Start with challah,” Uri Scheft suggests to a rookie baker.
Scheft is the creative force and co-owner of the much-beloved Breads Bakery in New York City, owner of Tel Aviv’s Lehamim Bakery — and now the author of Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking (Artisan Books). Just published, the cookbook instructs home bakers in making the delicacies served in his bakeries.
In fact, the first recipe in the book is for challah, the basic version before Black Tie Challah (a thin braid over the top is covered in nigella or black sesame seeds), Chocolate and Orange Confit Challah and Challah Falafel Rolls.
Beyond the challah variations, there are recipes for focaccia, kubaneh (a rich Yemenite bread that’s a cross between a brioche and a flatbread), Jerusalem bagels, burekas, buns, mutabak (means “folded” in Arabic — a thin, crisp stuffed pastry), sweets like tahini cookies and apple strudel, Breads’ famous chocolate babka, savory hamantashen with beets and hazelnuts, arak and sesame sticks, and, to go along with the bread, tahina, labne and distinctive spreads.
I met Scheft, who lives mostly in Israel, in the original Union Square location of Breads, which opened in 2014. A cafe and bakery, the place attracts shoppers from the nearby Greenmarket and others in search of handmade bread and pastries, and, particularly on the weekends, many Israelis. The decor is modern, Scandinavian, heimish; the aroma is heavenly.
Scheft is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He finds that his daily practice of yoga, along with a lot of meditation, improves the quality of his life. When he shows his hands, they look sturdy.
He was born in Israel in 1972 to Danish parents who had made aliyah 11 years earlier. He remembers their home being deliciously fragrant every Friday when his mother would make challah with the kindergarten students who met in their house. From early on, he was drawn to the kitchen.
“Bread and home are just very strong for me,” he says.
When he was 10, the family moved from Ra’anana to Copenhagen — his parents wanted the family to take in Danish culture and get to know their family. He returned to Israel to serve in the army, then traveled in India and China before studying biology at Tel Aviv University.
His parents, both teachers, chose their profession not out of passion but in order to have skills that would translate. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to do something he loved. In a later trip to India, he had one of those “a-ha” moments and realized he wanted to take up baking seriously. He went back to Copenhagen to study in a top cooking school, and after a day knew this was the path he wanted.
While studying and apprenticing, he also traveled to learn from other traditions. After a few years, he went back to Israel, got to know the local scene and suppliers, and in 2001 opened Lehamim (which means “breads”) Bakery in Tel Aviv. He would go see Arab, Druze and other bakers, not to document specific recipes but to see what they were doing, for inspiration. From his wife’s family, he learned about Yemenite and Moroccan baking.
At Breads, they sell challah and other breads and rolls including raisin walnut, olive, caraway rye, North Sea rye and whole wheat varieties, pastries and sandwiches. In a regular week, they sell about 1,000 loaves of challah, and perhaps 3,000 over the holidays. He notes that in Israel, they make challah only for Shabbat, but here there’s a demand for the “Jewish bread” all week.
While the place uses only kosher ingredients and they serve no meat products, they do not have kosher certification (his bakeries in Israel do have rabbinic certification). Scheft, who grew up in a strictly kosher home, explains that in New York they are open seven days a week, which is essential in the middle of the city. In the early stages, he was offered ways to get kosher certification even if they were open on Shabbat, as other businesses do, but he didn’t feel comfortable with that.
“It’s tricky,” he says, and describes the bakery as kosher-friendly.
Scheft used to tell people that to make bread they need two tools — hands and an oven. Now he adds a digital scale to that list. The book’s straightforward, step-by-step directions are accompanied by helpful illustrations. “If you read carefully, you’ll get it,” he writes.
“One of the great things about bread,” Scheft says, “is that even if it doesn’t turn out the best, family will enjoy it.” He adds, “Like so many other things in life, you can always do better tomorrow.”
I write this, sipping very good coffee, at a communal table at the uptown Breads, which opened earlier this year near Lincoln Center, alongside some Russian immigrants sharing breakfast sandwiches and pastries. Nearby are tourists from Sweden, a designer from Dubai attracted by the look of the place and an Asian family cutting into a whole babka.
“The idea of this beautiful and nourishing loaf made by hand and bringing people together around a table or even gathered at a kitchen counter to rip off a piece and eat it with such great enjoyment — to me, this is true love,” Scheft writes in the book’s introduction. Those words, “true love,” appear on the T-shirts worn by Breads workers.
“When I branded my Israeli bakery, I had the idea not only about breadmaking. This is the atmosphere of my shops, between coworkers, toward customers. True love,” he says. With bread and with people, he tries to pay close attention to the way they do things. “You have to live what you’re talking about, by example more than by talking about it.” *
BREADS BAKERY FAMOUS CHOCOLATE BABKA
“When I create a new pastry, it is very important for me to make a psychological connection to the pleasures of childhood, and in Israel, just about every schoolchild eats a lunchtime sandwich made with a chocolate spread,” writes Breaking Breads author Uri Scheft. “To tap into that taste memory, I use Nutella to give this babka its intensely chocolate taste. The croissant-like babka dough is loaded with Nutella and chocolate chips and then twisted into a loaf shape.
“I first called this chocolate krantz cake, but in all honesty, that name didn’t effectively communicate the deep, ephemeral pleasure of biting into the wonderfully rich and deeply chocolaty pastry. We decided to call it chocolate babka instead, and within three months, our babka was selected by New York magazine as the best in New York City. We went from selling a few dozen a day to a few hundred a day. It remains the most popular item at Breads Bakery, and we are very proud that our babka sparked a babka trend across the country.”
½ tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup whole milk (at room temperature)
2½ Tbsp. fresh yeast or 2 tsp. active dry yeast
2¼ cups plus extra for dusting and kneading all-purpose flour, sifted
2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. pastry or cake flour, sifted
2 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
Large pinch fine salt
5 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1½ cups Nutella
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
¾ cup plus 1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
½ cup water
Make the dough: Whisk the vanilla into the milk in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Use a fork or your fingers to lightly mix the yeast into the milk. Then, in this order, add the flours, eggs, sugar, salt and finally the butter in small pinches.
Mix on the lowest speed, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, and to pull the dough off the hook as it accumulates there and break it apart so it mixes evenly, until the dough is well combined, about 2 minutes (it will not be smooth). If the dough is very dry, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time; if the dough looks wet, add more all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together. Increase the mixer speed to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth and has good elasticity, 4 minutes.
Stretch and fold the dough: Lightly dust your work surface with flour and turn the dough out on top; lightly dust the top of the dough and the interior of a large bowl with flour. Grab the top portion of the dough and stretch it away from you, tearing the dough. Then fold it on top of the middle of the dough. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the stretch, tear and fold. Continue to do this until you can stretch a small piece of dough very thin without it tearing, about 5 minutes. Then use your hands to push and pull the dough against the work surface and in a circular motion to create a nice round of dough. Set the ball in the floured bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Chill the dough: Set the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and press it into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours before proceeding.
Lightly coat 2 standard loaf pans with room-temperature unsalted butter.
Roll the chilled dough: Lightly coat 2 standard loaf pans with room-temperature unsalted butter. Unwrap the cold babka dough and set it on a lightly floured work surface (or on a long dining table — you need at least 4 feet of work space). Roll the dough into a 9-by-24-inch rectangle (it should be just a little shy of ¼ inch thick) with a long side facing you. Pull and shape the corners into a rectangle shape.
Note: Only roll going along the length of the dough (left to right) and not up and down the dough. The height will naturally increase as you roll the dough, and by rolling the dough in just one direction, you’re not going to stress the gluten. If the dough starts to spring back, that means it’s tired. Let it rest for 5 minutes before trying again.
Fill and roll the dough: Spread the Nutella in an even layer over the dough, all the way to the edges. Then sprinkle the chocolate chips in an even layer over the Nutella, across the entire surface of the dough. Working from the top edge, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. As you roll it, push and pull the cylinder a little to make it even tighter. Then, holding the cylinder at the ends, lift and stretch it slightly to make it even tighter and longer.
Twist the strips into a babka: Use a bread knife to slice the cylinder in half lengthwise so you have 2 long pieces, and set them with the chocolate layers exposed. Divide the pieces crosswise in half, creating 4 equal-length strips. Overlap one strip on top of another to make an X, making sure the exposed chocolate part of the dough faces up; then twist the ends together like the threads on a screw so you have at least 2 twists on each side of the X. Repeat with the other two pieces. Place each shaped babka into a prepared loaf pan, exposed chocolate–side up. The dough should fill the pan by two-thirds and fit the length perfectly. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and repeat with the other pieces of dough.
Note: Embrace the mess! Twisting the dough is a sticky process, but don’t worry — after baking, even the messiest babka will still look beautiful and, more important, taste great.
Let the dough rise: Set the loaf pans aside in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough rises 1 to 2 inches above the rim of the pan and is very soft and jiggly to the touch, 2 to 3 hours, depending on how warm your room is.
Note: If your room is very cold, you can speed up the rising process: Set a large bowl of hot water on the bottom of the oven, place the loaf pans on the middle oven rack, close the oven door, and let the dough rise in the oven. Just remember that your babka is in there before preheating the oven!
Preheat the oven to 350°F. (If you are letting the dough rise in the oven, as described in the note, be sure to remove the loaf pans and bowl of water before preheating.)
Bake the babkas: Place the babkas in the oven and bake until they are dark brown and baked through, about 40 minutes; check them after 25 minutes, and if they are getting too dark, tent them loosely with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Meanwhile, make the simple syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat and set aside the syrup to cool.
Brush with simple syrup: Remove the babkas from the oven, and while they are still hot, brush the surface generously with the cooled sugar syrup (the syrup makes the top of the babkas shiny and beautiful and also locks in the moisture so the cake doesn’t dry out; you may not need to use all the syrup — save any extra for sweetening iced coffee or tea). Use a paring knife to separate the babkas from the pan edges, and turn them out from the pan. Slice and serve warm, or cool completely in the pans before unmolding and slicing.
Freezing and defrosting babka: Babka dough can be frozen so a fresh-from-the-oven babka can be had anytime. To freeze the shaped dough, double-wrap it in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil (and then in a resealable freezer bag if it fits). To defrost the dough, unwrap it and let it sit out at room temperature, loosely covered with a kitchen towel or in a homemade proofing box, until it has proofed to about 1 inch above the lip of the loaf pan (the dough will take several hours to defrost, then extra time to proof depending on the warmth of your room). Then bake as instructed.
Baked babkas also freeze beautifully, so don’t hesitate to wrap one or two from your batch in a double layer of plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and freeze them for up to 1 month. Leave the wrapped frozen babka at room temperature for a few hours to thaw, and then remove the plastic wrap and rewrap in foil and place it in a preheated 325°F oven for 8 to 10 minutes to warm through. For the last 5 minutes in the oven, open the foil to expose the surface of the cake so it dries out just a bit. Makes 2 babkas. *
By Sandee Brawarsky, Special to the Jewish News
Photographed by Con Poulos