Cake Monkey: Making a show-stealing babka


Eight years is plenty of time to develop solid products and to know your audience. No wonder Cake Monkey’s first brick-and-mortar bakery, on Beverly Boulevard, proved an instant hit, following the success of the baked goods company’s wholesale business.

With an eye-catching pink exterior and cheerful details, the storefront is convenient for neighbors who want to grab a coffee and breakfast pastry as part of their daily routines. The gorgeous cakes, mini-cakes and signature desserts that riff off of classic American packaged goods (think: Ding Dongs, Ho Hos) draw customers from all over Los Angeles who previously could only special-order items from Cake Monkey’s commissary kitchen in North Hollywood. 

Business partners Elizabeth Belkind and Lisa Olin have wanted a physical neighborhood bakery “from the beginning,” Belkind said, but the team instead focused on its wholesale business and custom orders for many years. Then the right opportunity came along in the form of a compact space on Beverly, just east of Fairfax. 

Mini cakes. Photo by Staci Valentine

Childhood photos of Belkind and Olin hang on the wall near a pink neon light that reads “enjoy life eat cake.” Designer Paula Smail took pages from her grandmother’s cookbook and enlarged them to make the wallpaper. Even if this detail isn’t from Belkind’s or Olin’s family histories, it’s an element that further personalizes the space.

Pop pies. Photo by Staci Valentine

A graduate of Bard College in upstate New York who grew up in Mexico City until the age of 10, Belkind attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena (which subsequently became absorbed into Le Cordon Bleu network, but announced last year it is closing all 16 of its U.S. campuses). She landed a coveted position at Mark Peel’s legendary Campanile restaurant where, after a stint as “the grunt” in the main savory kitchen, she found herself drawn to pastry work. She also couldn’t help but notice then-Campanile co-owner and La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton was keen on nurturing new talent. 

“We have very different backgrounds,” Olin said of her partner’s complementary skills and their different cultural points of view. Belkind’s Jewish-Mexican upbringing — her mother is American, and her paternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Russia in 1923 — meant she didn’t have the same attachment to the classic American treats Olin grew up eating on Long Island and then sought to reinterpret for a sophisticated audience. But with Belkind’s pastry skills, the product line of foil-wrapped, chocolate-dipped, individually sized desserts came together. Belkind and Olin also developed breakfast pastries for wholesale clients around the city, which they can now sell from their own cases, and offer along with locally roasted Forge Coffee. 

Although Cake Monkey isn’t certified kosher nor focused on traditional Jewish desserts, Belkind was recently inspired to re-create a beloved classic. “I saw a picture of babka that was so gorgeous, and was like, ‘We have to have this!’ ” The dense yet delightfully soft, eggy brioche-like cake lined with chocolate and topped with a serious hazelnut brittle is available by the slice. Or if you want to make sure to have an ample supply, order one in advance. 

Cake Monkey Bakery

7807 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

(323) 932-1142

Puff, the magic (Kosher) pastry


The cupcake. The macaron. And now the nuage cake. 

The public embraces dessert trends with an intense — and sometimes fleeting — passion. Fortunately for those who observe the laws of kashrut, the latest sweet treat to appear on the L.A. scene happens to be certified kosher. 

Supervised by Rabbi Jonathan Benzaquen of Kosher LA, the trés chic Bo Nuage shop, located on Melrose Avenue just west of Fairfax Avenue, is the first L.A. business to specialize in the whipped cream and egg white-based confection. Pieces of meringue are filled with layers of cream, and then swathed in a creamy exterior. The round pastry is covered in shaved chocolate to make a featherweight — yet satisfying — sweet treat. In tune with other dietary concerns, these “cloud cakes” are gluten-free, and Bo Nuage offers a version of their cakes made without dairy.

A 120-square-foot jewel box of a shop that’s decked out in a modern black-and-white color scheme designed by Jessica Marx of J. Marx Atelier (who also oversaw the design of Wexler’s Deli, which recently opened in Grand Central Market downtown) and glamorous chandelier lighting, the contemporary pastry retailer feels like a bit of Paris in L.A. The nuage cakes come in two sizes and in 15 flavors, including chocolate, vanilla, mocha, raspberry, passion fruit, hazelnut and lemon. Bo Nuage — which translates as “beautiful cloud” —  also makes a larger nuage cake, as well as a strawberry and meringue Pavlova (or variations with other fresh fruits), and individual simple meringues. 

“We decided to be kosher because I am a part of this Jewish community, and it was important for me to share my passion for this meringue treat with my community, too,” said Audrey Achcar, a Paris native who owns Bo Nuage with her husband, Pascal. 

