I did not grow up in a house bathed in the scent of freshly baked bread. My mother, an otherwise gifted cook, chose not to fuss with yeast or starters, which means memories of steaming-from-the-oven challah, rye bread and babka are not woven into my childhood nostalgia. And yet the hunger for baking must burn somewhere deep in my gut, because last autumn, when the weather turned cold, I felt pulled to the oven with a yearning that only the alchemy of transforming flour, water and fire into bread could pacify.
If only I had had a copy of Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg’s “Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories From the Golden Age of Jewish Baking” to guide my first attempted loaves. Published in October by Camino Books, the cookbook places the wisdom and skill of a centuries-long Jewish baking tradition in the hands of the reader. The book begins with the memory of the now mostly vanished bakeries that, along with the greengrocer and kosher butcher, once existed at the core of Jewish communal life. It recalls the days when bakers kneaded piles of sticky rye dough and formed tray after tray of hearty pumpernickel rolls; when customers purchased warm challah for the Sabbath, and when fathers stopped in with their children Sunday afternoons for an apricot-glazed Danish or an egg kichel, a bowtie cookie. A time, as the book’s introduction reads, “when life was slower and simpler… [and] in the bakeries, everything was made from scratch, and tasted like it.”
But lest things get too heavily dusted in powdered-sugar nostalgia, “Inside the Jewish Bakery” also offers an encyclopedia of formulas for familiar and forgotten treats (kornbroyt, corn rye or Krakover twisted bagels, anyone?), as well as step-by-step photographs and trouble-shooting tips. Unlike the proverbial Jewish grandmother who promises to give you her recipe straight, only to leave out a key ingredient, “Inside the Jewish Bakery” does not hold back secrets. As Berg told me, “The book was about preserving memories, so the last thing we wanted was to include recipes that would not work.”
Berg and Ginsberg represent two ends of the baking spectrum. Ginsberg, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in California, is a devoted amateur who remembers baking with his grandmother when he was a child (“She always gave me a little piece of whatever bread or cookie dough she was using,” he said); he discovered a love of back-to-the-land baking as a coop-dwelling graduate student in the 1960s. A few years ago, he founded a buyers club called New York Bakers to help other hobbyist bread enthusiasts source hard-to-find ingredients at a fair price. Berg, a Bronx native who still resides there, is a retired professional baker who started working at Zlotnicks bakery (now extinct) when he was only 16. He has clocked in hours at nearly a dozen kosher and Jewish-style bakeries during his tenure, cranking out the breads and pastries that shaped the salivary glands of a generation.