Israeli-born Maayan Zilberman has made a career of smashing expectations.
Tasty travel slides. Sweet sunglasses. Spicy envelopes.
Maayan Zilberman’s “luxury candies” don’t look, feel or taste like any sweets you’ve seen. Under the moniker Sweet Saba, the 36-year-old Israeli-born artist has been pleasantly shocking customers at her downtown Manhattan pop-up shop with mind-bending shapes (cassette tapes, envelopes), flavors (bacon, whiskey) and even infusions (vitamin-packed lemon).
Zilberman has made a career of smashing expectations. Born on kibbutz Deganiah Alef, her family moved to Jerusalem before heading to Canada when she was six. Her entrepreneurial streak started with a lingerie label called The Lake & Stars, which exploded after Sarah Jessica Parker sported a romper from the brand in the Sex and the City movie. A year later — with the label still growing — Zilberman switched gears with WaveCakes, a custom-cake business whose wares sold for upwards of $1,000 a pop. After closing the Lake & Stars and the baking operation in 2013, Zilberman came to New York to reboot — and Sweet Saba was born.
Between filling orders, Zilberman spoke with the Forward by e-mail.
You’ve progressed, seamlessly, from lingerie to cakes to artistic candy. What have they all shared?
Each of these endeavors shares a similar element of fantasy, in changing the way one might approach an otherwise seemingly prissy or feminine-specific medium. With lingerie, my take on it was to make it more of a fashion statement with personality, rather than just a means to be sexualized. With cakes and candy, my intention is to make thought-provoking confections that appeal to people who might not have considered treats in this way… who perhaps thought the only option would be cupcakes or French pastries. I like to stretch whatever medium I’m working in.
You’ve said you don’t have traditional food memories or a food history. That’s a little unusual for a Jewish person. Did any Jewish eating customs or traditions figure into your childhood?
I actually have a lot of wonderful culinary memories with growing up Jewish. They just weren’t around regular meals or large family gatherings. My grandmother taught me how to bake kugel and brisket, and we knew never to be home when anyone was making gefilte fish. But my favorite memories are around the Yemenite/Sephardic ingredients we got at the shuk that over the years made their way into Mom’s cooking. Learning about the importance of sweet flavors in the main course factored into my interest in dessert, and eating my very first tree-ripened fig right off the tree on a kibbutz is one of my finest memories.
How do those experiences surface in your candy now?
Combining milk and honey is something I use a lot. I love referencing biblical symbols (like the Seven Species) and geological landmarks (like the Dead Sea) in the kitchen too. As far as traditions go, I’m working on a Concord wine flavor and a candy havdalah candle that tastes like my idea of a sunset.
Tell us about the name “Sweet Saba.” You’ve mentioned in interviews that your grandfather delighted you by telling you cornflakes were spaceships.
Sweet Saba is named in honor of my saba — Hebrew for grandfather. He and I spent much time in the kitchen when I was a kid, not so much cooking but experimenting with ingredients both traditional and medicinal — he was a doctor. To entertain me as a child, my saba would make me outlandish combinations for breakfast, and once convinced me the cornflakes were alien particles to help me get excited about eating.
Zilberman named her business after her saba, Hebrew for grandfather, who is pictured with her here.
You also attended a Jewish private school growing up. How strict was it? And did any of that experience influence your businesses?
I attended a Jewish school named Talmud Torah for many years. It was strict, which was for the best, because it kept me out of trouble. I think classes were a break from praying, which is what we did much of the time.
The biggest influence that school had on my businesses now is the (now very in vogue) uniforms in navy felt and white cotton, which forced me to get really imaginative the moment I got home and had liberty to change into fantasy outfits. Having rules and boundaries really helped exercise my imagination.
You grew up with a single mother who loved to entertain. What were her specialties?
My mom introduced me to Martha Stewart’s book “Entertaining,” which was a whole other world in terms of having dinner parties. We’d never known people like her or her community, so it was exotic and aspirational. I remember trying to assemble menus with my mom that would cut out the treyf for our guests. It emphasized to me how important plating and presentation could be.
What was it about Judy Mendelsohn’s book “Birthday Cakes” that struck such a chord for you?
This Hebrew book was instrumental is helping me figure out food construction when I had so much time on my own as a pre-teen. It was during the Gulf War, and we didn’t go out that much. I had hours and hours to deconstruct how sculptural cakes and desserts could be made. This book would take you through each step of the way, demystifying the process and giving me confidence to try what I thought could only be attempted by professionals. The photos were also super low-fi, like from a disposable camera… very non-threatening.
Were there any Israeli candies you grew up with that inspire you now? Anything you can’t buy in the States?
My first stop in Jerusalem is at the shuk where there’s a mountain of multi-flavored Halvah. Then, freshly baked chocolate burekas. Few realize this, but since dairy is so different in Israel, the ice cream is a unique experience. I get the vanilla and chocolate ice cream from guys on the street, and chop up Egozi (a nougat and almond bar) or Shkedim (mini salted croutons) to sprinkle on top.
You can find a lot of the average Israeli candy in import shops nowadays, but because of all the temperature changes involved in shipping, they’re never quite the same when you get them here. I’m hoping Elite or Osem reads this and invites me to their factories for a tour!
What kinds of reactions do you see to some of your more unusual flavors?
I love introducing unusual flavors into the candy, because so much of the experience is about memory and expectation. As I’ve been traveling I’ve been collecting sugars, salts, and nutritional extracts to add to the newest batches. I was just in Hawaii and brought home volcanic salt to sprinkle on natural watermelon-flavored candy. I’d like to visit the Dead Sea next, and to bring back salt to use in Desert Date flavored crystals.
You’ve made edible chakras and birthstones. Are mezuzahs or hamsas next?
I would love to make some mezuzahs and hamsas. I’m waiting to have access to a Glatt kosher kitchen to produce my next line of Judaica candy. I’ve had a number of clients ask for glatt kosher treats for weddings, bar mitzvahs, brit milah, etc, so I am in the process of securing the facilities for it.
Candy seems like an incredibly time- and labor-intensive product to make by hand. Can you share a bit of the process for one or two of your?
The development process is quite time and labor intensive, but only because I’m careful to be thoughtful of my ingredients and how everything will take to variations in heat and humidity. It’s also important for me to take the time necessary to explore and make mistakes, which anyone in a creative or scientific field will tell you.
I’d say the most labor intensive part of my process is in washing dishes, which I feels like I’m doing day in and day out!
Michael Kaminer is a contributing editor at the Forward.