Bakers Bound by Two Babkas

Brooklyn Bakery Melds Jewish and Polish Traditions

Ovenly Partners: Agatha Kulaga (left) and Erin Patinkin became friends — and business associates — after sharing Kulaga’s pistachio cardamom cupcakes.
Winona Barton-Ballentine
Ovenly Partners: Agatha Kulaga (left) and Erin Patinkin became friends — and business associates — after sharing Kulaga’s pistachio cardamom cupcakes.

By Leah Koenig

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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On my way to Ovenly, a former wholesale-only bakery that opened a retail shop in Brooklyn at the end of May, co-owner Erin Patinkin texted me to say she was out replenishing the shop’s stock of bananas and would return shortly. When I arrived, a team of four bakers was stationed in the Ovenly kitchen, turning out such signature sweet and savory treats as spiced bitters brownies, Bloody Mary scones, salted peanut butter cookies and chocolate stout cupcakes with salted caramel frosting. It was Day No. 3 for the shop and, as could be expected, the pace was brisk.

For Patinkin and her business partner, Agatha Kulaga, the long hours spent talking to interior designers, reviewing cash flow spreadsheets and recipe formulas, and pondering refrigerator cases in preparation for their new shop were well worth the trouble because now they can call home a permanent bakery space and a sun-lit storefront equipped with coffee and a nonstop rotation of fresh pastries.

As an independent baking company founded by two Brooklynites, Ovenly has a story mirroring that of many other artisanal food businesses. What sets Patinkin and Kulaga apart from the others, however, is the same thing that ties them together as a team: their deep familial connections to Eastern European baking traditions.

Patinkin comes from Polish-Jewish and Austrian heritage and grew up baking nut cookies and kolache (sweet yeast dough pastries) with her grandmother in suburban Chicago. Kulaga is not Jewish but is the daughter of Polish immigrants who enjoyed similar treats in the Polish neighborhood of New Britain, Conn.

“Agatha and I jokingly argue about Polish versus Jewish babka all the time,” Patinkin said. (Unlike the twisted loaf of streusel-topped chocolate or cinnamon sweet bread familiar to Jews, the Polish version is baked in a Bundt pan and brushed with simple syrup or topped with confectioner’s sugar.) But their families’ reverence for food and tradition, not to mention their recipes for apple cake — dense and sweet cake topped with a soft layer of juicy apples — are nearly identical.

Patinkin, 32, is related to Mandy Patinkin of Broadway and “The Princess Bride” fame (her grandfather and his father are first cousins). She told the Forward that the realization of the shop came after a lot of hard work and even more collective scheming. After several years working in the not-for-profit arts world, and most recently at the National Council of Jewish Women, she was ready for a change. So, following her stomach, she started a cooking blog and began to moonlight as a personal chef while seeking out the right opportunity or collaboration.


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