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Mike Van der Valk, owner of Mike's Pastry in Antioch, puts the final touches of detail on a batch of Easter cookies in Antioch, Calif., on Friday, April 4, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

ANTIOCH -- March Madness may be over but for Mike Van der Valk his frenzy is about to begin.

And, he wouldn't have it any other way. That's because Van der Valk is passionate about baking.

With Easter just around the corner, the owner of Mike's Pastry in Antioch is readying for one of the biggest holidays of the year.

"This is right there with Christmas and Thanksgiving," he said.

But the big difference is this spring celebration really comes down to one day, unlike the December holiday, which folks celebrate with weeks of parties and gatherings.

Van der Valk is set to work 16-hour days to mix, bake and create the number of Easter treats customers will want to snap up for the Sunday event.

He did get a jump on one offering, though. Since March 5, he's been baking up hot-cross buns -- one of the top go-to goods during this season.

"That's definitely an Easter tradition," he said of the sweet dough that he finishes off with a lemon touch. "I love hot-cross buns."

The spiced sweet bun is generally made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on top. Many superstitions surround this holiday bread. For example, sharing one is supposed to ensure friendship for the coming year.

Other popular sweet bread choices include Panettone (originally from Milan); Portuguese Sweet Bread (common in Hawaiian and New England cuisine); and challah, which is breaded and then baked.

Van der Valk also likes to offer St. Honore cake, a classic French-style cream puff.

And, while he can whip up a variety of upscale offerings, there is always the traditional bunny cake, finished off with coconut.

Staying on the sweet side are the oh-so-popular iced cookies, which come in a variety of seasonal shapes. Van der Valk is careful to keep the icing sweet but not overpowering.

"We want them to taste the cookie, not just the icing."

While countless dozens of these tasty tidbits head out the door, none of them is made by assembly or sitting around for long. "Everything is hands-on. We literally make (our goods) by hand.

"This is a very family-oriented day. We want it all to stand out and be fresh."

In addition to made-to-order treats, visitors can pop the A Street bakery and grab ready-to-go baskets filled with Easter treats.

"That's been a tradition since 1957," he noted.

Yes, 1957. Before it was Mike's Pastry it was Berry's Pastry. At 57 years old, it is the oldest bakery in East County, and has always been in the same location.

Van der Valk has been baking for a living since he was 17 years, when he took an apprenticeship in Miami. At 21, he was named pastry chef at a 5-star restaurant, later making his way to several high-end bakeries in San Francisco.

With a love of baking and an art background, he had found his niche. "I felt the calling," he said.

His goal was to own his own shop, and in 1989 he took ownership of the then-Berry's. He ran it until 2004. After a break, he returned to the commercial ovens and changed the name to Mike's Pastry.

He said his career has given him some wonderful opportunities, like teaching baking in Moscow and South America.

"I still have a passion for it."

Reach Trine Gallegos at TrineG@att.net

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