As a kid, my favorite day was Sunday. That’s when I accompanied my parents to Moskowitz’s Bakery on 60th Street in West Philly. We lived in Havertown. At the time, that was beyond the Pale of Settlement. Jewish bakeries had yet to follow the migration to the burbs.
My eyes were the perfect height for viewing the treasures under the glass counter: fruit-filled Danish pastries, Charlotte Russe, almond horns, mandlebrut (biscotti to you), raspberry rugelach, shnecken, strudel, cupcakes, fragrant loaves of challah and rye and warm bagels. The bakery lady always gave me a “nosh,” a cookie with sprinkles. I wasn’t allowed to sample any of the other treats until my grandparents arrived from the city and Mom set out a “spread.”
My family didn’t belong to a synagogue. We were not kosher. So going to Moskowitz’s was the closest we came to worship. The Holy of Holies was the babka, a moist, aromatic, loaf cake containing luscious swirls of cinnamon, raisins and almonds. My grandparents ate their babka with glasses, not cups, of hot tea while watching Meet the Press. For them, each morsel contained memories of the Old Country, which might’ve been Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, or Belarus. They weren’t sure. They had left as children at a time when the borders of Eastern Europe changed with the toss of a ruble.
Eventually, Jewish bakeries sprung up closer to us. Why schlep to 60th Street when there was the Rolling Pin in Wynnefield and Liss’ Bakery in Overbrook Park? Plus, the popular delis in Bala Cynwyd got wise and started selling these same bakery products. You could live in Montgomery County and have your babka too.
None of this mattered to me until my parents and grandparents passed away and, suddenly, Sunday’s didn’t taste right. The bakeries were gone, replaced by chain supermarkets. I had heard that Port Richmond was the place to go. Supposedly, the babka in its Polish bakeries was “the best,” according to Yelp. As I drove along a bleak strip of Allegheny Avenue, I had a feeling it would be easier to score meth in these mean streets than find a decent babka. I finally found a bakery, walked in, and left without buying anything. It didn’t look right. It didn’t smell right.
Searching for the perfect babka in 2016 is like searching for a phone booth. They don’t exist. Or so I thought. On a recent stroll through East Passayunk, I happened upon Essen Bakery. The name alone is prophetic. Essen means “eat” in Yiddish. A new Jewish bakery in South Philly, walking distance from my grandparents’ former home? I might as well have stumbled upon Atlantis. Inside the tiny, storefront (formerly Belle Cakery), I gazed at shiny loaves of braided challah, cookies the size of coasters, and two varieties of babka. Cinnamon and chocolate.
“I’ll take a cinnamon babka,” I said. (Chocolate babka is making a comeback, but I’m a traditionalist.)
“That will be $14,” said Tova du Plessis, the pastry chef/owner.
No problem. I would’ve paid 50. Her accent wasn’t local. I couldn’t place it.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“South Africa,” she said.
Intrigued, I probed deeper. Du Plessis’ grandfather came from Austria, the pastry capital of Europe. Her grandmother, like mine, came from Russia. But the actual recipe for her golden loaf wasn’t handed down.
“It’s my own creation,” she said.
Hmmmm. The weight of the babka felt right: as heavy as a brick. The aroma was tantalizing. Still, I withheld judgment until I arrived home. When I sliced it, it fell apart exactly the way it should. A babka that holds together doesn’t have enough of the “good stuff.” Here, at last was a babka bursting with nuts and raisins. The outside had a thin, pleasing crunch. The inside was tender but firm. As a wine connoisseur would say, it had a good “mouth.” But something was different. For one thing, the babka of my childhood was filled with almonds. This one had pecans. Oodles of them. And there was something else. Perhaps honey?
No, this is not the babka of my childhood. This is better. For good reason. Du Plessis’ culinary credentials are stellar. She was the former executive pastry chef at Lacroix and earned her stripes at Le Bec-Fin and Zahav. As I savored her interpretation of a classic Jewish coffee cake, which conjured up Paris more than Kiev, I realized that while I cannot go back in time, I can be transported to a realm in which babka still reigns supreme.