There was once a time in Israel when we waited with great anticipation for food chains to come to the country and expand their franchise here. We eagerly awaited the opening of Kentucky Fried Chicken, marveled at McDonald’s and cheered for Domino’s Pizza.
Now the Israeli food industry has matured, and our franchises are themselves moving overseas to conquer the American market. The latest to make the leap is Uri Scheft, an Israeli pastry chef with roots in Denmark, who has taken his Tel Aviv bakery Lehamim and opened a branch in Union Square in Manhattan called Breads Bakery.
Scheft was born in Israel to Danish immigrant parents. Spending much of his childhood traveling between Israel and Denmark, he essentially lived in both countries.
Scheft returned to Israel to do his army service, and then earned a degree in biology at Tel Aviv University. But after examining his career options, he realized that what he really loved to do was bake.
“My love of baking started as a child, watching my mother, a kindergarten teacher, baking halla for Shabbat every Friday,” he says.
After realizing that biology wasn't for him, Scheft went back to Denmark to train at the Ringsted Tekniske Skole. He then traveled in Europe, working for three years as an apprentice to top European pastry chefs. He took courses throughout the continent and focused a lot of his time learning the craft in France.
In 2002 Scheft returned to Israel and opened Lehamim in Tel Aviv. His flagship bakery was located on busy Hashmonaim Street in the heart of the city. It was a hit from day one. Over the last 10 years it has grown into one of the city’s most popular establishments, with lines of patrons waiting patiently every Friday to select their favorite breads. There are now three branches in Tel Aviv, all of which are lauded by Israeli critics as the best bakery in the city.
The home branch at 99 Hashmonaim is open 24 hours a day during the week and closes for Shabbat. Customers in the wee hours include late-night club hoppers and tired cab drivers in need of a boost. Patrons can find anything to their heart’s desire, from gluten-free breads and special cakes for Shabbat and holidays to kosher-for-Passover baked goods. The style of the bakery is an artful blend of Jewish classics with high- end European patisserie.
Scheft takes familiar desserts such as babka and elevates them with unique fillings. In fact, his babka is one of the most popular cakes here and in New York, and it won first prize in the Big Apple. Another popular bread is the European-style rye bread, made with 100 percent rye flour. While dense, it is soft and chewy. Perfect with a swipe of butter and a sprinkle of salt.
In Manhattan’s Union Square, Breads Bakery was welcomed with rave reviews, with feature articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Time Out and Grub Street. The bakery is thriving and has made a fan of food writer Gabriella Gershenson, a senior editor at Saveur magazine. Scheft himself has become a celebrity chef and has appeared on CBS and Fox morning TV shows teaching New Yorkers how to make his specialty babka with Nutella.
In the New York branch, Scheft offers his North Sea rye, walnut loaf and a festive halla. He also has pastries and a cafe, where Time Out magazine gave him five stars and encouraged people to grab a seat for a hot beverage and a fresh pastry and then leave with a bag full of baked goods. Breads Bakery also offers catering and holds baking classes.
In Israel, Scheft opened his first bakery opposite what used to be Tel Aviv’s wholesale market, so he could always have easy access to the freshest ingredients. The market has since moved from that location. But in New York, he looked for a similar location by opening across from Greenmarket, one of New York’s premier open-air farmer’s markets, thus attracting New Yorkers who really care about good, wholesome food. Many of his customers shop at the market and then make their way to Breads Bakery for a cup of coffee and a pastry.
Recently, Scheft published a Hebrew cookbook titled Bread at Home, which is being translated into English. For those interested in learning his secrets firsthand, he holds workshops in Tel Aviv and New York, teaching people how to bake his singular breads and cakes in their own home.
He keeps to a hectic schedule, traveling back and forth to make sure that Lehamim continues to flourish in Tel Aviv and Bread’s Bakery maintains its success in New York.
99 Hashmonaim Street, Tel Aviv
Tel: (03) 561- 8111
In New York:
18 East 16th Street
Union Square, Manhattan
Breads Bakery Chocolate and Nutella Babka
Makes 3 cakes
For the syrup
✔ ½ cup sugar
✔ 2 ⁄ 3 cup water
For the dough
✔ ¾ cup whole milk
✔ 1½ packets (10 gr.) active dry yeast
✔ 2½ cups bread flour, sifted, plus more for dusting work surface
✔ 2½ cups pastry flour, sifted
✔ 2 large eggs
✔ ½ cup plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
✔ 1 tsp. vanilla
✔ ¼ tsp. kosher salt
✔ 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the chocolate filling
✔ 850 gr. Nutella
✔ 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
To make the syrup: Place sugar and water in a pot set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until sugar dissolves, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Cooled syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 month.
To make the dough: Pour milk into a bowl. Activate yeast according to instructions on packet, then add to milk. Add the following ingredients to the milk-yeast mixture in this order: flours, eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt and half the butter. Using your hands or an electric mixer with a dough hook set on the low - est speed, blend until combined, 3-4 minutes. Continue blending, increasing speed to medium if using a mixer, and slowly add remaining butter in small chunks until combined, about 4 minutes.
Place dough on a work surface lightly dusted with flour and knead by hand until dough starts to feel inflexible, 2 minutes. Shape dough into a square. Place on a tray, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8-12 hours.
To make the babka: Place dough on a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Using a rolling pin, shape dough into a 25x70-cm. rectangle about ½ cm. thick. Spread Nutella evenly over dough, then sprinkle dough with chocolate chips. Roll dough tightly like a jelly roll and lay seam-side down. Use a serrated knife to cut roll into thirds, then cut each seg - ment in half lengthwise.
Lay two dough pieces on work surface so they form an X shape. Twist each end once or twice so babka resembles a simple braid. Repeat with remaining dough pieces so you have three babka loaves in all. Transfer each to an 20x7.5-cm. loaf pan, tucking ends of dough under.
Cover pans with a dry towel and let rise until loaves double in volume, about 1 hour. For best results, place a bowl of warm water at the bottom of an oven that hasn’t been turned on, then place loaves inside oven and shut the door. Set oven to convection mode and preheat to 180º. Bake loaves 25 minutes. (If not using convection mode, bake an additional 5 minutes.) Check babkas after 20 minutes. If they are starting to turn dark brown and are still not cooked through, cover with parchment paper or aluminum foil to prevent tops from burning. Once baked, remove babka from oven and brush immediately with a generous amount of syrup.