Inside the Jewish Bakery: A sweet taste of a vanishing world

“Inside the Jewish Bakery,” written by two Jewish veteran bakers, lovingly captures a tantalizing slice of the vanished world of the heyday of Jewish bakeries in the United States. Sprinkled throughout are vintage black-and-white photos from Eastern Europe and 20th century Jewish bakeries in New York. The first section is appropriately titled “Vanished Worlds,” and briefly traces the history of Yiddish culture in Europe, setting the stage for the in-depth discussion of Yiddish baked goods to come (please note that the book focuses only on Ashkenazi breads and baked goods; if you’re looking for Sephardic recipes, I highly recommend the Spanish-language Dulce lo vivas/ Live Sweet: La Reposteria Sefardi/ the Sefardi Bakery (Spanish Edition) or The World Of Jewish Desserts: More Than 400 Delectable Recipes from Jewish Communities).

The first bread mentioned is perhaps the most symbolic: challah, that golden egg-enriched braided loaf served on Shabbat. There are five challah recipes in addition to a step-by-step photo guide to challah shapes and braids. “Jewish rye,” or at least the mass-produced variety that most of us grew up on, bears little resemblance to the rye that was baked and eaten in Eastern European shtetls (“If challah was the queen of the Shabbes table, rye was the poor but honest yeoman who served during the other six days of the week”). The “new” rye breads made in the US featured finely milled rye flour and up to 80 percent wheat flour, whereas their Old Country cousins were about 55 percent rye flour for gebatlt broyt and about 95 percent rye flour for razeve broyt. “Inside the Jewish Bakery” offers several variants, starting with a rye sour culture, black bread, rustic pumpernickel, corn rye (kornbroyt), old-school Jewish Deli rye and mild deli rye. You’ll also find potato bread, Vienna bread, bagels, pletsl, Kaiser rolls, and bialys.

I was particularly interested in the pastry offerings, as my Polish grandmother would frequently make yeast coffeecakes, poppy seed rolls, and other Old World desserts that were a pleasant counterpoint to the sickly-sweet supermarket confections that my classmates would bring for birthdays. The book truly shines in its description of the various short doughs, laminated doughs, and fillings, and there is an excellent “Pastry Quick Reference Chart” that’s worth the price of the book if you’re a frequent pastry baker. There are plenty of step-by-step illustrations and photos of techniques along the way, and a centerfold of color photographs submitted by what I assume are the book’s test bakers.

You’ll find strudel, Danishes, bear claws, babka, yeast doughnuts, honey cake, sour cream coffee cake, and cheesecakes, along with a handy troubleshooting guide. Also included are old-fashioned comfort food cookies like rugelach, tayglech, mohn bars and kichelach. I tried the poppy seed cookies, which reminded me of the poppy seed rolls my grandmother used to make. The filling recipe was easy yet vastly superior to the usual Solo canned filling that my grandmother (and I) used, and I chose the sour cream short dough for the base, resulting in a tender, flaky pastry with a sweet, crunchy layer of poppy seeds and strudel. Patience is a virtue with many of these recipes, since the dough requires ample chilling time before use, but the wait is well worth it. The results were as delicious as any my babcia used to make, and a refreshing taste of a vanishing world.

Measurements are given in volume, ounces and pounds, metric, and baker’s percentages. At this point in time, I’m only giving the book four instead of five stars due to the numerous errata, many of which affect the bread dough recipes (at last count, there were six full pages of errata available as a PDF on the authors’ website; see my comment below for the link), so be sure to print off the list and double-check before starting your recipe. Hopefully these errors will be corrected in a second edition. “Inside the Jewish Bakery” is obviously a labor of love, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in baking and pastry making, especially if you are interested in Yiddish culture.

(Review copy courtesy of Trina Kaye)

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