Pascal Achcar, also a Paris native, had initially come to baking via the commercial flour business, and then established a successful wholesale baking business and training school in Mali in 2006. Social and political upheaval, however, meant the Achcars had to give up their business (Audrey had joined him there) and leave Africa in early 2012. After spending time with Audrey’s family in Los Angeles — her mother founded Lette Macarons here in 2007 — the couple eventually relocated to Southern California. In the process, they decided to establish an artisanal food business centered on the delicate northern French meringue cakes they had come to love in Paris.

Also specializing in the cream-and-meringue pastry niche is Le Mervetty in Beverly Hills, where Israeli-born and raised pastry chef Etty Benhamou specializes in similar meringue and cream cakes known as merveilleux. (Le Mervetty’s goods are not, however, certified kosher.)

The Achcars’ embrace of life in Los Angeles can be attributed, in large part, to a factor echoed by many transplants, especially those who hail from colder climes. “L.A. has the best weather in the world,” Audrey said. “It’s great when you have children to be surrounded by beaches and mountains.” 

Plus, the nuage suits the palates of Angelenos who crave culinary novelty, yet want to temper dietary indulgences with treats that shy away from the more intense end of the decadence spectrum. (Or at least those that seem to; it’s hard to separate heavy cream from Bo Nuage’s raison d’etre, after all.) “When our customers try our cloud cakes, they all have the same reaction,” Audrey said. “They first are surprised by its lightness and its taste that is at the same time crispy and soft because of the meringue and the whipped cream. When they first see the petit nuage, they think they won’t finish it, but their spoon always comes back to it.”

Rising aspirations at Ran Zimon’s Bread Lounge


Baker Ran Zimon leads a visitor through the doorway separating the cafe area from the kitchen of Bread Lounge, his neighborhood bakery in the Arts District downtown. The temperature suddenly jumps at least 10 degrees. “It reminds me of Israel,” Zimon says with a sly smile. 

This aspect of the bakery’s arrangement wasn’t intentional. Nor was the genesis of Zimon’s professional path. The Ra’anana native describes his career as having happened “by mistake.” But better to describe it as a happy accident, as Zimon’s unplanned success thus far and his dedication to his trade can’t be described as anything other than great news, both for him and for the bread lovers of Los Angeles. 

Zimon’s story doesn’t involve early-identified destiny. As a child, he wasn’t interested in food, short of eating it, nor would he trail his parents around the kitchen. “I was an ordinary guy,” he says with a shrug. Instead, for “weird” reasons Zimon still doesn’t quite understand, he bought a book about baking one afternoon when he was in his 20s. An odd move, as this son of a librarian never needed to buy books. (His father is a retired employee of an electrical company.) He then found a job as a baker in a cafe after responding to a classified newspaper ad that was two months out of date. 

“It wasn’t [as if] I wanted to pursue my dream to be a baker. It just happened,” he explains. “Once I started working in the bakery, I fell in love with it, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” So the trim, clean-headed, quick-talking Zimon will don flour-dusted baker’s garb for the foreseeable future. 

Zimon didn’t plan to live in the United States, either. He wanted to open a bakery in Tel Aviv but accepted an offer to visit relatives in West Los Angeles before settling down into what he knew would be a grueling work routine. Upon arrival, the natural entrepreneur wanted to tour local bakeries and instantly saw an opportunity. “When I asked what’s the best bread I can get here, everybody said La Brea Bakery in the supermarket,” he remembers. “If that’s the best bread you can get in L.A., then we have to do something about it.” 

Zimon got to work. He got his affairs in order in Israel so he could move, returned to Los Angeles in 2007, found a shared kitchen on the Westside and started making a small repertoire of baguettes and a few loaves based on his natural sourdough starter, which he brought home each day rather than tempt fate by leaving it in the commercial kitchen where it might accidentally get tossed away. Zimon’s first wholesale clients were Wally’s Wine & Spirits, Monsieur Marcel and Church & State. He also took a side job baking breads for Suzanne Goin’s beloved Lucques and A.O.C. restaurants. 

Given all this, he began to search for suitable commercial kitchen and retail space on the Westside, and at a point of frustration at the costs and real estate hurdles there, he reached out to Yuval Bar-Zemer, a developer with Linear City, who was also a family friend. It was Bar-Zemer who eventually brought Zimon to the now-burgeoning Arts District. (Linear City is the company behind some of the larger-scale developments in the area, such as the Toy Factory and Biscuit Company lofts.) “We came here, put in my little mixer and my little oven, and we started,” Zimon modestly recalls of his downtown bakery’s origins in 2010. What came out of that oven generated big demand and a cult following among the city’s leading chefs, including Walter Manzke (then at Church & State), Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth underground supper club, and Jessica Koslow of Sqirl. 

Bread Lounge’s nondescript concrete block building sits on Sante Fe Avenue at the very eastern edge of downtown, adjacent to where the Seventh Street bridge arcs over the Los Angeles River. The absence of a sign or a Web site isn’t a deliberate move to cultivate mystique. Zimon is just “too busy” focusing on his products. His cafe component is now just over a year old, almost the same age as his son. 

