Made. by Lia's Lia Holter has sweet dreams
When Lia Holter left for New York City in February 2014 to compete on TLC’s Next Great Baker, she didn’t know if she would be gone for two days or two months.
In fact, until that point, she hadn’t even expected to get on the plane. But after an intensive interview process involving personality questionnaires, an in-person conversation and even a cake-decorating challenge, she made the cut. Like most who are chosen to battle in a food competition show, nothing she’d done previously had prepared her for the experience. “They took away our phones, our laptops, basically anything to contact the outside world,” Holter explained. “We did 20-hour days. It was the most intense and grueling experience of my life.”
Throughout the competition, Holter faced challenges she’d never dealt with before. Though she’d perfected her lemon meringue tart recipe before going on the show, she wasn’t ready for the sheer pressure of having to do it live and while making more tarts than she’d ever made. “I had to make hundreds of them on the show, and it’s not something that’s easy to make,” she reflected. “I had like six hours to make two or three hundred of them. I had to juice every lemon.” After filming the episode, the judges asked her for the recipe. She had similar success with her peanut butter-chocolate cake, which was featured in People; she wasn’t so lucky with the 7-foot-tall seven-layer cake she made, which toppled over. “I remember that was a disaster,” she said, laughing. But despite that setback and many others, Holter won the season and was crowned a bona fide great baker.
But in St. Louis, Holter was already a great baker, having started many years earlier. It began with the Italian Christmas cookies she made with her family as a child. “The kitchen was my happy place from a very young age,” Holter said. “I loved to prep and cook and bake.” When she was old enough, it was jobs at Dairy Queen and Florissant hotspot Hendel’s, owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Christina and Nathan Bennett. At Hendel’s, she gained experience in a professional kitchen and started to think about what her career might look like. Since she was only 15 years old at the time, she was mostly waitressing and doing prep work like cracking eggs and cutting produce, which helped perfect her knife skills. “Going into pastry school, I feel like I had a sense of what I was doing,” she said. She went to Forest Park Community College for an associate’s degree in baking and pastry arts and also earned a bachelor’s in business at Fontbonne University. At the same time, she worked in a cake shop, gaining experience as a wedding cake decorator. “I knew going in that I always wanted to have a job that I loved, and I love to bake, so that’s why I started off my career there,” she said. The foresight to study baking and business simultaneously would prove wise as she began looking toward crafting a brand of her own.
After college, Holter studied abroad in Italy, but she’s quick to point out that “studied abroad” should be in quotation marks. “I mostly just ate and drank too much,” she said with a chuckle. When she returned, she was motivated to begin a new chapter, which came in the form of a Facebook page in 2012 called Made. by Lia. “It was just an avenue for friends and family to order little cakes and macarons,” she reminisced. “I remember when I got my first 10 followers and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.” During that time, she went back to Hendel’s to work as a pastry chef. Two years later, she won Next Great Baker.
“My little Facebook page boomed overnight,” Holter recalled. “I was working out of my tiny little apartment that had a half-size refrigerator. I had to use the top of my oven for all of my work. It was a crazy time, but very awesome, because people wanted to support me.” As she toiled in her small space trying to fill orders, dreaming of another break, she got a call from AB Mauri, the company that owns Fleischmann’s Yeast, asking if she wanted to be their brand ambassador. Soon after she accepted the role, the company opened a beautiful, state-of-the art baking facility in the Central West End’s Cortex Innovation Community and invited her to operate Made. by Lia out of it. She said yes. “I had all the space to take on quadruple the amount of orders and grow my wedding cake business,” she said. Eventually, it became so big that she and her husband Max Holter, whom she’d married in 2015, started thinking about getting their own spot. “Do I want to take on a crazy life change and open up my own storefront?” she asked herself. The answer was, of course, yes. When the building at 610 Rue St. Francois in Old Town Florissant became available, just down the street from her home, she jumped on it. Holter opened Made. by Lia there in August 2020.
