Opening Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking to Con Poulos’s photographs of chocolate babka is a most delectable declaration of what is to come in this cookbook by Breads Bakery’s Uri Scheft.
The image of floured hands kneading dough accompanying the book’s table of contents encourages you to roll up your sleeves and get started. “The smell of bread baking in the oven,” the introduction beckons, “the promise of its warmth, its sweetness, its supple crumb that contrasts to the browned, sometimes shiny-tender, sometimes rough and sharp-edged crust.”
“People have been settling in the region of Israel for millennia,” Scheft continues, “and now through marriage and travel, it’s not uncommon to have someone like me, a mishmash of cultures and influences, who is married to a woman, also born in Israel, with Yemenite and Moroccan parents — and we have a child who was born in the United States, so she is American, Danish, Israeli, Yemenite and Moroccan.”
Scheft trained in Copenhagen and apprenticed in bakeries throughout the world, always missing Israel. Eventually it was time for him to open up his own place, and in 2002 Lehamim Bakery was born in Tel Aviv, and in 2013 Breads Bakery opened off Union Square, fulfilling Scheft’s longtime dream of bringing his unique approach to baking — a celebration of many traditions, “to continue with the old ways and create new ones, too” — to New York.
The introduction continues with a series of clear explanations and instructions for basics, ingredients and flavor, mixing kneading, rising and proofing and baking, storing, and even how to create your own steam oven.
The first chapter is on challah. “By nature, I am a curious baker; I travel and take note of all the different ways of shaping and flavoring bread. Though challah is classically considered an Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) bread, I have seen versions of challah baked on the island of Djerba in Tunisia and in Poland, Colombia, and different Jewish communities in Israel and Morocco.” The challah rolls inspire the author to recall when his mother was preparing for Shabbat: “she took pity on me and would turn some of the dough into rolls — meaning I could rip into a roll right away without damaging her loaf of challah, which was destined for the dinner table.”
Round challahs, épi shaped challahs, crazy and festive ones, whole wheat and flax challahs, chocolate, pull-apart, challah falafel rolls… Scheft’s generosity of spirit and his willingness to share are deeply felt in all the pages. One deeply senses that the chef wants you to succeed.
His famous Chocolate Babka (lauded in various publications) and the accompanying photos will encourage any bakers of all levels to get to work. In addition to the home bakers choice of basic or advanced recipes for the dough, there are many variations on the classic: Ricotta Streusel Babka, Apple Babka, and the Chocolate Kugelhopf.
The Flatbreads section features Pan Pita, No-knead Focaccia, Lachmajun, Malawach and more. The Shakshuka Focaccia resembles a bialy with an Israeli twist on the topping; Jachnun, which bakes for 12 hours, is a hearty, heavy, crêpe — like Yemeni bread that is often served with grated tomato and spicy z’hug on Saturdays as part of the Sabbath brunch.
The section A Few Classics and New Discoveries pays homage to the Light Brioche, Dill Bread and the Jerusalem Bagel — “To be clear, the Jerusalem bagel has nothing to do with the American bagel. The only connection between the American bagel and the Jerusalem bagel is the hole they have in the middle. A Jerusalem bagel is a very airy, light, large oval-shaped ring; it’s also sometimes called ka’ak (in Turkey, it’s known as simit).”
There are stuffed breads, hamantaschen of all kinds, sweets, and cookies, all displayed in photographs of an extremely high caliber. Scheft’s Apple Strudel calls for helpers if possible, as the instructions clearly delineate the stretching of the dough.
Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking ends with additional resources for the home baker: the Bakers Pantry, a Baker’s Tool Kit, and the excellent index.