Dressed in a crisp, white seersucker chef’s jacket, Alon Balshan is mixing babka dough for Hanukkah — by hand.
He works slowly at first, one arm clutching the side of the stainless steel bowl, the other in the yeasty beast. But soon the 6-foot-5, Herman Munster lookalike has morphed into a human bread hook: He pummels, stretches, and whips the rich dough to submission. Flexing his long digits back and forth, he manipulates the floury wad until it’s flexible and elastic.
Ultimately, his babka will emerge from the oven as a magnificent loaf streaked with swirls of chocolate and a hint of lemon zest, and topped with buttery streusel. This Eastern European sweet cake is the pride of thousands of Jewish bubbes, whether eaten year-round or during Hanukkah, the eight-day “Festival of Lights” celebrating the victory of the Jews over the Syrians around 165 B.C. (This year, Hanukkah runs Dec. 2 through Dec. 10.)
Some people, people like me, will prefer to make babka with a KitchenAid stand mixer, rather than get their hands dirty. But Balshan — the 58-year-old, Israeli-born executive chef who founded his namesake Alon’s Bakery on North Highland Avenue in 1992 and added a second shop in Dunwoody in 2008 — has a golden touch with pastry dough.
Though it’s the busiest time of year for Balshan, when Christian and Jewish holidays converge at the eleventh hour, he recently took a break from the rush to give me a lesson in Hanukkah baking. What a mensch.
Once the babka is in oven, we turn to borekas, cheese-stuffed triangles of puff pastry filled with cheese and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Growing up in Israel, with a Moroccan father and an Egyptian mom, “Everybody cooked,” Balshan says. “My grandmother, my mother, my aunt.” His family was especially fond of the fried, jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyah.
“Hanukkah was mostly about the doughnuts,” he says. His folks would mix and fry them at home, piped full of jelly or chocolate. “Nothing fancy.”
After he started selling sufganiyah at his Atlanta store during Hanukkah, customers would ask for them, so now he offers an assortment of fillings: raspberry jelly, custard, nutella and dulce de leche.
For the holidays, he also makes cookies and his “Israeli-style rugelach,” which is fashioned from Danish pastry instead of the cream-cheese dough New Yorkers favor. He offers mini-borekas and babka, which you can make at home with these recipes.
Admittedly, the babka is a multi-step process. Once the dough is made and proofed, it must chill overnight in the refrigerator, after which it is rolled out, spread with filling, proofed again, and baked until golden brown.
No need to complicate things further, however. If you don’t want to make chocolate filling, Balshan suggests nutella. The streusel is optional, too. I love the idea of sprinkling crushed pistachios over the chocolate before rolling up the loaf. Pecans, almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts would work, too, either inside the loaf or in the streusel.
The savory borekas are decidedly easier than babka and can be constructed quickly from frozen puff pastry from a frozen-food aisle and Balshan’s four-cheese filling (Parmesan, ricotta, Gruyere and feta). If you want mini versions, just cut them smaller.
VIDEO: Making sufganiyot at Alon’s
Whatever you do, don’t eat them cold, he says, even if you have to return them to the oven before munching. Devour them warm, and you will experience the ooze of cheese and the crispy crinkle of flaky pastry in a singular bite: the way God, or at least Alon Balshan, intended them to be.
Your store-bought pastry won’t be as superb as his bakery version, which seriously blew my mind they were so ridiculously poofy.
But they will be worth putting out as a Hanukkah nosh, a tradition perhaps worth adding to the ritual of lighting candles and spinning dreidels.
Recipes for Hanukkah treats, courtesy of the genius behind Alon’s Bakery
Babka is a sweet yeast cake that requires some proofing time; borekas can be made with store-bought puff pastry and baked quickly. Fillings can be varied to suit your taste.
Alon Balshan’s Chocolate Babka
This recipe makes four loaves of babka. Feel free to halve the recipe, or freeze any leftover dough for one week. Every step is not necessary. You may substitute nutella for the chocolate filling; the streusel is optional.
Alon Balshan’s Four-Cheese Borekas
Puff pastry gives these cheesy little hand-held pies an ethereal flakiness. A mixture of European cheeses adds a lusciousness, a sprinkling of sesame a bit of crunch. I like to finish them with a minuscule dusting of salt.