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.

She met Kulaga, 33, at, of all places, a foodie book club in Brooklyn (full disclosure: I was also a member). Kulaga, who identifies as “the friend who always brings baked goods to parties,” had long dreamed of opening a food-related business. She fittingly brought to the book club pistachio cardamom cupcakes to be shared. They were delicious enough to spark a conversation that led to a friendship and, eventually, a collaborative partnership built around food. After a year’s worth of brainstorming and a few false starts as an underground dessert club and a homemade “Pop-Tarts” company, the ladies opened Ovenly’s wholesale business in 2010.

With strong clients from the outset — one of Ovenly’s first was the popular Brooklyn Brewery, which hired the bakery to make such bar snacks as its honey almond popcorn and pepper-and-cardamom-spiced pistachio brittle — the word spread quickly. Before long, Patinkin and Kulaga quit their day jobs to focus full time on growing their business.

Patinkin and Kulaga’s overlapping backgrounds and shared food philosophies lay at the root of their collaborations in the kitchen. “Our recipe development is 50/50,” Patinkin said. “One of us will come up with an idea, and the other one will tweak it.” Inspiration for new recipes comes from the food community around them (their Stumptown Shorty shortbread cookie, for example, is laced with ground Stumptown-brand espresso beans) and from their collective pasts, as well.

Patinkin has “two big boxes of recipes” that belonged to her grandmother — a trove of baked goods ideas that she and Kulaga update for their modern clientele. Ovenly’s Montego Bay Bars, which sandwich a sweet cocoa-and-date puree between a spelt-caraway cookie crust (and which are my personal favorite), are one example of, as Patinkin put it, “a family-inspired recipe that we ‘Ovenly’d up.’” Their ground hazelnut-based maple-orange cookie is another.

Meanwhile, Patinkin is thinking about offering her family’s Austrian flourless chocolate hazelnut torte — one that she has made every spring for the past decade — as a Passover pre-order item next spring. And therein lies the real beauty of Ovenly’s new bakery and shop. “The shop is our creative testing ground,” she said. “With wholesale, it’s important to have a consistent menu, but” — fortunately for their customers — “in the shop we can experiment with whatever we want.”

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com


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