Located on the same block as a small florist, a custom framing business, an appliance shop and the Citizens Bank of Florissant is Made. by Lia, a sleek, hip bakery whose storefront looks like an ivory cake decorated with black typeface. If you’re a pastry head, the shop immediately seems like somewhere you’d want to hang out. Inside, it’s airy and bright, full of fair tones, sunlight and buoyant, sugary smells. There’s a wide range of beautifully displayed options at the counter, from a candy-sweet lemon poppy seed vegan doughnut and a brilliantly moist cinnamon sugar cake doughnut (also vegan), to a tender and savory cheddar-chive scone. The raspberry-almond galette, endlessly cute in its single-serving size, reveals a luscious, jammy center when broken apart. Everything here is delicate and purposeful but still somehow simple; and when you do finally order, the cashier wraps up your food with the delicate touch of a surgeon or a concert pianist, to the point where you almost feel nervous to open it. But when you do, you realize – if you haven’t already – that Made. by Lia is a very special place.
Holter’s philosophy starts with what’s printed under her name on the storefront: craft bakery. “Everything we do here is made from scratch,” she explained. “We do everything from your classic chocolate chip cookie to our vegan and gluten-free items. Scones, cupcakes. We make all of our jams, fillings, buttercreams, caramels and cakes from scratch.” And while classic bakery fare is her bread and butter, Made. by Lia puts a unique spin on things by giving vegan and gluten-free items a prominent spot on the menu. As most bakers know, those categories come with big challenges. “It’s about making sure it’s not too gummy or mushy,” Holter said, pointing out that her bakery uses a lot of flax eggs to avoid using too many substitutions, such as applesauce, which can ultimately dry out a pastry. “We do a cinnamon sugar doughnut that literally you would have no idea is vegan. That’s one of my proudest and favorite recipes I’ve developed. Flax keeps the moisture in.” It’s been a journey to perfect her dairy-free items, but Holter is committed to the path. “Not every recipe is a win,” she said of the research and development process. But as far as her menu goes, most of them are.
Showcasing vegan and gluten-free food isn’t about optics for Holter; rather, a conscious relationship with animal protein is a central part of her life. “After I had my first kid – my daughter, Ella – I was nursing, and she was really fussy at the time,” Holter explained, adding that she also used to have stomach issues after eating. Her doctor suggested eliminating dairy. “Dairy was a huge part of my life. I ate so much yogurt and milk and cheese. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? It’s going to be impossible!’” But she did do it, and she and her daughter immediately felt better. Now, Holter leans toward a whole food, plant-based diet. “I’ll still have ice cream, so I’m not 100% vegan, but I choose a plant-based lifestyle,” she said.
Holter’s family includes husband Max and children Ella and James, and as much as what they eat matters to her, how they eat is also immensely important. “I think that the kitchen should be the center of your home,” she declared. “Cooking and eating with your family, eating at the table, is kind of unheard of today. People will sit and watch TV or go to their separate rooms.” And though she’s clearly the baker and cook in the family, she’s already enlisting her young children to help out and encouraging them to start developing the same skills she started out with so many years ago; now, 4-year-old Ella helps slice mushrooms during prep for dinner. “We eat together as a family, we cook together as a family,” she said. “It’s an important thing.”
Despite winning a national baking competition, launching a successful brand and starting her own already-beloved bakery, Holter has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I’m a huge dreamer,” she said. “It drives my husband crazy. He’s like, ‘You’ve already got your dream. You’ve already got your bakery.’” But she wants more. To start, her current bakery space is already maxed out, but she can see turning its 2,000-square-foot unfinished basement into a second baking facility one day. She’s also talked to a cookbook designer about launching a book series. “I’ve got so many different passions,” Holter said. “I’d love to have one on decorating cakes, cooking, baking. I’ve always wanted to have something that would teach the at-home baker how to bake from scratch.” Judging from the demand her bakery’s already seen – in under a year, she’s grown from having one baker to eight, with about 15 employees total – people will show up for whatever she does next.
Just like with getting on the plane in 2014 to compete in TLC’s Next Great Baker, nobody is more surprised by how things have turned out than Holter. “I’m blown away at how well everything’s going,” she said. “But nothing’s easy. I’m still learning every day what to do and what not to do. I feel like I know that this is what I’m meant to do and where I’m meant to be.” Still, sometimes, on those late nights following a 16- or 18-hour day, she finds herself longing for more harmony. Holter recalls mopping the floors of her bakery at midnight after some shifts, imagining a time where she wouldn’t have to be mopping at that hour. “I’m still trying to find that good work-life, mom-life, life-life, boss-life balance,” she said. From the outside, at least, it seems like she’s got it under control.
Readers’ Choice Favorite Bakery
Made. by Lia, 610 Rue St. Francois, Florissant, 314.551.2383, madebylia.com
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