Baker Ran Zimon

Zimon says he tried to keep his business quiet at first, but, “Once we opened, they all came here. It’s a really great community. I’m so happy I’m here.” Bread Lounge’s minimalist style fits into the aesthetics of the area, which has all the hallmarks of a commercial and industrial urban neighborhood in the throes of intense growing pains and identity shifts: destination-worthy restaurants tucked into former warehouses, top-quality coffee, new residential buildings, along with practically deserted streets at night and some crime. 

Folks come out of the woodwork and congregate at daytime hubs around the Arts District — at Bread Lounge as well as at nearby simpatico businesses: Urth Caffé, The Daily Dose, Wurstküche, Pizzanista! and Handsome Coffee Roasters. Zimon says he has noticed an increase in Israeli clientele, as well, thanks to word of mouth. While we are talking, chef Ori Menashe of Bestia drops in with a fellow Hebrew-speaking chef from his kitchen for a Mediterranean breakfast. They all catch up on neighborhood news and food industry shoptalk. 

As for what Zimon and crew like to bake: “We try to combine the classic — French, European baking — and then bring some Mediterranean flavors we relate to and things that will work with the American palate. Sometimes it works, sometimes not,” Zimon notes. Customers stock up on the gorgeous baguettes, olive loaves, ciabatta, plus house-made jams, cookies and granola packed to go, as well as sandwiches, soups and daily specials. Don’t, however, come to Bread Lounge looking for typical American treats because Zimon isn’t interested in cashing in on the cupcake craze or making bagels. If the latter happens, it’s in the form of a taut sesame-crusted Jerusalem bagel, which Zimon had only started making a couple of days before we met. Bread Lounge’s staff currently numbers somewhere between 20 and 25.

It’s an example of the fluid business-in-progress model that suits him best. “We don’t really plan anything, we just go with the flow,” Zimon says. That doesn’t mean he’s without a guiding philosophy or a perfectionist’s streak. “When you do something you love, it usually turns out better.”

RAN ZIMON’S ROSH HASHANAHHONEY CAKE 

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Pinch ground cloves or allspice
  • 1 cup very hot coffee

Preheat oven to 325 F.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, oil, sugar, honey and spices.

Add egg mixture to flour mixture, stirring only until no lumps. Do not overmix.

Add hot coffee in two to three increments, and quickly mix in.

Turn into two parchment-lined 9-by-5-inch loaf pans, filling pans only 2/3 full, to prevent overflowing while baking.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until cakes test done. 

Makes 2 loaves.

Schwartz Bakery leaves RCC for Kehilla


Schwartz Bakery, a kosher bakery and caterer with six retail locations across Los Angeles, has dropped the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) as its kosher certifier. The 59-year-old family-owned business announced the news on May 20, posting on its Facebook page a photograph of a Kehilla Kosher sign hanging in the window of one of its shops.

“All Schwartz Bakery locations are now under Kehilla supervision,” the Facebook post stated, referring to Los Angeles’ other prominent Orthodox kosher agency. 

According to its Web site, Schwartz is “the first kosher bakery in Los Angeles.” It is the third kosher establishment to leave the RCC in the wake of the recent scandal that has tarnished the certifier’s reputation, and the largest to do so thus far. 

The move was announced almost exactly eight weeks after the RCC revoked its certification from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats, which had been the largest distributor of meat under its supervision. In March, Doheny’s owner was videotaped allegedly bringing unidentified animal products into his store at a time when the RCC’s kosher overseer was absent. The breach was discovered by a private investigator not affiliated with the RCC; the agency revoked its certification on the eve of Passover and has been trying to mitigate the damage to its reputation ever since. 

Speaking to the Journal at his store on Pico Boulevard on May 23, Marc Hecht, whose family has owned Schwartz Bakery since 1979, confirmed the change in supervision but declined to comment further about the decision to leave the RCC, which had supervised the bakery for decades. 

In addition to its retail business, Schwartz Bakery caters events, sells packaged baked goods to retailers across the Southland and runs the lunch program at Yeshivat Yavneh, an Orthodox day school near Hancock Park. 

RCC President Rabbi Meyer May also declined to speak about Schwartz’s departure. In an e-mail to the Journal on May 26, May said he was “much more interested in speaking about the unilateral decisions the RCC has taken to elevate our community’s kashrus.” 

May and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, chairman of the RCC’s committee overseeing kosher certification, outlined those “unilateral decisions” in a letter May sent to the Journal on May 27. 

According to the two-page letter, the RCC has hired or appointed at least eight different rabbis to oversee various aspects of its kosher operations. 

What impact, if any, the described changes will have is hard to predict. The letter says the RCC has “addressed the issues raised” during its own internal review of the establishments under its supervision, and noted that the RCC had also received recommendations from the Orthodox Union’s kosher agency. 

