A little over a year ago, I found myself desperately typing “chocolate bread recipes” into the Google search bar. As an admitted chocolate fanatic with a knack for making bread, I felt like there simply had to be a recipe out there that was missing from my baking repertoire. Thankfully, chocolate babka filled that void. Not even a minute after I came across a picture of a braided babka loaf with a decadent chocolate cinnamon filling, I was already pulling out my flour. That first month, I must have baked at least three loaves.
But I didn’t stop with babka — next, I learned about rugelach, and the month after that, I tackled bagels. Thus began my obsession with Jewish baked goods. But it wasn’t until recently that I picked up “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More” by Shannon Sarna, which features a complete collection of traditional and modern Jewish recipes. Sarna attributes her inspiration to her uniquely mixed Italian-Jewish heritage. In the cookbook’s introduction, she explains that she sees traditional Jewish baked goods as an invitation to merge old and new in creatively diverse ways. The result? Bakeable heaven.
The modern aesthetic of Sarna’s cookbook perfectly reflects the simplistic beauty of the recipes inside. The front cover, featuring three beautiful babka loves on a dark surface, immediately caught my attention and set the tone for the rest of the pages. Nearly every recipe is accompanied by a mouthwatering photo, making them all the more enticing and easy to follow.
Sarna carries that theme of simplicity through the book’s organization as well. The recipes are neatly divided into seven distinct sections: challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, hamantaschen, matzah and pita bread. Each section begins with a foundational recipe, followed by a handful of innovative flavor combinations, such as balsamic apple date stuffed challah, spicy pizza rugelach and coconut cheesecake hamantaschen.
In celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, I set off to replicate as many recipes as I could before my housemates literally grew sick of bread and cookies.
I decided to start with challah. I’d made plain challah before — a white enriched bread that tastes similar to brioche — but I’d never tried adding mix-ins before. Thinking I’d begin with something simple, I chose to make the cinnamon raisin challah. Or, I would have, if I had any raisins on hand. Following Sarna’s recommendation, I used chocolate chips instead. Quite honestly, I’m convinced the recipe should permanently include chocolate chips because it was delicious. Sweet, chewy and with the perfect amount of spice, this loaf was an immediate hit in my house. The next morning, I followed Sarna’s fantastic advice and turned the remaining slices into French toast. There’s nothing quite like dessert for breakfast to motivate you out of bed in the morning.
Next up, I tackled Sarna’s raspberry chocolate rugelach (are you seeing the chocolate theme yet?). If you’ve never heard of rugelach, let me put you on: it’s pastry dough made with part cream cheese and part butter that is rolled up around a sweet or savory filling. Flakier than a shortbread cookie yet denser than croissant-style pastry, rugelach is the perfect middle child. I am not exaggerating when I say that these jammy chocolate cookies were one of the most delicious desserts I’ve baked in years. The tart and sweet raspberry jam balanced the bitter dark chocolate like a dream. However, be warned: you should use less jam per cookie than you think! I filled each rugelach with the suggested 3 teaspoons of jam, and most of it ended up erupting out the sides and burning onto my sheet pan. While they may not have turned out as the most aesthetically pleasing cookies, trust me, they’re worth your time. And remember, there’s nothing a heavy sprinkle of powdered sugar can’t fix.
Last, because I decided that I probably should try a savory recipe for a properly balanced review, I whipped up a loaf of Sarna’s savory babka. Babka is another braided white bread that is usually served with a cinnamon filling and syrup. But unlike challah, which includes eggs and oil, babka dough contains eggs, butter and milk, making it more airy, shiny and smooth. Per the recipe’s suggestion, I also included a savory filling of pesto and shredded parmesan cheese, which really elevated the simple bread. The end result was garlic bread’s classier, more intricate older cousin.
“Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More” truly opened my eyes to a world of new flavor combinations that I normally wouldn’t have considered. Her unique recipes push the boundaries of tradition in all the best ways. The only thing I would warn you about is Sarna’s chosen portions. Each bread recipe yields three loaves and each cookie recipe yields over two dozen cookies; if you aren’t planning to bake for a small army, have your calculator on hand. Overall, I highly recommend “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More” for anyone interested in expanding their baking portfolio.
A version of this article appeared on p. 8 of the May 18, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.
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