Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking
by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg
The title says it all: in this evocative volume, Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg tell the story of Jewish baking and its migration from Eastern Europe to New York. It follows its translation from the home kitchen to Jewish bakeries, and its eventual demise into mass production of puffy white bread orbs and fluffed-up, plastic-wrapped white bread flavored with a hint of rye and a sprinkling of stale caraway seeds. If the latter are the only Jewish breads you know, this book will be a revelation.
Over time, Jewish immigrants hailing from Eastern Europe have spread throughout this country. Still, even those remaining in New York know the frustration of seeking out a bagel that tastes anything like the ones they grew up with. Likewise rye bread or pumpernickel, Kaiser rolls, or any number of other Jewish baked goods. A new breed of artisan bakeries has cropped up over the last few years, and some of them are bringing back the old recipes. But as most have not been heretofore well documented, I am thankful to Berg and Ginsberg for making them accessible once again.
In the 300-plus page Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking (Camino Books, 2011), Ginsberg and Berg bring us back to a time when the bakery was the center of New York Jewish life. They guide those of us wishing to create the breads and sweets of yore in our own kitchens, which is what you’ll need to do if you are hungry for authentic versions of these foods.
The book is a personal one, and it holds great meaning for me. When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Stuyvesant Town, to the north of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. What is now a rather trendy development was then a place where a WWII war veteran could get a rent-controlled apartment for a reasonable cost. That’s how my dad was able to nab one for his parents.
Visiting my grandparents was what I imagine it might have been like to walk into a New York City tenement house or an Eastern European Jewish home—rich aromas rising as we ascended to their apartment in the tiny elevator always had me hungry by the time we arrived. That was never a problem, because invariably my grandmother had a brisket in the oven, canned fruit salad or a half grapefruit to start with, and cake to finish. There was always bread on the table.
My family lived in the suburbs to the north, where we bought all of our bread at a local bakery. There were just three types in our bread box: rye, pumpernickel, and challah. On weekends we might have bagels. My brother and I began baking bread as young teens, but I don’t recall ever making traditional Jewish rye, either because we wanted to make something we thought more special, or because we didn’t have the recipes to guide us.
In high school, I was most fortunate to befriend a boy whose father owned an exceptional Danish bakery called Jespersen’s. (Once, while travelling cross-country by Greyhound bus, I met a woman on a mission to sample the best bakeries from coast to coast; she told me Jespersen’s was her favorite.) Owner and chief baker Stanley Schear wasn’t Danish, and though he deftly mastered the Scandinavian repertoire, he also made a few Jewish specialties popular in the area, challah, cheesecake, and babka (oh, that babka) among them. They were some of my own favorites, and he taught me a few of them.
I have lived on the West Coast since the late 1970’s, but opening this book reawakened my inner New York Jew. Babka! Salt sticks! Bialys! Kornbroyt! Lekvar! Mohn! Schnecken! These are the indulgences of my youth and I’ve rarely if ever come across good examples since moving West 34 years ago.
The book is the happy marriage of a Bronx native with professional training and bakery experience, and a Brooklyn boy who learned the craft from his bubbe. Between the two of them, they understand the heart of Yiddish culture transported from Eastern Europe to New York, and the food that evokes its memory. The book is informed by both knowledge and experience. On the back jacket flap you’ll find Ginsberg cradling his challah as if it were his newborn child.
That the authors found one another through their participation on the website thefreshloaf.com is a lucky coincidence for us, and a testament to the importance of online communities for preserving culture and tradition. In fact, the two men have met in person only a few times; their relationship is almost entirely electronic. That may seem ironic for two men trying to restore a fading food culture, and it makes this a modern story in addition to one about days gone by. One benefit is that you can find an active community of folks using the recipes online, which is to say the book comes with a ready source of live technical assistance.
With its rich cultural narrative, Inside the Jewish Bakery is a book to sit down with and get lost in. This is no coffee table book—the color plates are in clumped in a few signatures and aren’t meant to be the beauty shots we’ve become accustomed to finding in modern cookbooks. Still, you can trust those photos because most were taken by the authors and their army of testers. There are also black and white photographs throughout the book illustrating methods, as well as a few depicting bakery life.
