When you end up on Oprah’s Favorite Things, you know you made it big. When someone makes you an inspiration for a new beer flavor, you know you’ve reached cult status. Both of these things recently happened to the babka, the beloved yeasted pastry synonymous with Ashkenazi Jews. This November alone, the babka-centric New York Brunch Kit from Russ and Daughters made it into Oprah’s Amazon gift guide, while Grimm Artisanal Ales, a New York City brewery, launched a new chocolate babka-flavored stout.
The love of babka isn’t reserved to the East Coast alone; this month, a coffee shop serving nothing but sweet and savory babka slices is opening in Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. Behind Ayélet, the hyper-focused venture located at the Town & Country Village shopping center, is Ayelet Nuchi, an Israeli pastry chef and caterer who has lived in the U.S for the past 15 years. A self-proclaimed Tel Avivian bohemian in the past, Nuchi started her affair with cooking upon moving to San Francisco at the age of 28 and quickly gained catering clients and connections.
With a culinary degree from the no-longer existent California Culinary Academy and a penchant for hosting grand Shabbat dinners and birthday celebrations, Nuchi has been a ‘Valley’ mainstay for over a decade, supplying local events and parties with her creations. Babka, she says, has always been a standout on her menu. “People would come up to me by the end of an event and say that everything was delicious, but the babka? They’ve never tried anything like it,” Nuchi says. So a year ago, she started dreaming up a business that would combine her love of hospitality and her craving for a delicious, yeasted babka, “the only food I can never find in California”. Building on her reputation as a stellar hostess, Nuchi has modeled Aye Let after a cozy apartment, outfitting it with an open kitchen, a library, and cozy sofas.
‘Cozy’ is a keyword unavoidable when it comes to babka; known to be the centerpiece of social activities of young Jewish organizations like Moishe House (at a recent San Francisco event, Gen Z representatives braided and baked babka together), the pastry performed its bonding magic on Nuchi’s friends’ circle as well. One friend flew in from Tel Aviv to give interior design advice, another helped with the construction. “The project woke everyone up,” she says, “all my clients, who have become friends and half-family, went with me through the journey, I didn’t even have to hire anyone.” And she didn’t want to diversify the menu, either, letting the babka take center stage.
On Aye Let’s menu, a variety of sweet and savory babkas will be sold in four sizes; personal, for a couple, for a family, and a larger ‘celebration’ offering. On the side, fresh fruit and vegetable salads, inspired by the farmers market bounty, will make the babka into a meal. Flavors include cinnamon, chocolate ganache, pecan maple, poppy seed, apple, and Nutella on the sweeter side, and tomato and mozzarella or butternut squash with sage for those who want a nonsugary option. Combining four different recipes, Nuchi arrived at her own version of the classic yeast dough, with an aromatic addition of vanilla and orange zest. To her, the babka is the perfect pastry; “It reminds people of simplicity, of home,” she says. “It’s not a bread or a cake, it’s not too dry but not too rich, either.” And while the Silicon Valley Jewish community is a force to be reckoned with, partially due to the large number of Israeli tech transplants, Nuchi is hoping to bank on the babka’s broader appeal, pointing out that area’s most popular bakeries, like the expanding Tartine, now serve babka on their menus; “People in California are well-traveled, and they seek the foods they’ve eaten on the East Coast or in Israel.” Besides, Nuchi says, “Beyond being Jewish, it’s simply delicious. There’s a comeback of traditional foods these days, going back to your roots, so to speak, and babka is a part of that.”
Aye Let, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, California
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.