to be ‘good for gluten-free,’ she says. “I want it to be amazing, delicious, tantalizing — and oh, by the way, it happens to be gluten free.”
In addition to gluten-free cupcakes, scones, cinnamon rolls and other sweet treats, the bakery offers a full menu with soups, quiche, salads and sandwiches. The shop is open seven days a week, ready to satiate any sweet craving in the most imaginative way — for example, the Fourth of July sparkler cupcake, topped with a festive red, white, and blue buttercream frosting and sprinkled with Pop-Rocks that explode in your mouth.
“That’s what I really love doing, — coming up with new ideas, new recipes, and putting them together in a way that’s approachable and a little bit exotic,” Bussanich says. One of her favorite creations is the Caramel Crush cupcake. “The familiar ingredients are the vanilla and salted caramel, and [there’s] a mascarpone-cream whipped topping,” she says. “But then you take it to the next level by adding curry powder to the cake, and chipotle and cayenne pepper to the caramel.”
On a recent day in the kitchen, Bussanich is testing recipes for an event at Feast Portland, a four-day world-class food festival that spans the city of Portland in mid-September. One contender is bacon toffee shortbread with bourbon-chocolate ganache topped with smoky bacon caramel corn. As she pulls out a sheet of the decadent bites, she hands forks to the three other bakers in the kitchen, and a discussion on the level of smokiness and a shared love of bacon ensues.
Many of the cupcake flavors spring from the availability of seasonal, local ingredients — like Willamette Valley fruit, Jacobsen salt and lavender from the nearby Barn Owl Nursery. “You can really taste the freshness,” she says. One of the bestselling cupcakes is the Oregon Bounty: a cinnamon cake filled with house-made marionberry jam and hazelnut buttercream on top.
Bussanich points to a packed box of index cards behind the counter, which holds close to 170 cupcake recipes. Some are available in “Sweet Cravings: 50 Seductive Desserts for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle,” the cookbook she released in 2013. Through the cookbook, she’s connected with ardent bakers from as far off as Dubai, many of whom email photos of cakes they’ve made from the book. “We do so much socializing around food,” she says. “It’s the center of so many traditions, celebrations, and holidays. Creating something everybody can eat it and wants to eat was the goal of my business.”
At least once a week, she receives a letter from someone writing to thank her for saving a daughter’s birthday party or a wedding. She’s even had a family travel all the way from Florida to Oregon just so their daughter, who has a gluten intolerance, could visit the bakery. “I still get all teary eyed; it really tugs at the heartstrings and reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.”