In addition to a great wealth of breads, the book includes chiffon cakes, rugelach, almond horns, tayglech, Passover recipes, and lots more. For my kitchen, I’ll take this kind of a useful book over a beautifully precious one any day. Certainly, it makes it easier to encrust the pages in dough.
Although the recipes evoke history, they are built on science, with ingredients given in volume, ounces, grams, and baker’s percentages. This makes them readily accessible to those at home without a kitchen scale (I do hope you’ll find one under your Chanukkah bush—it’s an immensely useful tool), as well as to professional bakers, who can easily scale the recipes. In fact, many of the recipes were developed using hand-written bakery scraps and notebooks filled with production formulas. This results in some peculiarities, like recipes calling for half eggs, but that’s a small price to pay for authenticity.
My heart lies with the book’s rye breads: hearty, substantial, and delicious. It has long been the daily bread of poor Jews in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania—the land of my people—to which wheat came only in more recent times. Unfortunately, rye can be a nuisance to work with, as it forms a sticky mess when mixed with water rather than the silky baby’s bottom feel of kneaded wheat dough.
Of the recipes I’ve tried so far—and I admit I’ve barely scratched the surface—my favorite is the Kornbroyt. The headnote says this bread isn’t for everyone, but I’m hard pressed to imagine why. It’s everything bread should be: dense, toothsome, moist, and flavorful. It is perfect slathered with butter or cream cheese, or encasing a favorite sandwich fillings. It is earthy and substantial and filling. It is food, not a throw-away food holder. And it keeps well, too.
If you had the good fortune to grow up in a Jewish family in New York, or in pretty much any family in New York, or in pretty much any Jewish family, then Inside the Jewish Bakery will feel like a homecoming.
Corn Rye (Kornbroyt)
Adapted from Inside the Jewish Bakery.
This recipe takes two days and requires a starter but it’s not at all difficult. The dough is quite sticky due the large proportion of rye flour; a bench knife helps keep it workable. I’ve provided ingredients by volume.
Makes one 3-pound loaf
1/4 cup rye or wheat starter
1 cup warm (90 degree F) water
2 3/4 cups medium rye flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
To make the sour, dissolve the starter in the water in a bowl. Stir in the rye flour and salt until well mixed. Cover loosely with a damp cloth and let stand at room temperature for 5 to 6 hours (or refrigerate for 18 hours), until the mixture approximately doubles in volume. Refrigerate the sour, tightly covered, overnight.
Sour from Day 1
1 cup + 3 tablespoons hot (108 degree F) water
3 3/4 to 4 cups first clear or high-gluten flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 tablespoons coarse yellow corn meal, for dusting
Stir the water into the sour in a large bowl.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, combine the flour, yeast, salt, and caraway seeds. Add the sour mixture, beginning at lowest speed to incorporate, then increase one level and mix for 5 minutes.
Moisten a flat surface (granite works well) with a bit of water. Use a flexible scraper to turn the dough out onto the surface. Using the scraper to help, pull and fold the far side of the dough away from you, then back toward you up and over the top to about the center of the dough. Repeat this folding from each side: bottom up, and from each side toward the center. Turn the dough seam-side down, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise until nearly double, 45 to 90 minutes.
While the dough completes its rise, put a large cast-iron skillet on the lower rack of the oven and a baking stone on the middle rack. Preheat the oven to 450oF. (It should heat a full 45 minutes before you bake.) Spread the cornmeal generously over a wooden peel or onto a sheet of parchment paper.
Wet your hands well and sprinkle the surface of the dough with water. Working gently to avoid pressing air from the dough, use your moistened hands and the bench scraper to shape the loaf against the work surface into a tight round. Use the bench knife or a large spatula to transfer the loaf to the prepared peel or parchment. Score the top with a razor blade, serrated knife, or baker’s lame.
Pour about a cup of boiling water into the cast-iron pan in the oven, then quickly close the oven door to build up a little steam. Open the door again and quickly slide the bread from the peel directly onto the hot stone, or slide the bread on its parchment onto the stone.
After 3 minutes, add another cup of boiling water to the pan; repeat 3 minutes later.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350oF and bake for 75 to 90 minutes. The crust should be very dark. If you have a thermometer handy, the internal temperature should be about 200oF.
Transfer the bread to a rack to cool for 2 to 3 hours before slicing. (Tough it out. Cutting a rye bread before it cools will result in a gummy interior.)