But the letter does not list specific changes to RCC policies, beyond a pledge from May and Rosenberg that the RCC “will adhere to universally accepted kashrus standards recommended by the Association of Kashrus Organizations,” a Chicago-based umbrella organization for kosher certifiers.

May declined to answer any follow-up questions about the letter, including whether the higher standard of kosher the RCC says it is aiming for will cost merchants — and consumers — more money. 

“The RCC Update statement is all we have to say at this time,” May wrote in an e-mail on May 28. 

With neither the RCC nor Schwartz’s owner speaking about the bakery’s move, individuals have been left to speculate on what may have motivated the switch. 

“RCC is not as good for the bottom line as the other hechshers,” Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center, wrote on his blog, FinkOrSwim. “The only real reason a restaurant will switch is to increase business,” Fink suggested.

In the wake of the Doheny scandal, Fink writes, even merchants who have never been certified by the RCC are going to notable lengths to put their customers at ease. Fink reported that Shiloh’s, a steakhouse on Pico Boulevard, has put up a “splash page” on its Web site that assures customers that they are and always have been “under the supervision of Kehilla Kosher.”

“A significant number of people have been spooked by the kashrus scandal,” Fink wrote, to the point that they are effectively rejecting the ruling by Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a noted halachic authority with the OU. 

When the Doheny scandal broke, Belsky declared that all meat purchased from Doheny before 3 p.m. on March 24 was kosher according to religious law. Furthermore, individuals and businesses that had bought and used Doheny meat before that time did not, according to Belsky, have to kasher their utensils or kitchens afterward. 

But while the RCC relied on Belsky’s ruling, Kehilla, its chief competitor, has so far declined to either affirm or reject it. The May 20 post on Schwartz Bakery’s Facebook page, however, made explicit mention that Kehilla, in taking over the Schwartz Bakery hechsher, also “kashered” the Schwartz deli on Fairfax Avenue.

New York’s magnolia bakery brings sweet smell of (kosher) success to L.A. [VIDEO]


Watch videoblogger Orit Arfa taste test Magnolia’s cupcakes against another kosher bakery. See video below

Craving a kosher cupcake? Magnolia Bakery is cooking up the cure. Now open at 8389 W. Third St.,  this chic New York transplant looks to quickly become part of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Famous for its pastel-colored cupcakes, fresh-from-the-oven pies and homemade icebox cakes, the stylish sweet shop carries more than 60 products — all of which carry a heksher.

Why the Rabbinical Council of California stamp of approval?

“I’m Jewish,” owner Steve Abrams said, laughing. “It’s part of my culture.”

The first Magnolia Bakery opened its doors in New York in 1996; Abrams purchased the business in 2007 and expanded it from one location to six. He opened the second store in his own Upper West Side neighborhood. Having lived in the area for 30 years, he felt it was important to cater to everyone in the neighborhood, including the large observant Jewish population. All of his stores are now certified kosher, including his new Los Angeles location.

“Our Third Street store is in a neighborhood that’s similar to our Columbus Avenue store. Again, we have a high Orthodox and Conservative Jewish population,” Abrams said. “And it’s a walking neighborhood, where people really enjoy going out and supporting their local store.”

But it’s not just the locals that support the store; the store supports the locals. In the spirit of Jewish giving, Magnolia Bakery has donated baked goods to more than 400 charities in New York. The bakery has donated everything from two dozen cupcakes for a small school bake sale to 1,000 cupcakes for an annual Long Island UJA-Federation event.  Magnolia is starting to do the same kind of community outreach through its Los Angeles branch.

“We have an obligation to our community — we don’t operate in a vacuum,” Abrams explained. “It’s really a symbiotic relationship. I don’t feel its right to go into a neighborhood, take as much as you can and not give anything back. I think the community has made me successful.”

Owner Steve Abrams.

Of course, it’s not all charity work. Magnolia has vast experience catering 10 to 15 private events each week in New York. With its kosher certification, Magnolia Bakery looks to duplicate that catering business in Los Angeles and build relationships with Southland synagogues and Jewish organizations. The company already has catered numerous bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and fundraisers here, and has provided the desserts at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, the “Entertainment Tonight” Emmy party and, most recently, Conan O’Brien’s TBS premiere.

The Hollywood connection is a natural, given that Magnolia Bakery is credited with having created the current cupcake craze when it was highlighted in an episode of “Sex and the City.” Abrams, however, claims there’s no such craze. Cupcakes have been part of American culture for 100 years, and he’s just continuing the tradition of the neighborhood bakery. “For me, the cupcake craze started at my mother’s kitchen table when I was 8 and licking the batter off the bowl while we were making our own cupcakes,” said Abrams, who made Magnolia a family-run business by involving his wife and his daughter.

