As a pastry chef and Jewish baker, I have plied my trade over the years with literally thousands of pounds of butter, kilos of sugar, mounds of the highest quality chocolate and the finest ingredients I could source. I take great pride in being able to churn out melt-in-your-mouth cookies, airy, decadent profiteroles, dainty and rich pastry and the fluffiest biscuits.
My maternal grandmother, too, was a formidable baker. Her Passover bagels were light and ephemeral, her sponge cake the most delectable in a 10-mile radius. I remember she used to travel across town to a chocolatier store named Andree’s just to purchase specially milled coloured sugar with which to decorate her sublime cakes. But where did she acquire this finesse, this particular sensitivity to presentation and precision? Certainly not from the shtetl in which she grew up. After all, the rich heritage of Jewish baking lies not so much with pastries and fine baking, but with the very staff of life, bread.
I have spent much time ruminating about the culinary leap from the Old Country to this new one. Thank goodness for the appearance of what can only be called a seminal book, Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. At first glance, it appears to be simply a collection of recipes from a bygone era. A time when Jewish bakeries dotted the landscape, a warm salve to homesick immigrants. A time when everyone knew their local merchants and would stop to chat or to catch up. They were bakeries where housewives shopped several times a week for breads they once baked themselves, or where fathers toted their sons and daughters on Sunday morning for a special treat or bagels to accompany their lox and cream cheese.
This is what the book appears to be. But, in fact, it is so much more. It’s a chronicle of how Ashkenazi Jews used to bake in the Old Country and then how they translated those traditions once they settled in North America. The authors, Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg hail from boroughs close to each other and came of age in postwar New York City, a time they dub the golden age of Jewish bakeries. Berg was a professional baker for 25 years. Many of the recipes are ones he used himself during his bakery tenure, and the book is replete with sidebars on how gruelling but satisfying those late night/early morning shifts were.
Unlike other influential bread book “bibles,” such as Maggie Glazer’s A Blessing of Bread or George Greenstein’s Secrets of A Jewish Baker (which include a near encyclopedic collection for international breads), Ginsberg and Berg focus their considerable talents on Ashkenazi heritage, providing detailed accounts of breads and sweet goods from Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Poland and the like. The recounted stories as well as Berg’s personal reminiscences transport you back to the 1800s and the turn of the century, offering insight into how difficult it was for Jews to obtain flour and how they managed to make bread nonetheless. The narrative gives insight into how the Torah actually helped Jews choose which flours to use – rye, buckwheat or barley. They then highlight how the shift to bakeries began, and more prophetically, how these same bakeries soon became dinosaurs.
There is clearly a warm glow of nostalgia throughout the book. The authors lament the loss of a simpler, better time, the absence of these neighbourhood bakeries, the tight-knit communities that made them possible and the commercialization that eventually led to their demise. Luckily for us, their detailed recipes enable the home baker to faithfully recreate these glorious breads and desserts.
If you’ve never made challah before, then this is the best place to start. Aside from the historical perspective of how special challah was and still is, the authors provide five different challah recipes as well as numerous detailed pictures showing the reader exactly how to braid a two-, four-, five- or six-strand or double-high challah. The sheer number and variety of bread rolls will have you salivating and reaching for your yeast. There are formulas for onion rolls, kaiser rolls and challah twists. Ensuing chapters take you through the variety of rye and pumpernickel breads and let you in on the secret of different kinds of bagels, be they New York or Montreal style.
Sweet goods are not forgotten. There are wonderful, inspiring photos of coffee cakes, cookies, babkas, pastries made with laminated dough, and several strudels. There is even a chapter devoted to Passover baking.
Although the authors have painstakingly adapted large-scale recipes – some originally jotted down in bakers’ notebooks, some just from memory – for home use, novice bakers will face certain challenges. Many of the breads involve starters, which means bread preparation and baking takes place over two days, and several require flipping back and forth in the book to find different recipes. Certain flours and other ingredients are not readily available at local grocery stores but only through mail order (which the authors annotate) or specialized suppliers. Recipes are given in ounces, volume measurement in grams and baker’s percentages, sometimes making for a confusing recipe. And although bread recipes can withstand variations in flour amounts, cookies, cakes and danishes can’t, precision being the norm for more delicate baked goods. Again, first bakers may experience some difficulty with these recipes.
The above notwithstanding, if you’re a committed baker, or simply interested in the history and culture of baking, Inside The Jewish Bakery is a must have and a splendid addition to your cookbook library.
Reprinted from Inside The Jewish Bakery.
3 tbsp. + 1 tsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. table salt
4 eggs beaten
9 egg yolks, beaten
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 tsp. rum extract
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 cups granulated sugar (for coating)
Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a mixer and use the flat (paddle) beater at low speed to mix to a smooth dough with well developed gluten, about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350, with the baking surface in the middle.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes, until it no longer sticks. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes to relax the gluten.
Spread half the sugar on your work surface and roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/4-inch, using the rest of the sugar on the top surface. Use a sharp knife or a pizza wheel to cut the dough onto 1×2-inch rectangles. Give each piece a half twist to form the bow tie and arrange on a parchment-lined sheet pan about 1 inch apart.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the bowties are golden brown. Take care not to underbake or the kichelach will collapse when they’re cool. Remove to a rack and let cool for 3 to 4 hours until cold and thoroughly dried out. Store immediately in plastic to retain freshness. Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies.
BLACK AND WHITE COOKIES
Reprinted from Inside the Jewish Bakery
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp. table salt
3 tbsp. nonfat dry milk
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp. shortening, room temperature
3/4 cup eggs, beaten
3/4 cup water
1 3/4 tsp. vanilla
4 cups cake flour, unsifted
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/3 cups icing sugar
3 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 375, with your baking surface in the middle. Using the flat (paddle) beater at medium speed, blend the sugar, salt, nonfat dry milk and shortening until they form a smooth buttercream, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the egg in a thin stream, mixing until smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the water and vanilla, which will cause the buttercream to break up into curds. Don’t worry – it will all come back together with the addition of the flour.
Reduce the mixer to low speed. Sift the flour and baking powder together and add 1 cup at a time, mixing after each addition, to a thick, very smooth batter, 5 to 6 minutes.
Use a pastry bag with the largest plain tip available, or a heavy-gauge plastic bag with one corner snipped off to make a 1/2-inch opening, to pipe 3-inch circles onto well-greased or parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving at least 2-inches between circles. When piping, hold the tip about 1-inch from the pan and squeeze the bag steadily. Release pressure on the bag before moving to the next cookie.
Bake the circles until the bottom edge turns brown, 10 to 12 minutes, then remove to a rack and let cool.
Icing: Combine the water, light corn syrup and vanilla in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Add the hot liquid gradually to the icing sugar, stirring constantly until the icing reaches the desired consistency. It should flow very slowly, like honey.
Arrange the cookies on a rack or paper-lined work surface and spread the vanilla icing over half of each cookie in a single stroke. Keep the bowl of icing over a pan of boiling water to maintain heat.
When you’ve iced all the cookies, return the remaining icing to low medium heat and gradually add the unsweetened cocoa, stirring constantly until there are no lumps. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time until the icing reaches the proper consistency.
Apply the chocolate icing to the other half of the cookie and set aside to harden. Makes 2 dozen cookies.