The Bakers Reimagining Traditional Jewish Pastries

THE SCHNECKEN AT Edith’s, a Jewish deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, gleam with sugary glaze or drip with buttery icing, depending on the day. Sometimes the coiled pastries, named after the German word for snail, ooze globs of blueberry-sumac jam or shed honey-walnut crumbles. Once, ube (a purple yam from the Philippines) was added to the batter; the schnecken emerged from the oven with vivid lilac streaks. After Elyssa Heller, the 33-year-old owner of Edith’s, announces each new flavor on Instagram, “they sell out in, like, 15 minutes,” she says. But two years ago, when she opened her restaurant, Heller hesitated to put the word “schnecken” on her menu, thinking the name’s unfamiliarity might scare off customers. Should they instead be called sticky buns? Sweet rolls? Ultimately, she chose to call the schnecken schnecken. Preserving the culinary language that her Ashkenazi ancestors have employed for generations “is important when using food as a vehicle for storytelling,” she says. “People will come in and say, ‘Why is it called that?’ And then we can start a conversation.”

That conversation — about Jewish cuisine as an expression of pride, an edible historical record and a means of questioning and defining identity — is becoming more and more common as younger people determine how to connect with their Judaism in the absence of Shabbat services (only about one in 10 American Jews attend synagogue regularly) and dietary laws (83 percent don’t keep a kosher home). At the same time, according to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high earlier this decade, in 2021 (the last year for which data is available), and so the desire to express ethnic solidarity has become not just fashionable (see: Nike’s recent Montreal Bagel Dunks, with their sesame seed-printed leather) but urgent. That’s motivating restaurateurs like Heller, who established and named Edith’s in honor of a great-aunt who also owned a Brooklyn deli, with the goal of introducing a rising generation of Jewish eaters to their “great-great-grandmother’s food.”

Clockwise from left: Edith’s ube schnecken and lemon meringue schnecke; K’Far’s poppy seed, brown butter and olive bourekas and potato and everything spice bourekas.

Yet the offerings at Edith’s are in no way kosher, or even pretending to be: The most popular dish is a bagel — hand-twisted the old-fashioned way — topped with bacon, cheese and eggs. The question of what makes a person Jewish has been debated for eons: Is it their culture? Their religion? Their blood? In creating menus that combine Polish shtetl staples with Middle Eastern spices and popular American ingredients, chefs are asking the same about Jewish food. Most of their answers are, essentially, fusion food, a label that perhaps applies to all contemporary Jewish cuisine, as much of what’s available today can be traced back to a repeatedly displaced community that traveled across borders and over oceans, borrowing and repurposing ingredients and techniques along the way.

Until recently, however, “there were no high-end Jewish restaurants,” says Nora Rubel, 48, a religious studies professor at the University of Rochester. “Jews didn’t create the same kind of culinary culture in the United States as, for example, the Italians did. So you could go to a high-end kosher restaurant, but it wasn’t Jewish food — it would be French cuisine or a steakhouse.” Over the past decade or so, the 44-year-old chef Michael Solomonov — the Israeli-born, Philadelphia-based owner of the beloved Israeli restaurant Zahav, among other places — won acclaim for changing that, alongside a few others. Next came several artisanal Jewish-but-not-kosher delis such as Mile End in New York and Wexler’s in Los Angeles, which serve regional specialties like Montreal smoked meat and retro dishes like eggs with lox and onions.

A bourekita from Michaeli Bakery.

Now, many chefs are taking on what was once the most haimish, or “homey,” category: baked goods. But unlike the babka boom — which began stateside in 2013 when New York’s Breads Bakery started selling a laminated, crispy-edged Israeli version of the chocolate- or cinnamon-laden loaf cake — this Jewish pastry revival isn’t necessarily rooted in Ashkenazic nostalgia. Instead, these bakeries, which are opening in cities like New York, Mexico City, Paris and Tel Aviv, draw on wider, more diverse traditions: Eastern European mainstays like rugelach and hamantaschen sit beside bourekas (Iberian Jewish turnovers that came to Israel by way of Turkey) and malawach, a laminated Yemenite Jewish flatbread. It’s an acknowledgment, says Rubell, that Jews “aren’t all descendants of Eastern Europeans.”

At Solomonov’s K’Far, a Philadelphia bakery that debuted a Brooklyn cafe last fall, one section of the menu is devoted to Yemenite kubaneh, a savory pull-apart bread typically served for breakfast on Saturday mornings. Because of the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath, the dough — rolled into a nestlike spiral — was customarily slowly baked overnight in a sealed pot using the residual heat remaining from making Friday’s challah. At K’Far, the kubaneh is instead shaped into an American-style Pullman loaf, then cooked in a low industrial oven, sliced, toasted and covered with toppings like smoked trout or fresh ricotta with figs.

ACCORDING TO NAAMA Shefi, 42, the founder and executive director of the Jewish Food Society in New York, what had once been a slow culinary transformation accelerated when Jewish people from around the world began migrating to Israel throughout the 20th century, bringing with them the Jewish microcuisines of North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. It wasn’t long before geographically disparate flavors — tahini and chocolate; cream cheese and date syrup — landed in the same mixing bowl. As those recipes travel beyond Israel, they’re evolving again at places like Michaeli, which opened on New York’s Lower East Side in 2019. Here, the bakery’s 39-year-old owner, Adir Michaeli, who was born in Israel and came to New York a decade ago to be the pastry chef of Breads, puts out samosa bourekas — influenced by his favorite South Asian takeout place — and banana cream sufganiyot, a traditional Israeli Hanukkah doughnut that borrows the flavors of a classic American pie.

K’Far’s pistachio sticky bun.

In Mexico City, Zoë Kanan, 32, is revisiting the flavors of her Jewish grandmother’s Houston kitchen at Mendl, where she makes bagels, onion pockets and other Yiddish delicacies at around 7,000 feet above sea level, an altitude that complicates the baking process. She’s spent months experimenting with makosh, a pastry that originated in Hungary that she describes as a “giant yeasted rugelach,” for which enriched dough is rolled thin, covered in a poppy seed paste — she adds lime-poppy curd for brightness — and then coiled and sliced. It’s been challenging, and not only because poppy seeds aren’t readily available in Mexico.

Syrian Jewish immigrants encountered a similar issue when they arrived in Mexico en masse during the early 1900s. Unable to find sumac, a deep red, bright-sour spice central to Middle Eastern cooking, they substituted dried hibiscus, which has a similar color and taste. A century later, at Masa Madre, a Mexican Jewish bakery in Chicago, the 30-something chefs Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vasquez Felgueres sprinkle a hibiscus-spice blend on their challah, which is sold alongside tres leches-soaked babka filled with cajeta (a Mexican goat’s milk caramel) and Day of the Dead conchas made from remnants of challah dough.

Whether these reimagined sweets can still be considered Jewish food is, of course, up for debate. The more conservative minded would argue that anything without kosher certification doesn’t qualify. Often, Heller says, her food is described as “Jew-ish” — inspired by but not really of the culture. She finds that offensive. “What we do is rooted in history,” she says. “Creativity doesn’t make it any less Jewish.” In fact, if the past is any indication, the ability to adapt might be the most Jewish quality of all.

Set design by Linda Heiss. Photo assistants: Melih Aydin, Miri Matsufuji. Set designer’s assistant: Shawn O’Connor

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