The Best Babka Baker and Sufganiyot Maker
When he finally set out to write a cookbook, Uri Scheft could have taken the easy way out. The founder of Israel’s successful Lehamim (breads) bakery minichain and its three New York spinoffs, each called Breads Bakery, Scheft had plenty of greatest-hits recipes already committed to paper and ready to go.
But he had something else in mind. “The idea was to not simply take the bakery lineup and do home versions,” Scheft, 53, said over lunch at The John Dory restaurant in New York City in early autumn. “I knew that this would be more than a cookbook; it would be a journey.”
Born in Israel to Danish parents, he grew up in the suburb of Ra’anana before his family moved back to Denmark when he was 10. It was there that he first began baking, developing a love of marzipan that persists to this day—and shows up often both in the book and on his bakery menus.
As a teenager, his family returned to Israel. After completing his army service, Scheft began traveling the world and studied pastry making in Denmark. Eventually, he rounded out his experience under masters like France’s Eric Kayser.
The results of a lifetime of formal training and flour-dusted wanderlust are on display in the recently released Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking, co-authored with award-winning food writer and cookbook author Raquel Pelzel. Its pages, gorgeously photographed by
Con Poulos, serve as both a career monograph and a master class that expands the reader’s understanding of Israeli baking and beyond.
Scheft, who divides his time between Tel Aviv and New York, has long enjoyed great respect in the Israeli culinary community, where he is admired for perfecting the sweet spot between business expansion and an unrelenting focus on quality. His olive sourdough loaves, flaky cheese sticks, seeded focaccias and almond croissants—not to mention seasonal delicacies like sufganiyot and hamantaschen—are as delicious as they are technically perfect.
In 2013, with little fanfare, he co-opened his first Breads Bakery, in Manhattan’s Union Square. Almost immediately, the bakery became a cult destination, in large part thanks to his babka. Called kranz (a variation on the word “crunch”) in Israel, Scheft’s babka incorporates a light, buttery yeast dough with a Nutella filling. His version earned New York magazine’s “best-of” distinction mere months after its stateside debut.
Scheft’s publisher at Artisan, Lia Ronnen, was an early supporter in New York. “He is unlike any other baker, in Israel or elsewhere,” said Ronnen, who also has Israeli roots and whose brother, Tal Ronnen, owns the celebrity-friendly vegan restaurant Crossroads in Los Angeles. “Bakers typically call to mind dour obsessives interested in perfection above all else. Uri is different. His playfulness and sensitivity are reflected in everything he does. And he is perfectly reflective of where Israeli food culture is right now.”
That culture reflects Israel’s ability to blend more than 100 ethnic and immigrant traditions into a delicious pastiche. For the book, he traveled extensively throughout Israel and abroad. In Djerba, Tunisia, he watched Jewish women make pull-apart dill bread, forming it into a flower shape before baking it in a communal oven. In the Israeli village of Daliat el-Carmel, he perfected his pita-making skills with Druze women. And Scheft immersed himself in the canon of Yemenite breads, like Sabbath specialties jachnun and kubaneh, with help from Rinat Tzadok, his life partner and professional collaborator, with whom he has a one-year-old daughter. (Scheft also has two children, ages 23 and 21, from an earlier marriage.)
It was in his travels to Krakow, Poland, for a Jewish food festival that he shared his challah recipe and took away something in return: the discovery that Poles didn’t necessarily associate the braided loaf with Jewish baking, and often topped it with streusel. And it was while observing the production of Bukharan flatbreads that he connected the dots between that particular recipe and Italian focaccia dough.
“So many societies are connected by recipes and techniques,” said Scheft, who sees the world coming a little bit closer through culinary communication. “It’s amazing what flour and water can do.”
Adeena Sussman is a cookbook author, recipe developer and food stylist based in New York City and Tel Aviv. Her latest cookbook is Short Stacks’ Tahini.
2 1/4teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
3 – 4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for kneading and rolling
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm whole milk
Pinch grated orange zest
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon brandy (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 cups or more vegetable oil, for frying
1 1/2 cups strawberry jam
Confectioners’ sugar for finishing
1. Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer, use your fingers to dissolve the yeast into the warm water. Stir in 1 tablespoon of flour and 1 tablespoon of sugar, and set aside until the mixture is bubbling, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the egg yolks, whole egg, milk, orange zest and juice, brandy (if using), salt, vanilla, the remaining sugar and flour to the yeast mixture.
Attach the dough hook and mix on low speed until the dough comes together, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. With the mixer running on medium speed, gradually add the butter, a pinch at a time. Continue to mix until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl (add a spoonful or two of flour if needed), is smooth and shiny, and is beginning to climb up the dough hook, about 4 minutes.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and lightly dust the top of the dough with flour. Stretch the top piece of the dough until it tears, then fold it back down onto the top of the remaining dough. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat, tearing and folding, adding more flour as needed, until the dough isn’t sticky, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured bowl, sprinkle the top with flour and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm and draft-free spot until dough has doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
5. Set the dough on a lightly floured work surface and use a rolling pin to roll it into a 1/2-inch-thick sheet. Use a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter to stamp out rounds of dough as close together as possible to minimize the amount of scraps; after pressing the cutter into the dough, twist it before pulling it out from the sheet. Gather the scraps, press them together and rest them for 5 minutes, covered; gently reroll them to stamp out a few more sufganiyot.
6. Place the dough rounds on a lightly greased (use a little oil) parchment paper-lined sheet pan and cover with a kitchen towel. Let the rounds rise in a draft-free spot at room temperature until nearly doubled in volume, 40 to 50 minutes. (At this point, after rising, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 hours before frying.)
