It is no secret that we love babka, the twisted brioche bread with ribbons of tasty fillings ranging from cinnamon to chocolate and beyond. We have sampled many babkas in the past few years, especially in New York, but were a little disheartened by the lack of exemplary options in Chicago. However, now Chicago has an AMAZING babka purveyor: Masa Madre. Masa Madre is a two-woman babka-making operation in Pilsen that bakes babkas ready-to-order and pick up right from their apartment. Masa Madre is run by Mexico City-born Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vázquez Felgueres, and the babka is inspired by Unikel’s Mexican-Jewish heritage. Some of their special-edition babkas, like the churro or dulce de leche are a fun spin on combining these two cultures. Masa Madre offers chocolate, cinnamon and matcha green tea every week. On holidays, there are even seasonal baked goods like pan de muerto and sufganiyot for Hanukkah. You place an order through their Facebook page a few days in advance and pick up your loaves in Pilsen, which is a small price to pay for the freshest of babka. One loaf is $20, and you can get mini babka muffins for $3.50. Our favorite is definitely the ooey-gooey chocolate – check out those delicious swirls!
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We always love to get Cajun and Creole food when we are in New Orleans, but we are also impressed at how much international cuisine and fine dining is present in the city. On our latest trip, we were excited to learn about James Beard-winning chef Alon Shaya’s eponymous modern Israeli restaurant in the Garden District, Shaya (4213 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA).
The key feature of Shaya is the impressive wood-burning stove in the corner of the bright, airy restaurant. The stove was running at full tilt during lunch, and it was fun to watch the pita being pulled out of the oven and being brought right to the table. The menu at Shaya is vegetable-focused and that shines through the menu. For lunch one of the most popular items is the salatim – where you select from a variety of small plates to share (3 for $15 or 5 for $23). Salatim means “salad” and refers to the assortment of cold dishes that serve as a kind of appetizer for Israeli meals.
We were really excited to sample some salatim that we had never heard of: Ikra (whipped cream cheese, caviar and shallots), Lutenitsa (roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato) and the more familiar Labneh (yogurt with peppers and radishes) and Tabouleh (parsley and bulgar salad). Each of the salatim had a unique flavor profile, and we loved the lush, creamy flavors of the Labneh and Ikra, and the piquant peppers of the Lutenitsa (also popular in Balkan and Eastern European cuisines).
We had also heard great things about Shaya’s hummus, which comes in varieties from plain tahini ($9) to more exotic takes with curry, eggplant, or lamb ragu. We selected a variety with asparagus and crispy shallots, which was perfect for early spring. The hummus was creamy and rich and we absolutely could not get enough of the pita, which we sopped up every morsel of hummus with. Fortunately, you can get as many pita refills as you want.
Beyond the salatim there were soup and salads (including matzoh ball soup and a fresh cucumber salad), small plates (ranging from halloumi cheese to the ubiquitous avocado toast), and sandwiches like the classic Israeli staple, the sabich. For the rest of our lunch we selected L’s favorite: falafel ($12) and the lamb kofte ($15) along with the roasted Brussels sprouts. The kofte was shaped into more of a patty, and was topped with tomato jam, herbs, tahini, and served over a bed of white beans. It was like the best kebab you ever had and a burger had a baby, with a sprinkling of spice. The falafel was our favorite variety, crispy and bright green from the high herb content, and they were each clearly fried to order.
The grand finale was the chocolate Babka cake, served in a small cast-iron skillet. We are huge fans of babka, a sweet brioche loaf marbled with chocolate, and Shaya’s version was divine – and drenched in a caramel sauce (there now appears to be a cinnamon variety on the menu). Shaya reminded us a lot of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, another modern Israeli powerhouse, which is a good thing. However, the fresh pita really sent Shaya over the top. This place is the real deal! Alon Shaya is opening up 2 more restaurants, and we can’t wait to see what else he has in store.
Hanukkah is coming up – which means we are in prime babka season. Babka (aka Krantz cake) is a sweet Eastern European braided bread that has become a staple of New York City Jewish cuisine. I have tried a few babkas and I think I can definitively say I have tried my favorite in NYC so far – Breads Bakery (18 E 16th St, New York, NY 10003). Breads is the run by Israel-born, Denmark-trained baker Uri Scheft. At Breads, Scheft updates a variety of bakery classics including challah, rye, cookies, baguettes, croissants and even sufganiyot for Hanukkah, but the babka is the standout.
Breads’ version is different from the traditional babka since it is made with a hazelnut spread / chocolate filling instead of just chocolate. Despite not being the most traditional, there is a whole lot to love. Breads’ babka is soft, gooey and completely bursting with chocolate and hazelnut goodness. There is even a cinnamon version! We are not alone in our praise, and Breads also got a hat tip for best babka in NYC from Serious Eats and New York Magazine. Breads even makes a babka pie! We will definitely be back the next time we are NYC. Who makes your favorite babka?
L’shanah tovah! Happy Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)! A traditional dessert for this holiday is honey cake, representing the sweetness of the new year. While anything related to honey is never a bad idea, another dessert fit for the holiday table is babka, a braided, sweet bread filled with layers of chocolate or cinnamon. We have been seeing a lot of babka recipes pop up on our social media feeds recently and we can’t think of a better holiday dessert. For the purists, here is a kosher chocolate version from the Kitchn and a dairy version from Smitten Kitchen. A more unusual take is Brown Eyed Baker’s cream cheese and apricot babka, and you can really fill a babka with whatever you like. And of course, no post about babka is complete without a reference to the iconic Seinfeld episode, “The Dinner Party.”