Jewish moms in Atlanta give old-world baked goods a modern twist

A tray of challah out for friends in Jaci Effron’s home kitchen. CONTRIBUTED BY BRAD KAPLAN

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A tray of challah out for friends in Jaci Effron’s home kitchen. CONTRIBUTED BY BRAD KAPLAN

A tip from a friend led me to a challah baker who posts her eclectic weekly offerings on Instagram. The challah baker led me to a baklava maker whose novel variation on the classic sweet features Georgia pecans and dark chocolate. The baklava maker led me to a mandel bread baker starting up her own fledgling business, selling varied flavors of the Eastern European Jewish relative of the Italian biscotti.

What the three have in common — besides uncommonly delicious baked goods — is a passion for turning cherished foods from their past into small businesses based in their home kitchens. Oh, and all three are local Jewish moms who have formed a mutual support group for home-baking as a side gig.

Joanna Kobylivker is the veteran, having established the roots of her baklava business with her Egyptian-born mother, Suzanne, more than a dozen years ago. Chaklava — yes, chocolate plus baklava — has grown into a polished operation, with a Georgia cottage food license (which regulates and permits home kitchen-based businesses) and a relationship with an online Persian grocery store to reach a broader audience.

Decades before Chaklava’s birth, Kobylivker’s grandmother had learned how to make a traditional version of the Eastern Mediterranean dessert from the Greek family that lived next door to them in Cairo. The recipe was passed down through the generations, and traveled to Paris, and then on to Atlanta. It was Kobylivker who had the idea of adding dark chocolate to the recipe, but the decidedly light and nonsticky texture is thanks to her grandmother’s baklava recipe — no honey as sweetener, just a simple syrup made with lemon.

Kobylivker's modest success with Chaklava provided a spark for her friends, Jaci Effron and Amy Birnbaum, who started up Challah Girl and Mandel, respectively, in the past year. Effron and Kobylivker met as fourth-grade classmates at Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Sandy Springs (now Atlanta Jewish Academy). "I had one bite of her challah," Kobylivker said, "and just knew she would do well."

Kobylivker helped Effron and Birnbaum look into the cottage license process, but the two newcomers each brought their own skills to the table.

Effron is, by all accounts, the boundary pusher of the trio. Her Challah Girl posts on Instagram (@Challah_Girl) range from plain old braided challah to an over-the-top, rainbow-hued Lucky Charms version that would have traditionalists seeing stars. In any given week, she might produce loaves loaded with the flavors of India, Italy, Mexico, Morocco — or the cookie aisle of the local Publix. "I love coming up with the flavors and the names, and the whole process being renewed each week," Effron said.

Challah Girl’s customers place orders by email, then pick up the still-warm bread on Friday mornings at Effron’s Morningside house. It gives the endeavor a sense of intimacy, and, for Effron, keeps the home business happily centered more on “home” than “business.” It’s a balance that all three bakers seem to appreciate.

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Amy Birnbaum, Joanna Kobylivker, and Jaci Effron share a laugh over a bounty of their baked goods. CONTRIBUTED BY BRAD KAPLAN

Amy Birnbaum, Joanna Kobylivker, and Jaci Effron share a laugh over a bounty of their baked goods. CONTRIBUTED BY BRAD KAPLAN

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Amy Birnbaum, Joanna Kobylivker, and Jaci Effron share a laugh over a bounty of their baked goods. CONTRIBUTED BY BRAD KAPLAN

As for Birnbaum, her years of baking mandel bread for friends and family only recently turned into a side gig. “I was inspired by Jaci’s vision for her challah business, and then I met Joanna, and I was like, wait! I have a thing, too! I want in on this Jewish baking collective!”

Birnbaum honed her mandel bread skills in Short Hills, New Jersey, under the tutelage of an aunt whose version of this traditional Eastern European treat was revered by family and friends. While Aunt Roberta’s mandel bread was made strictly with chocolate and nuts, Birnbaum is building the reputation of her business, Mandel, by using more intricate flavors, such as orange zest with candied ginger, as well as chai spice.

While Birnbaum spends much more time at her day job than she does on Mandel, her experience in marketing and digital production at Cartoon Network has given her — and the informal collective — a helpful dose of branding and design savvy. “We’re all complementing each other and supporting each other,” Birnbaum said, and their friendship “has helped me stop feeling scared of trying new things.”

Birnbaum half-jokingly added that she really “just wanted to find another reason to hang out with them!”

With challah and baklava and mandel bread to fuel their collective ambitions, who wouldn’t want to gather with friends like that?

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