With bundt cakes, cupcakes, macaroons, gourmet churros, handmade milkshakes and self-serve frozen yogurt saturating the local dessert market, Magnolia looks to stay one step ahead by offering a wide range of products. Its menu explodes with pudding, cookies, brownies, blondies, lemon bars and cheesecakes. “If cupcakes slow down, people will come into my store and buy a pudding. Or a brownie. Or a cheesecake. No one’s going to stop eating sweets and butter completely. And I sell it in many different forms.”

Those forms include blue-and-white Chanukah cupcakes, and after reading a Rosh Hashanah Huffington Post article by this writer, Abrams decided to start baking Happy New Year Honey Cake cupcakes.

One more way Magnolia has positioned itself in L.A.’s Jewish community? As a nod to California car culture, Magnolia offers customers curbside pickup — kosher cakes, cookies and cupcakes without ever leaving the car.

JewishJournal.com videoblogger Orit Arfa explores the tasty treats of two new koshery cupcake shops.

Sweet somethings for that special day


While the image of a wedding cake at the center of a reception table is iconic, many couples and their guests will admit they are not exactly “layer cake” kinds of people. For this reason, having a sweet table is a must, not just alongside a cake but sometimes instead of one.

“I am seeing a huge movement away from traditional wedding cakes,” wedding planner Melissa Barrad said. “In fact, I am seeing lots of cupcakes, especially among couples who are normally not huge fans of cake. I have seen everything from chocolate fondue fountains to chocolate-covered strawberries. I recently had clients who were fans of Krispy Kreme donuts who picked them up the morning of the wedding and arranged them in tiers.”

While cupcakes, from mini to maxi, have gone from “Sex and the City” trendiness to the shelves of most bakeries across the city (including Hansen’s Cakes, where Patrick Hansen notes couples will buy different flavors in large quantities and arrange them in tiers), Krispy Kreme is a surprisingly easy option. In fact, all ingredients are kosher and the mix is certified kosher. While not every Krispy Kreme kitchen is kosher certified, the company’s Web site can aid fans in locating kosher shops.

Delice Bakery is noted for traditionally elegant sweet table fare such as bakery-style cookies and petit fours, and Hansen’s Cakes is now offering brownies, cookies, fudge and other sweets boasting a “home-made” consistency.

Schmerty’s Gourmet Cookies in Santa Monica features a Bukspan-certified collection of classic kosher flavors, while New Jersey-based Mya Jacobson offers cookie-loving couples throughout the United States their cookie fix through her Feed Your Soul Cookies, which offers cookie adornments for everything from the bridal showers to party favors to the sweet table, with ribbons and wrappings that color coordinate with the wedding. Sweeter still, a portion of the proceeds from the purchase will be donated to a charity of the couple’s choice.

It is also important to remember that there may be people out there who love other types of cakes, such as homespun and decadently rich bundt cakes. From the Hollywood gifting suites to the sweet table, bundtlets from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Thousand Oaks have caused a great deal of excitement, thanks to their unusual presentation as well as their prolific array of flavors red velvet, white chocolate raspberry, lemon, cinnamon swirl and an ever-changing offering of seasonal and specialty flavors.

Of course, there is also the notion that if you want to do the job right, do it yourself. Many couples are doing just that to, literally, make the culmination of their wedding day their very own.

“The sweet table is a wonderful way to incorporate favorite family cookie recipes to further personalize the wedding,” Barrad, who founded event planning company I Do … Weddings, noted. “I have also seen mini-cup cakes and petit fours adorned with baby pictures of the couples.”

If your sweet tooth extends to jelly beans, licorice and sour gummies, Munchies in the heart of Pico-Robertson features kosher candy and chocolates as well as dried fruits and nuts in bulk.

No matter how you serve up your wedding, you ultimately want your guests to leave with a good taste in their mouths. Though you’re dealing with many individuals with individualized tastes, all the options guarantee you will be able to do just that.

Krispy Kreme
www.krispykreme.com
(800) 4KRISPY

Delice Bakery
http://www.delicebakery.com/

Hansen’s Cakes
http://www.hansencakes.com/

Schmerty’s
http://www.schmertys.com/

Feed Your Soul Cookies
www.feedyoursoulcookies.com

Nothing Bundt Cakes
www.nothingbundtcakes.com

Munchies
http://www.lamunchies.com/

Mommy, Me & Cheesecake Makes 3


OK, mom, so what part of eating that cheesecake is making you feel guilty?

If you fear that little bubbela is annoying the other customers in the bakery, your worries are over.

The Essential Chocolate Collection, a Culver City bakery, is for parents who want an alternative to dragging their babies to Starbucks for an afternoon pick-me-up amid unsympathetic non-parents. Here, moms can indulge while their babies can crawl and play — or make a fuss. It’s OK because Fridays from 1-3 p.m., in the bakery’s annex, are reserved for just this crowd.