7. Fill a large saucepan with enough oil to reach a depth of 4 inches. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it reads 350°F on an instant-read thermometer. Start with one dough round and fry, turning it with a slotted spoon or frying spider, until both sides are golden, about 2 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the doughnut to a paper towel-lined plate. Continue frying the remaining doughnuts in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan. Let the doughnuts cool completely before filling them.
8. Place the jam in a food processor and process until smooth. Scrape the jam into a piping bag fitted with a 1/4-inch round tip and insert the tip into the top of a doughnut. Squeeze jam into the doughnut until the jam begins to ooze out of the hole at the top. Repeat with the remaining sufganiyot. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
2 cups (scant) cold water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
5 1/4 cups cake flour, sifted
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
4 1/2cups or more vegetable oil, for frying
Granulated sugar for finishing the doughnuts
1. Pour the water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Whisk the yeast into the water. Add the flour, sugar and salt and mix on low speed until the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds (the mixture will be very loose, sticky and runny). Grease a large bowl with a drop of oil and use a plastic dough scraper to transfer the very sticky and loose batter to the oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes (the batter should just about double in volume).
2. Remove the plastic wrap, wet your hands and flop one side of the batter over on top of itself. The batter will be very loose and sticky, so just do the best you can. Give the bowl a quarter turn and flop the next side over. Repeat until all 4 sides of the batter have been folded over; then repeat 3 more times so you have folded each quarter of the batter over 4 times. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
3. Heat the oil in a medium or large saucepan over high heat until it reaches 350°F on an instant-read thermometer. Reduce the heat to medium.
Set the bowl of batter to one side of the saucepan and place a paper towel-lined plate on the other side.
4. Fill a medium bowl with water. Dip your hands in and then break off a fistful of the batter, and force your thumb through the center of the mass. Gently use both hands to pull the dough into a rough doughnut shape (the dough is very sticky and loose, so this needs to be done quickly). Carefully place the doughnut in the hot oil—it should not look perfect! Repeat with 1 or 2 more doughnuts—don’t overcrowd the pan.
5. Fry the doughnuts until they are golden brown on both sides, using a slotted spoon or frying spider to turn them often so both sides cook evenly. Once both sides are golden brown, after 2 to 3 minutes, transfer the doughnuts to paper towel-lined plate and repeat with more batter.
6. While the next batch fries, roll the still-warm doughnuts in granulated sugar. Serve warm or within 1 hour of frying.
For the babka dough:
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk at room temperature
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups sifted, all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting and kneading
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry or cake flour, sifted
2 large eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Large pinch fine salt
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter at room temperature
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups Nutella
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
For the simple syrup:
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Make the dough: Whisk the vanilla into the milk in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Use a fork or your fingers to lightly mix the yeast into the milk. Then, in this order, add the flours, eggs, sugar, salt and finally the butter in small pinches. Mix on the lowest speed, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, and to pull the dough off the hook as it accumulates and break it apart so it mixes evenly, about 2 minutes (it will not be smooth). If the dough is very dry, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time; if the dough looks wet, add more all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Increase the mixer speed to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, 4 minutes.
Stretch and fold the dough: Lightly dust your work surface with flour and turn the dough on top; lightly dust the top of the dough and the interior of a large bowl with flour. Grab the top portion of the dough and stretch it away from you, tearing the dough. Then fold it on top of the middle of the dough. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the stretch, tear and fold. Continue to do this until you can stretch a small piece of dough very thin without it tearing, about 5 minutes. Then use your hands to push and pull the dough against the work surface and in a circular motion to create a nice round of dough. Ball up the dough and put in the floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Set the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and press it into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
Prepare and twist the babkas: Lightly coat 2 standard loaf pans with unsalted butter. Roll the babka dough into a 9-by-24-inch rectangle. Spread the Nutella in an even layer over the dough, all the way to the edges. Then sprinkle the chocolate chips in an even layer over the Nutella, across the entire surface of the dough. Working from the top edge, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. As you roll it, push and pull the cylinder a little to make it even tighter. Then, holding the cylinder at the ends, lift and stretch it slightly to make it even tighter and longer.
Use a bread knife to slice the cylinder in half lengthwise so you have 2 long pieces, and set them with the chocolate layers exposed. Divide the pieces crosswise in half, creating 4 equal-length strips
Overlap one strip on top of another to make an X, making sure the exposed chocolate part of the dough faces up; then twist the ends together like the threads on a screw so you have at least 2 twists on each side of the X. Place the twisted babka in the loaf pan, chocolate side up. The dough should fill the pan by two-thirds and fit the length perfectly. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and repeat with the other pieces of dough.
Bake the babkas:
1. Set the loaf pans aside in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough rises 1 to 2 inches above the rim of the pan and is very soft and jiggly to the touch, 2 to 3 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the babkas in the oven and bake until they are dark brown and baked through, about 40 minutes; check them after 25 minutes, and if they are getting too dark, tent them loosely with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil.
3. Meanwhile, make the simple syrup by bringing the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat and set aside the syrup to cool.
4. Remove the babkas from the oven and, while they are hot, brush the tops generously with the cooled sugar syrup (the syrup makes the top of the babkas shiny and beautiful and also locks in the moisture so the cake doesn’t dry out; you may not need to use all the syrup). Use a paring knife to separate the babkas from the pan edges, and turn them out from the pan. Slice and serve warm, or cool completely in the pans before unmolding and slicing.
Recipes excerpted from Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking by Uri Scheft (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Photographs by Con Poulos.