The chocolate babka sold at Breads Bakery was voted the best in New York City. I can’t vouch for that – I haven’t tried every sweet yeast cake in Manhattan – but it is by far the best babka I’ve ever tasted, including my own.
So I was excited to learn that the Breads Bakery founder, Uri Scheft, was publishing his first cookbook – on breads, naturally.
In the introduction Scheft writes, “My first love was bread. Or more specifically, the smell of bread. The smell of bread baking in the oven, the promise of its warmth, its sweetness, its supple crumb that contrasts to the browned, sometimes shiny-tender, sometimes rough and sharp-edged crust. My mother baked often – not every day, but enough for me to connect the smell of baking bread with a feeling of pure happiness. The idea of this beautiful and nourishing loaf made by hand and bringing people together around a table or even gathered around at a kitchen counter to rip off a piece and eat it with such great enjoyment – to me, this is true love. And so it has become my life’s work to re-create this feeling of anticipation and pleasure with every loaf and pastry I bake and sell in my bakeries – and this is the essence of Breaking Breads.”
Scheft writes that the recipes come from the many bakers – professional and home cooks – that he’s worked with over the years. “I am Israeli, so there is, of course, a strong Middle Eastern inflection to the recipes in Breaking Breads. Others are recipes I picked up during my studies as a young baker working in Denmark, Italy and France. Still other recipes come from my wife’s family members, who are Moroccan and Yemenite, from Turkish friends, from a Druze woman who was generous enough to teach me her family’s secrets for a traditional stuffed flatbread, and from all the bakers I’ve worked with. But all the recipes are filtered through my experiences, and so the result is something that is close to the original but that is ultimately a reflection of my tastes and my cultural heritage, which is Jewish, Israeli and Danish.”
Once you examine the recipe for babka dough, you’ll see why Scheft’s is so good. Unlike most recipes, which are based on a brioche-like dough that is rich with butter and eggs, this one uses a laminated dough – like that used for croissant or Danish pastries – with layers of butter. The dough is rolled out, then Nutella and chocolate chips are added, before the dough is rolled into a long cylinder, shaped, baked, then brushed with sugar syrup. The same dough is used for variations, including cinnamon-raisin-walnut babka, halvah babka and za’atar twists.
Other recipes in the book include shakshuka focaccia; lachmajun with roasted eggplant and scallions; malawach (dough that’s stretched as thin as strudel pastry, brushed with butter then folded and shaped); Jerusalem bagels (very different from the chewy, dense “American bagel”, Scheft writes); various types of burekas; cheese straws; chocolate rugelach; and poppyseed hamantaschen.