For The Love Of An Onion Roll
Tue, 12/13/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
A retired professional baker and a hobbyist baker joined forces on “Inside the Jewish Bakery.”
A retired professional baker and a hobbyist baker joined forces on “Inside the Jewish Bakery.”

It wasn’t only grandmothers who shoved the onion rolls into their pocketbooks at Ratner’s. The soft, freshly baked rolls flecked with onions and poppy seeds that appeared in bottomless baskets on tables in the Lower East Side restaurant, reappeared in the kitchens of many diners the following morning — that is, if the rolls weren’t already enjoyed on the way home.

But now the Lower East Side restaurant is gone, many of the bakeries that carried these and other traditional treats are shuttered, and as Brooklyn-born Stanley Ginsberg says, “It’s almost impossible to find a decent onion roll.”

Ginsberg and Norman Berg are co-authors of a new book that brings new life to Jewish bakery standards like onion rolls, pletsl, raisin pumpernickel, rye bread, salt sticks and their sweet counterparts like egg kichels, mohn bars and babka.

“Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking” by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg (Camino Books) is an old-world book inside of a new-world story. The authors encountered each other on a website, thefreshloaf.com, where Ginsburg, a retired business and financial writer and hobbyist baker in San Diego, saw a posting by Berg, a retired professional baker from the Bronx. Ginsberg asked Berg for a recipe for onion rolls, tried it out, found the rolls to be fantastic, and then asked Berg for his Russian coffee cake.

“Knocked my brains out,” he said of the Russian coffee cake. It brought back memories of the Russian coffee cake he used to savor at the now-shuttered Royale Kosher Bake Shop on the Upper West Side, when he lived in Manhattan in the 1970s.

The two men then started talking offline. When Ginsberg suggested that they collaborate on a book, Berg was at first surprised that anyone would be interested in his formulas, as bakers refer to their personal lists of ingredients and proportions for the various baked goods they make. The two men worked together online for two years, in their separate kitchens, until they first met face-to-face. Since then, they have met in person only a couple of times.

Reproduced in the book is a photograph of one of Berg’s formulas, handwritten on the flour-dusted crumpled page he kept in his pocket. Ingredients are listed in the order they are used, and a horizontal line indicates that the items above should be mixed together. There are no written steps and no directions, and quantities are given in pounds and ounces.

“Norm’s formulas are so on the mark,” Ginsberg says. “He got them from old-timers who shared them with him.” Among his mentors were some Holocaust survivors.

“Back in the day, formulas were the only things a baker had,” he explains, noting that they were carefully guarded. Now, he says, “they’re dying with the bakers.”

Ginsburg, 67, who grew up in Bensonhurst, has a doctoral degree in Chinese literature. He describes his co-author, 55, who still lives in the Bronx as “a young guy with an old soul.” Berg graduated from the baking program at New York City’s Food and Maritime Trades High School and spent 25 years as a baker and manager at Bronx bakeries including Weber’s, Enrico’s, Yonkers Pastry and Greystone Bakery. His son is a pastry chef.

Here, the recipes include Berg’s formulas, along with step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow for mixing, shaping and finishing. Ginsberg believes that baking novices can use the book, and might want to begin with challah. Rye bread is more challenging, as it’s built on a sour culture, in which yeast is mixed with “organic whole-grain rye flour, spring or filtered water and patience.” They write, “If challah was the queen of the Shabbes table, rye was the poor but honest yeoman who served during the other six days of the week.” On average, the Jews of Eastern Europe “consumed about two pounds of rye bread per person each day.”

Also featured are kornbroyt (or corn rye), poppy horns, bialys and Russian coffee cake. “To many of us who grew up in postwar Jewish neighborhoods, Russian coffee cake was the ultimate indulgence — beyond babka, beyond Danish, beyond rugelach, beyond Boston cream pie and ice cream. Rich in butter and sugar, overflowing with cinnamon and nuts, drenched with apricot-fragrant syrup, it was something to look forward to, and once gotten, something to linger over.” The descriptions and color photographs will inspire this reader and many others to get their hands full of dough.

The book also offers history and culture, describing the world of European Jewry, where these baked goods were first developed, and the other baking traditions that left their marks on them. When waves of immigrants came to America, they opened bakeries in cellars with coal-burning stoves to recreate the foods they left behind. And when immigrants left the Lower East side for newer Jewish neighborhoods uptown, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, they opened new bakeries, which “reached full flower” in the late 1940s, with the end of war rationing. But as people moved further away and demand fell for traditional baked goods, the neighborhood bakeries began to disappear. Ginsberg and Berg write with nostalgia, but also with joy in their ability to preserve traditions, recipes and memories.

While many of the breads and cakes they include in the book are still made in some commercial bakeries, the authors explain that the quality just isn’t the same as in the old-time bake shops. Ginsberg, who also runs a mail order baking supply business for home bakers (nybakers.com), notes that these days many bakeries use mixes rather than work from scratch with fresh ingredients. “Today you can open a full-service bakery without ever having to learn to bake,” he says.

While compiling the book, the authors went back to the website and recruited testers. They had about 100 people from all over the United States and in Canada, Australia and the Middle East experimenting with the recipes and sending back feedback and photographs. For some of the testers, the process was one of recreating their own memories, while for the others, it was a new food adventure, even an exotic one.

Now, the website is offering the cover-to-cover “Inside the Jewish Bakery” challenge: the weekly posting of recipes so that home bakers can make every bread, roll, pastry and cake in the book. Last week, the first recipe, Mohn Bars (poppy seed cookies), was featured.

The book highlights several bagel variations — the Classic New York Water Bagel (and a twisted version from Krakow, Krakover beyglach), Montreal Bagels, New York Egg Bagels, all of them hand-rolled and boiled — and instructions for joining the dough into a circle, “like a snake biting its tail.”

“Today there are two kinds of people in America,” they write, “those who have never eaten authentic New York water bagels and don’t know what they are missing, and those who have — and who spend at least part of their lives missing them.”

People have asked Ginsberg to bake for them. One California family wanted him to make bagels for their son’s bar mitzvah, as they were embarrassed to serve their local version of bagels to their New York guests. But so far he hasn’t taken up that challenge.