On the opening day of her babka bakery, Dec. 13, Ayélet Turgeman Nuchi left for about a half-hour to take her kids to school. When she returned, she saw a line of about 100 people outside and assumed they were waiting to ship holiday packages at UPS next door.
She was floored to realize they were waiting for her.
A week later, Babka by Ayélet was selling out of most everything just an hour after opening the doors each day. People coming in before Christmas wanting to buy a large babka for the holidays were told orders were already being taken for January.
The buildup in the public’s imagination resulted from at least two articles prematurely announcing the bakery’s opening. Silicon Valley magazine reported it would open in mid-September (that was once the hope), and Tablet, the national Jewish online magazine, wrote that it would open before Thanksgiving. In fact, inspections and other delays caused another three-week pushback in the schedule.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Nuchi admits. “You know that it’s a good product, but you hope you can live up to the hype.”
The Tablet piece was especially frenzy-inducing. People in New York — where babka is a common, popular bakery item — were calling and asking whether she ships. (She doesn’t.)
What is known in the U.S. as babka is known in Israel as oogat shmarim, or yeast cake. It is sold everywhere, from the fanciest bakeries to the simplest supermarkets. It’s traditionally offered at Shabbat meals and comes in only one flavor: chocolate.
In America, the babka dough is similar to that of challah but sweeter, with a layer of chocolate or cinnamon filling rolled up inside. It’s so tied to New York, and to Jewish meals, that it became the star of a “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry and Elaine forgot to take a number in a bakery line and the customers ahead of them got the last chocolate babka, leaving only the much less desirable — to some — cinnamon flavor.
Nuchi, who hails from Tel Aviv, has been living on the Peninsula for nearly two decades. She was a music producer in Israel, but when she came to the Bay Area, she embarked on a new career. A roommate had left behind a pastry book and Nuchi decided, “This is what I’m doing next.” She enrolled in culinary school in San Francisco and for years catered weddings and b’nai mitzvah. No matter what she served, she’d set up a corner for tea and coffee with house-made biscotti and babka. The positive feedback she received never failed to single out the babka.
Nuchi’s store is in the Town & Country Village shopping center in Palo Alto and is chic and modern, with coffee-table books and cookbooks lining the shelves and Israeli music on the sound system. She is also fulfilling a dream of owning a café, where her friends can hang out together and visit. She said the bakery became a pet project for several of them who contributed to its build-out and décor.
There are nine flavors of babka, with the sweet flavors including halva and raspberry-cheese (my favorites of those I tasted). Nuchi doesn’t know of anyone else making these flavors.
“Every dessert I like to bake, I’m going to put those flavors into a babka,” is her thinking.
Her savory flavors — butternut squash and tomato mozzarella — were developed for lunch options; the savory dough has thyme and chili flakes in it.
A small babka, which can easily feed four or more, is just $5, while a large one (11 inches) is $25, but at least for now must be special-ordered.
While the bakery doors open at 10 a.m. every day, the larger babkas have been selling out by 11, so it’s best to come early (she bakes the smaller ones throughout the day). Eventually, Nuchi hopes to hire more people and increase her production.
“Right now, I’m the only one who touches the dough,” she said.
Babka by Ayélet, 855 El Camino Real, Suite 15, Palo Alto, is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Small Bites: The JCC of the East Bay is now partnering with Saul’s Deli in Berkeley to cater its community lunches every Monday and Thursday. Offerings include deli sandwiches, salads, pickles and baklava or cookies. Lunch is at 12 p.m. and costs $7 for seniors, $10 general and $14 mitzvah.