“It’s nice to have a latte and not have someone glaring at you,” says event organizer Lara Sanders Fordis, who has an 11-month-old son. Her sister, shop owner Melissa Sanders, has added incentive to be welcoming: newcomers may get hooked on the goodies.

The free get-together (you do pay for drinks and dessert) is called Coffee, Mommy & Me, but it’s not really a Mommy & Me class. Still, the organizers do schedule “programs.” The recent schedule has included “Funtime with Nanny C,” a “Free Organic Baby Food Tasting” and “Mommy Chair Massages.” The Passover event on April 14 is pretty much all about food — featuring chocolate macaroons, chocolate-dipped fruit and other treats. (The ingredients are kosher, but not certified kosher for Passover.)

Participating moms said they appreciated a chance to get out of the house and relax. And it’s safe for baby: There are no sharp edges — especially on the chocolate.

The Essential Chocolate Collection, 10868 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For information on Coffee, Mommy & Me, call (310) 287-0699.

 

We Were Slaves in Westwood


 

Southern Californians can travel from Pharaoh’s palace to Midwestern wheat fields to a rain forest — all without leaving Westwood. The journey is furnished courtesy of West Coast Chabad Headquarters, which annually creates its Model Matzah Bakery for two weeks prior to Passover.

After witnessing several of the 10 plagues and gaining their release from Pharoah, participants proceed through each of the steps required to make matzah: They separate wheat kernels from stalks of wheat; see the wheat ground into flour; travel to an ersatz rain forest for water; watch as the water and flour are mixed to create dough; and roll their dough into matzahs which are placed in an oven to bake.

Program coordinator Yossi Burston notes that Chabad has created similar programs worldwide.

“We want to provide the holiday experience in an educational, fun and interactive way,” he said. “This program brings everyone together — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox; young and old; special-needs children and many others.”

Public and day school students are among the more than 4,000 people who will experience the Los Angeles program during its two week run. Over the course of its 20-year tenure, the Model Matzah Bakery has drawn participants from as far as Palm Springs and Tijuana. Similar programs are also offered at Rosh Hashanah (a shofar-making workshop) and Chanukah (an olive oil workshop).

While it might not have been produced by Cecil B. DeMille, Chabad’s presentation nevertheless exhibited its own special brand of production value, from the professionally produced back drops of pyramids to the “special effect” of turning the water blood red. And it was “leavened” with plenty of humor for children and adults alike. Burston insists it’s a collaborative effort: “We didn’t write the script. It comes from the Bible.”

The Model Matzah Bakery is open to groups Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; and to the public on Fridays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m, and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., through April 17. To make a reservations (required) call, (310) 208-7511, ext. 270.

 

Sweet Sorrow


A wall of neatly coiffed ladies charges up to the counter to place their orders for baked goods on one of the last days before the holidays and one of the last days before Brown’s Bakery in North Hollywood closes its doors forever. Some of the customers have been buying their cakes, cookies and bread here for as long as the bakery has been open, and that’s 42 years. Some have been Brown’s customers even longer, when it was Brown Brothers Bakery on Wilshire Boulevard; some for longer still, when Brown’s was in the Bronx, during the war.

Watching this crowd, it’s hard to believe they could possibly purchase their baked goods anywhere else. When Brown’s closes its doors April 15, God only knows what they will do. (In preparation for the bakery’s closing, one customer bought her birthday cake six months in advance and froze it.)

"Things have changed in this area," said Sheldon Brown, the burly, friendly second-generation owner of Brown’s Bakery. "The retail structure of the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. There’s nothing here now."

Looking up and down this stretch of Victory Boulevard, one can see ghosts of a Jewish neighborhood’s past. A dry cleaners, the Ventura Kosher Meat Market and the Circle M Market, all of which used to serve the large Jewish population of 30 years ago, are gone. Now there are only nondescript offices and empty shops. The only other store on the block is a beauty school, which might explain all the nifty do’s but doesn’t generate a lot of customers on this stretch of the Valley.

As far as closing his shop goes, there were other problems besides the neighborhood, Brown said.

"The Health Department told us that no one could walk through from the parking lot [in the rear] to the front of the store," Brown said. "Have you ever tried telling Jewish people they couldn’t walk through? A tank wouldn’t stop them; they’re going to walk here anyway."

Case in point: a stream of elderly ladies marches through the narrow kitchen, looking around at the freshly baked goods, nodding approval, and making their way to the front of the bakery.

"The baker just kissed me," one of the ladies said before disappearing around the corner.

Ten years ago, as the neighborhood went through changes, Brown saw his wholesale business take off as his retail portion began to decline. Brown realized it would be a waste of time and money to remodel.

Even with old customers traveling from all over the Valley to buy, the North Hollywood neighborhood could no longer sustain enough business. Finally, the landlord asked for more rent.

