(September 9, 2015 / JNS) By Amelia Katzen/JNS.org
Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had.
George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia and Elaine, and grandson Isaac were determined to pass on his legacy in the form of a cookbook that George wrote but failed to publish before his death in July 2012.
Isaac Bleicher told JNS.org that, although they knew a manuscript of the book existed, no one in the family had ever seen it. As they cleared out Greenstein’s apartment following his death, the moment when they discovered the book on his computer was stunning. “Should we publish it?” someone suggested to the suddenly silent room. A year-and-a-half-long labor of love in bringing the book to publication paid tribute to the lifelong labor of love Greenstein performed through his baking.
Greenstein’s first book, “Secrets of a Jewish Baker,” won the James Beard Book Award, but covered only breads. This new book—“A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets”—is a wonderful companion to the first, enabling the cook to bring a meal to its magnificent conclusion, though some recipes are adaptable as savory side dishes. Particularly intriguing is the “cabbage strudel,” the recipe for which George’s father Louis brought from Gyöngyös, a formerly prominently Jewish town near Budapest (by way of British Palestine, son-in-law Paul Bleicher told JNS.org), in around 1924.
The book is organized by “master recipes” for many types of dough—including bundt, babka, strudel, gugelhopf, and Portuguese sweet bread, stollen, puff pastry, charlotte (a combination of puff pastry and shortbread), and Danish—which is then used to create many variations on the theme. Puff pastry, for example, is the basis for palmiers, apple turnovers, cream horns, and Napoleons.
Greenstein also provides recipes for various types of filling: almond paste and filling for babka and coffee cake, apple filling for strudel, apricot butter for rugelach, cannoli filling for cannoli, cheese filling for Danish, frangipane for almond pockets, hazelnut filling for gugelhopf, poppy butter and prune lekvar for hamantaschen, walnut filling for strudel, butter streusel for coffee cake, buns, and schnecken.
The concoctions are so numerous and sound so delicious, one wonders how Greenstein was ever able to choose what to bake. Isaac says the variety—“keeping things interesting”—was the key to the success of his bakery, “The Cheesecake King” in Commack, N.Y. And though clearly stemming from Jewish traditions, the desserts have a decidedly European flavor; they cry out to be eaten with a cappuccino or café au lait.
Sprinkled throughout the book are inset boxes helpfully labeled “Baker’s Secret.” These include whether and how long to refrigerate a dough before it rises; a command to allow turnovers to rest for 20 minutes before baking, to reduce shrinkage in the oven; how to handle a bench knife to produce perfect pastry pockets; how to chill pastry cream quickly for immediate use; and, my personal favorite, how to use your fist to quickly and efficiently squeeze filling onto pieces of dough.
In this Jewish holiday season, one can only hope for enough time to bake a large sampling of George Greenstein’s desserts—and to have enough guests to finish them off!
RECIPE: CHOCOLATE BABKA
4 scant tablespoons (4 packets/28 grams) active dry yeast
1⁄4 cup (2 fluid ounces/59 milliliters) warm water, 95°F to 115°F / 35°C to 46°C
3⁄4 cup (6 fluid ounces/178 milliliters) milk, room temperature
1 1⁄2 cups (6.75 ounces/191 grams) bread flour (see note)
2 egg yolks
1⁄2 cup (3.5 ounces/99 grams) sugar
1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk
3 1⁄3 cups (1 pound/454 grams) bread flour
2 1⁄4 teaspoons kosher salt
Finely grated zest of 1⁄2 orange
2 tablespoons orange juice
1⁄4 cup (2.5 ounces/71 grams) orange marmalade
1 1⁄2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
1⁄4 cup (2 ounces/56 grams) sour cream (or substitute yogurt)
1 cup (8 ounces/227 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Flour a half-sheet pan.
