Creating A Stir: An Israeli twist on halla in New York

Chef Uri Scheft’s breads go like hotcakes in Israel and the Big Apple.

An array of sufganiot from Lehamim bakery (photo credit: DANIEL LAYLA)
An array of sufganiot from Lehamim bakery
(photo credit: DANIEL LAYLA)
With his graying hair, deep-set eyes and thoughtful way of speaking, 53-year-old Uri Scheft looks like a professor of philosophy. Or biology, because he has a degree in that from Tel Aviv University. Born in Israel to Danish parents, he went through a young Israeli’s normal life stages: army service after high school and travel before settling down to studies. In his case, travel led to the US, Europe and the Far East.
But memories of his mother serenely braiding halla and pulling cakes out of the oven for Shabbat never left him. The taste for fine bread and pastries continued to haunt him, and he eventually left the university to study only one living organism in depth: yeast. Twenty-five years later, his relationship with yeast and flour is still thriving, as six Lehamim bakeries in Israel and two branches in New York attest.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking, not fanatically, but always,” recounts Scheft in a telephone interview from New York. “I used to love watching my mom baking. When I started to think about cooking as a profession, I had doubts.
I’m a perfectionist, and I didn’t know if I could be a perfect baker. And while being a chef is trendy now, at that time it wasn’t well thought of. Still, from a very early age, I knew I had to work in a profession I love. I saw some bad examples of family members stuck in jobs that weren’t right for them. Then I’d hear people talking about travel, cooking and baking, and I’d feel a little jealous.
“I made my decision after I got my degree, when I was in India. I flew directly to Denmark then, and enrolled in a bakery school. After the first day, I knew that bingo, this is it. It felt so right to me. I studied and worked in bread and pastry in Denmark and Germany for three years.”
During that time he also worked in Switzerland and France. Returning to Israel, he entered the bakery business in stages, first working for a caterer, later becoming partner in a company that sent him to study artisanal baking in Italy and France again.
What does this master baker love most about baking? Scheft hesitates before answering.
“I like the transformation,” he says slowly. “Baking is like making wine, or cheese. You’re changing something. You have to know the yeast and starch and what you’re doing. I love working with yeast, and I love the moment when bread comes out of the oven. It’s pretty exciting.
“I can’t go past a batch of dough without touching it and getting the feel of it. It’s a personal satisfaction, not just professional. And over time, I’ve come to love working with my teams, both in New York and in Israel. I’m lucky to have a team that goes back years with me. And I enjoy seeing people develop as professionals over time. My Israeli partner started as a waiter, and is now my general manager. He made it possible for me to move to New York and open my branches here.”
The Lehamim chain has five branches in Israel and two in New York, with a third in construction. In New York the bakeries are simply called Bread.
Scheft confesses that he had to overcome a tendency to micromanage.
“It wasn’t always like this for me. I liked to be involved in everything. Slowly I understood that I can’t develop my business or self like that. A business can become a prison if everything depends on you. I had to let go of quite a few things in order to let it develop.”
Does he live the usual baker’s life – working all night and sleeping into the day? “No,” he says firmly. “I’ve done a lot of overnight work in my career, but I don’t do that now. It’s not how I want to live. My models are the retail bakeries in Denmark, Germany and France – corner bakeries where you can buy freshly baked goods all day.
So we bake most of our goods during the day. Customers see and smell the breads and pastries coming out of the oven, several times a day.”
Does he feel that he might be losing touch with baking as his business multiplies? “My partners and employees do the management and administration,” he says frankly. “They take care of the logistics. Most days, I get up in the morning and make food – it could be sandwiches in my kitchen or pastries in the bakery. But every day I cook or bake something. This is part of my creative life.
I also have very good people around me who create foods of their own. I like to encourage them. You have to give people space to develop.”
Metro asked what Scheft’s favorite bread is.
“I think I answered that already,” he laughs. “It’s the last one that came out of the oven, the freshest one. But mainly I love heavy Danish rye, sourdough and halla.”
What advice does he have for the home baker? “I published a book, Lehem Babayit [‘Bread at Home’], about six years ago,” he replies. “Most of my advice to home bakers is in it. But I will say, it’s highly recommended to use an electronic scale to measure your ingredients. If you want to repeat a successful batch, you should measure precisely. Once you have it down, you can play with the recipe.
“Learn the recipe, but when you’re kneading the dough, be with the dough. Don’t leave the dough. Even if the mixer does most of the kneading, take the dough and put it on your work surface, and knead it by hand a little.
Your hands need to learn how dough feels. Room and ingredient temperatures influence the development of the dough – a lot. So if the kitchen is cold the dough will rise slowly, and if it’s warm the dough will rise faster.
The recipe may say leave it to rise half an hour, but a good baker observes the dough and manipulates it according to its condition over time. Finally, keep at it. Even some big chefs say they can’t get along with yeast. But it’s only a matter of practice. And once the family smells that fresh bread, it gets eaten up very quickly.”
The Lehamim bakeries are all kosher.
At the moment they’re offering an entire sufganiot menu in addition to their breads and pastries. View the goodies at, or visit the Facebook page, Lehamim Bakery. Lehem Babayit (Hebrew) is available at Lehamim branches and at some Steimatzky bookstores.
Sufganiot for Hanukka
By Uri Scheft, Lehamim bakery
Makes 30 sufganiot
• 650 gr. bread flour
•30 gr. fresh yeast
•110 gr. sugar
• 120 gr. fresh butter. cut into 3 or 4 pieces
• 2 eggs 150 gr. milk
• ¼ tsp. salt
• ¼ tsp. vanilla extract
• Grated lemon zest from ½ lemon
For frying:
• 1 liter canola oil
Dough preparation:
Sift flour. Pour milk into the mixing bowl and add the fresh yeast. Add flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and salt to the bowl, and mix 3 to 4 minutes on low speed until well combined. Add fresh butter, one piece at the time, to the bowl and increase to medium speed for 3 to more minutes; dough should be shiny and a bit elastic. Take the dough out of the mixing bowl, spread out and put on a tray. Cover dough with plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator for 8 hours.
Make sufganiot:
Take the dough out of the fridge and put it on a floured surface. Cut into 30 equal pieces (4x4 cm. each). Roll dough into small balls and put down on oiled parchment paper. Heat canola oil to 170º. Fry dough until golden, 1-2 minutes each side. Use a kitchen spoon to carefully take the sufganiot out of the oil. Drain on paper towels.