"That was it," Brown said, and decided to get out of retail. After April 15, Brown’s wife, Judy, will become new owner of the wholesale portion of the business. She plans to lease another space and continue to deliver to clients such as Brent’s, Art’s, Bagel Nosh, Billy’s, Roxy’s, Wylers, Robertson Ranch, and a number of other delis and temples and synagogues in the Valley.

"When people heard we were closing down, they began calling: ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Where are we going to go?’" said Judy, who married Brown shortly after he opened the bakery in 1959. "We’ve gotten hundreds of flowers and notes; I never would have imagined the response. We try and do a good job and have a good product, and [Brown] loves being with customers, but after 42 years, it’s enough."

Enough, however, is not a word Brown’s customers have ever used.

"I am really going to miss this place," said Ruth Crystal of Valley Village. "I’ve been coming here for 56 years. We’re like family." She said she was a customer also when Brown’s was on Wilshire.

"I’m going to cry a lot," said Gladys Horowitz, who travels from Encino. "I’ve been coming since 1960."

"My whole family has been raised on Brown’s products," said Isadore Widre, an elderly gent from Encino who is accustomed to hanging around the kitchen. "I used to send packages up to my daughter when she was in college in San Francisco; I think she paid her way through school with Brown’s strudels and chocolate chip rugelach. Now she’s a successful speech pathologist, and she’s still getting packages from home."

"I moved away from this neighborhood, and I’d come back here to buy and put [baked goods] in the freezer," Joan Stein said. "Now I don’t know what I’m going to do."

"Please put a big caption in your story: We will miss you!" said Magda Hoffman.

"I used to be a customer of theirs in 1941 in the Bronx," said David Berger, an incredibly fit 87-year-old. "I worked on Park Avenue, and I’d buy Brown’s bread and rolls; I’ve been a fan ever since."

"You see what’s going on here," said Brown, standing in the kitchen, listening to his customers’ accolades. "Everyone’s schmoozing; it’s a happening. We’re like one big family."

Unfortunately, like all good things, even bakeries must come to an end, but one wonders how Brown, the preeminent baker of chocolate-chip sponge cake and babkas, who so obviously enjoys the social interaction of his customers, will adjust to not having a bakery. A guy like this must have his hands and back involved in his work and in the neighborhood. But if the neighborhood no longer exists, what does a person like Brown do?

"I can’t really talk about that now," he answered.

Instead, turning to his wife, he said, "Fix her up with a little something, Judy."

That’s a refrain his customers will sadly miss.

A Hole in Kosher L.A.


A Hole in Kosher L.A.

By deciding to introduce meat products into itsformerly all-dairy outlets, Noah’s Bagels has provoked a strongresponse from observant Jewish noshers

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

You can tinker with the “classic” Coke recipe, add color to thegray New York Times, but don’t mess with my kosher Sunday-morninghangout. That’s the message observant Jews have been sending toNoah’s Bagels since the Northern California-based company decided tointroduce meat products into its formerly kosher, all-dairy LosAngeles outlets Nov. 1.

First, a bit of bagel background may be in order: Noah’s Bagels,which sells deli salads, knishes, lox, cream cheeses and Jewishbakery items, was originally a private company run by its founder,Noah Alper. In February 1996, Noah’s was bought by Einstein Bros.Bagels Corp., and the joint enterprise went public in August of thatyear. Boston Chicken is now the corporation’s majority shareholder.

Today, Noah’s familiar logo remains, dotting storefronts up anddown the West Coast. Here in Los Angeles, Noah’s attracts briskweekend traffic to its many outlets, several of which are situated inthe same sorts of trendy retail nexuses that house Starbucks Coffee,Tower Records and various juice shops.

The abrupt change in the kosher foodie landscape caused by Noah’smenu changeover has provoked strong community response in areas wherethere is a critical mass of observant Jewish noshers. Two Noah’sstores are in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Another is on Beverlyand Detroit, adjacent to Hancock Park. Both areas are home to highconcentrations of Orthodox Jews, who have stayed away from Noah’ssince the decision.

Gary Narin, a resident of Beverlywood and a Modern Orthodox Noah’sdevotee, has been active in trying to resolve this conflict overcorporate bagel kashrut. Along with other members of thePico-Robertson community, he contacted Noah’s main office about theNovember decision, urging the company to maintain kashrut at thoselocations that serve an observant clientele. Noah’s agreed to keepthe stores at Beverwil and Pico, Olympic and Doheny, and Beverly andDetroit as all-dairy restaurants.

So what’s the beef? When deli meats were introduced at thecompany’s other Southland sites, Rabbinical Council of Californiarabbis felt compelled to withdraw Noah’s local certification acrossthe board. Rabbi Abraham Union of the RCC was unavailable for commentat press time, but lay people affiliated with the board have venturedthat part of the reason the RCC no longer wanted to certify thosethree stores was because of the potential for confusion and erroramong customers who would be patronizing a bagel chain that waskosher in some neighborhoods and treif in others.

