It’s Shabbat in Tel Aviv, August 1986. The sidewalks of Ben Yehuda Street are burning and the heat destroys everything. I spend the entire morning at a pool on Hayarkon Street. The salt water cools my little body. Afterwards my parents and I would go to Ben Yehuda Street to eat our hearts out at an old Romanian restaurant, wolfing down kebabs bathed in garlic, taramosalata, and small, sour green tomatoes. My parents insist we have desert at the bakery next store, Café London. Its windows are piled high with desserts, grand cakes like concords or black forest next to Sabrinas, large eclairs filled with whipped cream, splendorous chocolate desserts decorated with whipped cream, meringue kisses or cream coffee. And of course, the diamond in the gastronomical crown at the time was a superb ice cream sandwich filled with rich, sweet cream.
In Israel’s early years, Austro-Hungarian pastry was the uncontested leader. Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were filled with immigrants from Austria, Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia, who brought with them the magic of the European pastry shop, multilayered homemade cakes piled high with thick cream, chocolate, coffee, nuts and thick jam.
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The years have passed and the magic of Eastern Europe was replaced at some point with the refinement of the Parisian patisserie, but should Israel of 2019 have its own local-style bakeshop, based on knowledge gleaned through the years and inspired by local ingredients? Is there any chance that local bakeries will take a leaf from the “Israeli kitchen” that the world has come to recognize, and climb the same mountains in search of the same peaks?
Baker Erez Komarovsky, who serves as a judge on a reality TV baking show and founded the Erez Bread chain of cafes, believes Israeli baking is still in its infancy. “There’s something called Israeli pastry making, but it’s still in the womb. I’m working hard at trying to deliver it,” he says. The first buds can been seen in how Israeli bakers combine more rosewater and orange-flower water in their desserts and use it to season French chocolate cream, or the way we sprinkle pistachio nuts on yeast cake, he says. “That’s Israeli, in my opinion.”
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Nonetheless, he still sees many signs of provinciality. “There are still many bakers who think a chocolate croissant or burekas are the height of creation,” he says. ”We still haven’t had the same revolution in the bake shop that we’ve had in the kitchen. Israeli baking still hasn’t overtaken the hegemony of French pastry.”
Komarovksy wonders why no prestigious bakery in Israel that has embraced spelt flour or sourdough, offers pitas or sambusacs or a sfiha (open-faced meat pie). You won’t find pita, or a humus pastry. “It’s amazing to me that there is no sfiha, which is actually the pizza of the Levant. You can find focaccia or calzone but nothing local. And I have to accept some of the responsibility for this, because I also failed to understand in time that there’s a conceptual problem here. I also invested more in focaccia and less in local things in the realm of doughs. It makes me sad that places don’t serve awameh [fried dough balls] and other sweets of a more local variety. There’s halva and tahini and other close relatives on the menu but it’s all in its infancy,” Komarovksy says.
Today as director of baking at a culinary school for students learning to be chefs and bakers, he places great emphasis on this, and his motto is that baking a challah is no less meaningful than baking a brioche. “For years the bakeries in eastern Europe were in charge here. I even sold chocolate croissants at Erez Bread, and focaccia and specialty breads. When I started Erez Bread in 1996, we all had our eyes on France. Today we can only blame ourselves that we don’t have the right butter for it or the right ingredients in general, and I really can’t believe how we put ourselves down in the face of French baking, with all the local grandeur we have here. Neither our nor our grandmothers’ yeast cake is any less tasty,” he adds.
Komarovky works on all fronts to change this. “We should not apologize for our attayef, which, by the way, is local, not just Arab. There’s an entire world of candy. When we say baklava, we’re talking about dozens of different local sweets, it’s not just the typical baklava we know. How is it that nobody serves sweetened pumpkin outside the restaurants in Nazareth? I am working on an entire book about local baking, and I’m sure that there will be a revolution and that Israeli bakers will attain a place of honor, just as Israeli chefs did. The same goes for salty baked goods, by the way. We have amazing treasures. Precisely because Israel is a melting pot, we have Caucasian baking and Greek inspiration, Ukrainian and Bukharan bakers, all of which suggest a wide and mad world of baking which will soon be seen as Israeli.”
Meir Danon, founder and director of the Danon culinary school joins in the discussion. He is in the process of adding a pastry wing to his school, in keeping with the international trend to focus on local identity. This will include instruction in traditional Arab baking by Nof Atamneh and others. Danon believes that a local school of baking has always existed, but that these days it is picking up steam.
“If in the past, people brought desserts from abroad, now local pastry chefs are contributing to the development of a new, local language. I see signs of it in the growing use of rose water, of honey laced with local herbs. Croissants with sesame seeds and halva, is, in my eyes, Israeli.”
Danon continues: “Ingredients are being put to more creative use. I see the use of citrus fruit of all sorts, a lot of apricots, mastic. I see students preparing baked goods with orange peel, with raisins, I see salty croissants with za’atar and sumac, something you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world. It’s only natural we should draw inspiration from our immediate environment, and to work with what grows here, whether it’s grape leaves, sage, sumac or other spices you can find in the Levinsky market, it certainly makes it Israeli.”
According to Lior Shtaygman, who heads the Danon school’s pastry course said, “What characterizes us is taking from what’s around us and creating something new.
“I myself,” he adds, “recently made a tart that was honored to appear on the cover of a Spanish magazine. It was inspired by Greek filo pastry, but with orange-and-mandarin water, what created a Middle Eastern combination of flavors with a modern finish.”
How does Shteygman see the future of Israeli baking?
“I think the aspiration is to make desserts much more accessible, really like street food. Just like what Eyal Shani did for pita, is what in my opinion is going to happen in the world of desserts. This blend of international technique with our own raw ingredients is what will make it Israeli. I already see places making use of ground cherry seeds, Turkish delight gel with marzipan stuffed with citrus fruits - things that are totally from here.”
Keren Kadosh, of Jerusalem’s Café Kadosh, notes that, “We Israelis in our character have a lot of chutzpah. The Italians and French will stick by their history and tradition, but we come along and mix everyone up. We take ideas from around the world, we mix them up, and in the end we come up something better. You have to know how to copy, and Israelis are able to do so in a way that makes the imitation better than the original.”
Kadosh says this begins with accommodating the local weather. “We need to lose the heaviness and gelatin, to air out the heavy creams, and get to much lighter textures. I see French people arriving here who prefer the local versions over the Parisian original because they are more appropriate to the time and place. In the neighborhood where I grew up, that pots of the Moroccans and the Kurds, the Hungarians and the Bukharans all mixed. And that’s the way it is with our baking too. We grew up in the neighborhood of heavy Moroccan and Kurdish, Hungarian and Bukharin pots and pans. We’ve mixed. So with baking it’s the same.
“We are groundbreakers and there’s no doubt that the time for pastry specialties will come. I’m already teaching workshops abroad. World pastry makers are surprised by the combinations, and wonder why they come up with them themselves beforehand.”