To make the sponge, in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a flat paddle, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water to soften. Add the milk and flour, pulsing the on/off switch until blended, making sure the flour does not fly out of the bowl. Continue to mix on low speed for 8-10 minutes. After a few minutes change to a dough hook, if available. The dough should come away from the sides of the bowl. If not, continue for a few minutes at medium speed. Remove the hook or paddle and cover the bowl with a cloth. Let stand until doubled in volume, 20-35 minutes.
To make the mix, beat the sponge down with a few turns of the paddle. Mixing at slow speed, add the eggs and yolks in three additions.
When barely blended (it’s easier if the mixture is still a little wet), add the sugar, milk powder, flour, salt, orange zest and juice, marmalade, vanilla, nutmeg, and sour cream. Mix by pulsing the on/off switch until the dry ingredients are absorbed so that the flour does not fly out of the bowl. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 8-10 minutes at slow speed. Add the butter in several additions, allowing it to become absorbed after each addition. Mix until fully blended. The dough should remain soft, moist, a little sticky, and have a silky appearance.
Transfer the dough into a clean, oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with a cloth or plastic wrap and let rest until puffy, about 30 minutes.
Turn out the dough onto a floured work surface and punch down so that all of the air is released. Cut the dough into 8 equal pieces, about 8 ounces each. (It is easy to knead several pieces together later, if a larger piece of dough is required.) Roll up each piece, jelly-roll style, into a loaf shape. Place on the floured baking sheet and cover lightly.
Refrigerate for several hours or leave refrigerated overnight in the coldest part of the refrigerator before baking the following morning. Double wrap each piece tightly in plastic. May be refrigerated for up to 4 days and frozen for up to 8 weeks. Thaw in the refrigerator.
Yield: About 4 pounds of dough, enough for 8 babkas
Note: You can substitute unbleached all-purpose flour for the bread flour, but the babka will not rise as high and will be a bit less tender.
In the summer, chill all ingredients (except for the warm water used to soften the yeast). Use butter softened at room temperature instead of melted.
Baker’s Secret: If possible, before refrigerating, place the dough in the freezer for 30 to 45 minutes to quickly retard the initial rise, intensifying flavor and slowing the fermentation process. This makes for a better rise before baking and is especially helpful on warm days. Alternatively, freeze the entire baking sheet. When frozen, wrap each piece with a double layer of plastic wrap. It is best to allow the dough to thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
Babka with Three Chocolates
If you are a chocoholic, this is the babka to try first.
1 (8-ounce/227-gram) portion babka dough (page 68 of book)
3⁄4 cup (6 ounces/170 grams) processed almond-paste filling (page 32), or more to cover
3⁄4 cup (6 ounces/69 grams) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chopped or chips
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup (3.6 ounces/100 grams) cinnamon sugar (page 40)
2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa, preferably imported, for dusting
1⁄2 cup (2 ounces/56 grams) walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 cup (5.6 ounces/160 grams) butter streusel (page 40), or more to taste
Grease one 8 or 9-inch loaf pan or line it with parchment paper (page 26). If you are using an aluminum foil loaf pan, grease the pan. Dust the dough with flour. On a floured work surface, roll out dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle that measures about 10 by 7 inches. Brush off any excess flour. Spread the almond filling over the dough, leaving a 1⁄2-inch border around the top. Melt 1⁄4 cup (2 ounce/56 grams) of the chocolate together with the butter. Spread the melted chocolate over the almond filling. Dust with cinnamon sugar and cocoa powder. Scatter the chocolate bits and nuts over the top. Twist the dough, place in the pan, and let rise as in the cinnamon babka loaf recipe (page 70). Top with 1⁄4 cup chocolate chips over the streusel before baking and bake as in the cinnamon babka loaf recipe (page 70) or better still, drizzle the top with the remaining 1⁄4 cup melted chocolate after the baked loaf is cooled. Babka keeps well in a plastic bag for several days at room temperature. It can be refrigerated for 7 days or frozen for up to 8 weeks.
Yield: 1 loaf, serving 8