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Baking With Authenticity

Jewish women pastry chefs bring their heritage to restaurant menus

by
Leah Koenig
January 22, 2021
Courtesy Dacha
Jessica Quinn with MedovikCourtesy Dacha
Courtesy Dacha
Jessica Quinn with MedovikCourtesy Dacha

Since 2018, when Liliana Myers became pastry chef at Safta, chef Alon Shaya’s acclaimed modern Israeli restaurant in Denver, she has baked countless trays of pistachio baklava, chocolate tahini pies, and semolina cakes with orange blossom ganache. But while her Sephardi and Middle Eastern dessert game is undeniably strong—“When I first started, I bought dozens of cookbooks and tried to learn everything that I could,” she said—Myers also makes room for her family’s Ashkenazi pastry roots.

Take blintzes, which Myers grew up enjoying with her dad on Long Island, and which she added to Safta’s brunch menu this past Father’s Day. Myers fills the Ashkenazi crepe parcels with bay leaf-infused ricotta mixed with honey and cream cheese and, instead of pan frying them, brushes them with butter and bakes them in Safta’s wood-fired oven. While customers arguably come to Safta for the hummus, bourekas, and pomegranate-glazed lamb shoulder, Myers’ Ashkenazi contributions have been warmly received.

Courtesy Caroline Schiff

Across the country in Brooklyn, chefs Jessica Quinn and her wife, Trina, manage Dacha, a successful Eastern European-inspired pop-up they run out of their apartment. As a first-generation Russian Jew, Jessica grew up eating the lavish cakes and confections favored in Soviet cuisine. “There’s a sense that Ashkenazi desserts are all humble and homey, but the ones I knew were laborious works of art,” she said.

At Dacha she follows suit with pastries like medovik (10 ultra-thin layers of honey cake sandwiched with honey cream) and oreshki(buttery walnut-shaped cookies filled with caramel). As Jessica wrote on Instagram, “Baba Riva, my paternal grandmother, was known for her oreshki. We’ve made it our mission to continue her legacy.” The Quinns also included savory piroshki on their menu, filled with things like caramelized onion and sauerkraut or cumin-scented lamb.

Myers and the Quinns are part of an emerging generation of Jewish women pastry chefs who are finding ways to weave their heritage and family stories into their bakes. Chef Caroline Schiff, who grew up in New York City (“My family would go to synagogue on Friday night, and I went along for the massive cookie platter at the kiddush after!” she said) recently consulted with the modern delicatessen pop-up Edith’s in Brooklyn to create a menu of twisted, Polish-style bagels and pillowy schnecken flavored with honey and baharat.

While working as head baker at the upscale restaurant Simon & The Whale in Manhattan, chef Zoe Kanan served diners Russian black bread and New York-style cheesecake spiked with fresh goat cheese. She also offered breakfast customers slices of chocolate babka along with croissants and morning buns. More recently, she celebrated the holidays with Jule!—a Hanukkah pop-up featuring wintry treats like cranberry-blood orange and saffron cream-filled doughnuts. “The name was a combination of the words Jew and Yule, and was a tribute to the holiday season in my mixed religious household,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jewish inspiration can be found all over the menu at La Newyorkina, Mexican-born chef Fany Gerson’s paletta and sweets company. There’s the Mexican-style rugelach swirled with cherry chipotle or pineapple coconut, babka ice cream sandwiches, and, for Passover, caramel and Mexican-chocolate covered matzo served as is or mixed into La Newyorkina’s ice cream. “My approach is very personal,” Gerson said. “I’m not thinking about what will sell well or look great on Instagram. I’m trying to connect with my Mexican and Jewish backgrounds.”

Courtesy Caroline Schiff

Of course, there’s nothing particularly new about having Jewish women in charge of renowned pastry kitchens. In Chicago, Gale Gand was the executive pastry chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Tru for many years. And Nancy Silverton’s Los Angeles-based Pizzeria Mozza and La Brea Bakery have become American culinary icons. But unlike their predecessors, this new generation of pastry mavens explicitly celebrates their Jewish roots.

Their work mirrors initiatives taken by chefs on the savory side of the kitchen who cook with the ethos “the personal is professional.” In previous generations, American chefs tended to either hide or ignore their family’s dishes for fear that their work wouldn’t be taken seriously. But today, at restaurants like The General Muir in Atlanta and Birdie G’s in Los Angeles, creative takes on Ashkenazi dishes unapologetically sit front and center on the menu. It makes sense that the chefs helming the bread basket and pastry side of the kitchen would take a similar approach.

The pandemic has also played a role in encouraging these pastry chefs to pursue a more personal approach to baking. Jessica Quinn said that when she first started working in restaurant kitchens more than a decade ago, she never felt like she could bring much of her identity to her role. “Even when I was in charge of the pastry kitchen, the menu’s vision still wasn’t fully mine,” she said.

In the wake of COVID-19’s restaurant restrictions, both Quinns found themselves out of work. All of a sudden, they had the freedom to ask themselves what they really wanted to do. “At the beginning of the pandemic people were tapping into things that brought them comfort,” Jessica said. “Dacha satisfied our own need to make something nourishing. We were hopeful that people would receive it well, but have been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response.”

Today’s Jewish pastry mavens represent an exciting shift toward deeper authenticity and bolder creativity in the kitchen. For diners, that translates to exciting dishes like the duck-fat-enriched knishes Myers turns out at Safta and the doughnut-hamantaschen hybrid that Gerson has planned for Purim at her other bakery, Fan-Fan Doughnuts. And for the chefs, it offers an unparalleled chance to bring their full selves to the kitchen. “As a chef you worry that making Jewish food will be too pigeonholed so you go off and explore all this other stuff,” Schiff said. “But then you realize, ‘this is the thing I really love.’ And you come back home.”

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