When the German Colony branch of Jerusalem’s Pe’er Bakery closed down last year after 43 years of operation, fans of its signature sweet whole wheat halla let out a collective kvetch: Where would we go for halla now on Fridays?
But the halla is back in the neighborhood, albeit at another establishment – the Coney Island Knish Bakery on Emek Refaim Street. The story of how a beloved taste was resurrected is all the more remarkable, given that the man behind Coney Island’s product mix, food consultant Avi Pinchuck, has celiac disease and has tasted neither his new creation nor the original Pe’er hallot.
There’s a personal twist to this story, too. As a diehard Pe’er fan, I have served in an unofficial (and unpaid) role as a Coney Island taste-tester, reporting back to Pinchuck on Saturday nights as he’s tinkered with the recipe to get that old Pe’er taste just right.
I may also have had just a little bit to do with getting the ball rolling in the first place. As I wrote last year in this column (“‘H’aliya’: Immigrating because the bread is better, May 21, 2015), when Pe’er’s proprietors, Moshe and Shoshana Sharabi, decided to retire from the painstaking, early-rising, messy and hardscrabble business, I was sent into an existential tizzy and began a frantic search to replace not only the halla I loved but one of the pillars upon which our very aliya was based.
The closest I could find to what Pe’er had been producing was at Coney Island.
While chatting with Pinchuck, I learned that he was buying the halla from another bakery, but looking to make his own.
“Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the old Pe’er recipe?” I casually suggested. “I’m sure many of Pe’er’s old customers would come running!” It turns out I wasn’t the first person to approach Pinchuck with the idea, and it wasn’t long until the hallot at Coney Island looked different.
“We did it,” Pinchuck said proudly, as I gave the strangely familiar loaf the once over. “We got the recipe. You’ve got to tell me what you think!” I took home a couple of white hallot and a sweet whole-wheat halla for that Shabbat. After months of being Pe’erless, we said “Hamotzi” over the bread with extra anticipation, tore the halla into pieces and distributed it around the table. I waited for the verdict.
“Interesting,” said one child. “It’s good,” said another. “Yum,” said my wife, Jody. “But, well, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but it’s not Pe’er.”
When I reported our family findings to Pinchuck on motzei Shabbat, as I’d promised, I was initiated into the little-known world of bread-baking backroom deals.
Most small bakeries in Israel, I soon discovered, don’t actually make their own bread. They buy it from a middleman whose expertise it is to make only dough.
These dough men might have 20 different recipes going at once, but it’s not a one-to-one transaction: A dough middleman can sell the exact same recipe to hundreds of different bakeries around the country, who all prepare it slightly differently when they get it to their shop.
“That’s why so much of the stuff you find in Israeli bakeries looks the same; they’re all getting it from the same places,” Pinchuck explained. “All they’re doing is brushing on some egg, putting on poppy seeds and calling it their own. Especially for smaller bakeries, you don’t need to have a trained baker on staff.”
Moshe and Shoshana of Pe’er contracted Belissimo, a dough middleman in Rishon Lezion. Moshe used to make his own dough at Pe’er’s German Colony headquarters, but with that shut down, they were looking for a way to keep their recipe alive in order to supply dough to the one remaining Pe’er outlet in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, run by the Sharabis’ son. Coney Island was welcome to piggyback on the recipe, as was anyone else, Moshe told Pinchuck; he was putting it into the public domain, a kind of open-source approach to halla.
So why didn’t Coney Island’s Pe’er-formula halla taste the same as the old Pe’er? “Halla making is more of a science than an art,” Pinchuck explained.
Everything has to be kept exactly the same – not just the ingredients but a whole host of factors such as humidity, altitude and different oven types. All of these impact the taste.
Pinchuck ought to know. Before making aliya with his family 10 years ago, he worked for decades in the food business, both running his own food plant in Chicago, which sold to big customers like Heinz, and more recently as a food consultant. (He helped an Irish popcorn manufacturer solve a problem with shelf life, for example.)
The halla from a dough middleman like Belissimo is delivered frozen. It then must be thawed and “proofed” – that’s where the dough is allowed to rise – before it’s finally baked. Subtle differences can make big changes in taste. Pe’er’s original dough was never frozen. Moreover, it was proofed and baked in Jerusalem, while Coney Island’s facility is in Beit Shemesh, where it’s warmer and much closer to sea level.
There’s another reason why the Pe’er halla recipe at Coney Island didn’t taste quite the same: it may have been “dumbed down.”
“Israelis don’t love super-sweet halla,” Moshe Sharabi told Jody when she bumped into him entirely by accident at the Pe’er branch in Mahaneh Yehuda, which caters more to Sabras than it did in the heavily Anglo German Colony.
The recipe he gave to Belissimo, as a result, might have had a slightly less sugary balance.
Pinchuck understands. “Americans love their sweet, almost raw hallot,” he said. “Israelis will throw something like that in the garbage. They’re used to halla being a bit dry. Supermarket halla uses the cheapest ingredients on the planet – just water and flour. No sugar, no eggs.” If you’re on a budget and you’re trying to feed a big family, paying NIS 8 a loaf is half the price of a halla at Pe’er or Coney Island.
Pinchuck conceived of Coney Island as an authentic New York bakery experience, one with not just halla but knishes, cupcakes and black-and-white cookies.
A big part of the business is making oversized-themed birthday and bnei mitzva cakes.
Last year, they converted the Emek Refaim branch to serve American-style kosher meat products: chili dogs, double stuffed pastrami on rye. (The desserts are all parve.) A second branch opened downtown, on Jaffa Road. They are distributing to several small supermarkets in the Gush Etzion region and looking into Ra’anana.
Pinchuck is still tinkering with the mechanics of his halla: the proofing and thawing at different times of the year all make a difference, even if the dough remains the same. That’s not easy, of course, if you can’t taste what you’re baking.
“I was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 years ago,” Pinchuck said. “I was sick for about seven years before that. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. Back then, they were hardly any gluten-free products available. The awareness now is a thousandfold.”
In a sad irony for a family in the food business, all of his kids have the disease, too.
Coney Island sells a gluten-free halla made out of oats. I tried it – it’s not bad, but it’s not the classic Pe’er experience that I’m looking for. Coney Island’s white and whole-wheat hallot are close, but not quite there yet.
I guess I’ve still got a little more time to serve in my role as weekly taste-tester. The writer is a freelance journalist and editor. His blog, “This Normal Life,” has appeared online at The Jerusalem Post since 2002. www.bluminteractivemedia.com