If you grew up in a baking household, you know it well. Fresh-baked bread, the aroma wafting from the kitchen into all corners of the house, evoking a sense of warmth, comfort, tranquility, love, family.
It's not always easy to capture those feelings on paper. But in his new cookbook, "Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking," Uri Scheft has managed to do so, with the kind of familiarity that transports you to that same cozy space, breathing in those same scents, tearing off your own crusty little piece of home.
Israeli-born Scheft, long a respected member of the breadmaking zeitgeist with his Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv, decided to open a New York City shop, simply called Breads Bakery, in 2013. From there, his chocolate babka went from hometown favorite to undisputed legend.
And now, he's sharing the secrets behind those stop-you-in-your-tracks flavors and warm, homey touches that make his breads so wildly popular in the Big Apple and beyond. The book, published by Workman in 2016, is now nominated for a James Beard Award, considered the Oscars of the food world. We'll find out on May 1 whether Scheft's book made the final cut. But in the meantime, were aching to know the secrets behind Scheft's baking genius, so we got a copy of "Breaking Breads" and embarked on a deep, delicious dive into its signature recipes and most sought-after tips from the chef himself. Here are a few highlights.
What's in that amazing chocolate babka?
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"That was our babka. WE HAD THAT BABKA!"
It's not just a famous "Seinfeld" skit; it's also one of the best baked goods in existence. And Uri Scheft propels it to legend status. But the legend is not tucked away in some dusty attic in between old-world recipes and discolored photographs; Scheft has revealed all the details of what goes into that superstar loaf, right in the first 100 pages of "Breaking Breads." Among the gems: using Nutella not just as filling, but within the dough itself; letting the dough chill for 24 hours before shaping into a loaf and baking; and rolling the dough lengthwise, not up and down. Throughout the book, Scheft treats his recipes not just as a means to a final product, but as a journey, a study in patience and perseverance. "If the dough starts to spring back, that means it’s tired. Let it rest for 5 minutes before trying again," he instructs. Indeed, his babka, selected as the best babka in Manhattan by New York Magazine, is no instant sensation. But like many things, this is an undoubtedly worthwhile wait.
How many ways can you stuff a boureka?
In case you haven't noticed, Mediterranean food is best eaten on the go. Falafel, shawarma, kebabs, sabich ... you name it, you can grab it and run. Take some bread, stuff it to your heart's content, proceed to chow down. It fits quite nicely in one hand, no silverware needed; just hungry mouths. Bourekas led the charge here, and Scheft adores them. They're an old Turkish delicacy made popular by the frozen-appetizer industry, but for Scheft, they're nowhere near a freezer. He stuffs them with all manner of ingredients: egg, cheese, swiss chard, potato, spinach, and that's just for starters. You can even use leftover mashed potatoes as filling. We think it's high time to get stuffed, Chef Scheft-style.
Krembo, Sufganiyot and Rugelach
Krembo is a puffy, chocolatey, marshmallowy snack for which Israeli children have an unshakable soft spot. Sufganiyot are Israel's version of the doughnut. Rugelach are like mini-babkas. (We always come back to babka. It's inescapable.) Where can you find all of these age-old delicacies, baked with the attention and care of a professional chef? Breads Bakery, Scheft's NYC institution. But since the Big Apple isn't always accessible for folks, Scheft was kind enough to lay out each and every step of recreating these desserts at home. If you're going to make any of these three, this is the way to go.
To make Danish, be Danish
Aside from his culturally Israeli upbringing and all the Mediterranean flavors that brings, Scheft also lived in Denmark in his early years. It was quite a shock, he recalls, going from a vast countryside property to a two-bedroom urban flat in a foreign country, but it turned out to be beneficial in many tasty ways. "When I was 10 years old, my parents decided it was important for us to better understand Danish culture and our Scandinavian roots. So we moved from Ra’anana in Israel to Copenhagen," he recounted in the book's introduction. "For me, this was a total disaster. In Denmark we moved into a New York City-style flat where five of us lived together in a tiny space that didn’t even have a shower. Because I didn’t have many friends at first, I was home a lot and became interested in cooking and baking. My natural curiosity for creating began to grow, and I was intrigued by this very practical way to express myself creatively (and after I was finished, I could eat my experiments!)."
From there, the world was wide open. After moving back to Israel for high school, Scheft returned to Denmark to study baking at Ringsted Tekniske Skole, then went on to apprentice in bakeries throughout the world. When it was time to strike out on his own, he had all the tools he needed, with an open mind (and hungry heart) that was always learning and achieving more. And the rest, as they say, is cake.
There's more to baking than bread
Of course, bread is Scheft's specialty. It's his first love, in fact. But in "Breaking Breads," he acknowledges that there's also something wonderful about using it as a vehicle for your favorite Mediterranean dips and spreads, too. And it just so happens that he's pretty good at that part. Take note, for example, of Scheft's attention to detail in his hummus recipe: use Bulgarian chickpeas because they're smaller and have thinner skin; serve it warm and you'll never eat it cold again; process for 3 or 4 minutes or until optimal creaminess is achieved. Serve with that fresh-baked pita whose aroma you've been savoring all afternoon. If only you could bottle up smells ...
Bread is alive. Really!
Throughout the book, it's clear that Scheft doesn't claim to have conquered bread. Rather, it has conquered him. "I like to say that the only things you need to bake great bread are flour, yeast, water, salt, and your hands," he says in the intro. "There is no reason to allow baking to intimidate you, no reason to not make bread because you don’t have a mixer or the right pan or a fancy oven. Bread is infinitely forgiving and versatile. As long as you pay attention to what is happening with the dough – its moisture, its warmth, its vitality – it will yield wonderful results and will never fail to make you happy when you pull this beautiful and living thing (Yes! Yeast is alive!) from your oven. You made that! With your hands!"