Another factor blocking certification is the issue of whetherNoah’s would agree to close on Shabbat. Although it’s a publicly heldfirm that’s not obligated by Jewish law to do so, the November menuchanges prompted the RCC to regard each outlet as a separate shop tobe considered individually, according to Dr. Mark Goldenberg, a laymember of the RCC. Noah’s is not willing to close down on Saturdays,so progress has been stalled. For the time being, these three dairyNoah’s are in uncertified kosher limbo, a status that disturbs Narinfor reasons that go beyond the loss of a good onion bialy.

“We were a little frustrated because they were losing theircertification, and it’s not because we couldn’t find a kosher bagel,”Narin said. “That’s not it at all. Noah’s was a great meetingplace…a place where all Jews could eat together.”

Narin said that he’s committed to building bridges between theOrthodox and non-Orthodox communities. And, in its own way, heexplained, Noah’s was part of that positive effort. “In my mind, itwas like a little Jewish community center, where everyone could sitand have a cup of coffee and a bagel. Non-Orthodox Jews who may notgravitate to other kosher places would go there…. In some ways,Noah’s did as much good in the community as some synagogues orFederation projects. It really became known as a gathering place.”

Narin is quick to point out that representatives from Noah’s wereresponsive to his complaints. At its Irvine and Granada Hillslocations, the company decided to maintain kashrut after the Jewishcommunities in those areas lobbied hard for them to do so.Certification didn’t come through the RCC, of course, but byindependent rabbinic supervision, something Noah’s is now shoppingfor in order to get its Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park outletsrecertified.

“The way we found independent supervision for the stores inGranada Hills and Irvine is through people in those communities whocontacted their rabbis, who then contacted us,” said Sydney DrellReiner, Noah’s director of community relations. “We’re still lookingfor supervision for the other three stores, and we’d like to get thatdone as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.Frankly, we’re open to suggestions.”

Why bother with meat at all if it’s going to cause such abyzantine bagel brouhaha? The answer, of course, is dough, and notthe chewy kind. Kosher consumers are a minority of Noah’s diversecustomer base. According to Reiner, “Noah’s made the decision inOctober, based on the requests of a vast number of our customers –about 90 percent — who wanted us to expand our menu to include morechoices for breakfast and lunch. So in Seattle, Portland and LosAngeles, we introduced those products, which are doing quite well bythe way. But we always had the intention of maintaining koshersupervision at other outlets, as we do in Northern California.”

In other parts of the Los Angeles region where Noah’s serves asignificant Jewish clientele — such as Studio City, Sherman Oaks andSanta Monica, to name a few — there has been a low-level lamentabout the menu changeover too. Is it too late for those neighborhoodsto lobby for continued kosher status? Not at all, said Reiner. “We’reopen. We’re real open.”

Customers may call the company at 1-800-931-NOAH.

The Real Noah Speaks Out

By Robert Eshman,

Associate Editor

Go into any Noah’s New York Bagels these days, order a roast beefwith Swiss cheese, and they’ll give it to you, faster than you canspell Leviticus. The treifing of Noah’s, at one time the most visibleand contemporary of kosher food outlets, has upset many observantJews, and has even inspired organized protest (see accompanyingstory). Among those who are most upset: Noah himself.

Speaking with The Journal by phone from Jerusalem, Noah Alperwants to make it perfectly clear that he is no longer affiliated withthe chain that bears his name. “I get a feeling if the public werepolled, most of them would say, ‘He’s still in the back room makingbagels,'” said Alper. “I’d like to let the public know I’m notassociated with the business.”

Alper sold Noah’s to Einstein Bros. Bagels Corp. in 1996 andstayed on to help with the transition. But last February, he resignedfrom the board and went on to fulfill a lifelong dream: studyingJudaism in Israel.

“I’m over here making up for everything I never learned,” saidAlper. Last summer, he moved with his wife, Hope, and two children toa rented home in the German Colony section of Jerusalem. Alper’soldest son attends Brandeis University. The family expects to returnto their Bay Area home in July.

Alper, 50, takes classes at the Pardes Institute for JewishLearning, a progressive, traditional Jewish studies center headed byRabbi Daniel Landes, the former senior rabbi at Congregation B’naiDavid Judea in Los Angeles.

As he leads a more observant life, the stores that bear Alper’sname have become decidedly less observant. Alper said that he canunderstand the thinking behind it — Orthodox customers neveraccounted for more than 5 percent to 10 percent of sales. Even so,the corporate decision was made after he left the board.

Alper said his insistence that his stores keep kosher was nevermotivated by the bottom line. From the store’
s founding in 1989,Alper wanted Noah’s to reflect the joy and richness of Jewish life,and being kosher was part of that. His stores resembled tiled LowerEast Side delis. Their walls were adorned with photos from the Jewishpantheon– the Brooklyn Dodgers, Golda Meir, rebbes and radicals, andeven Alper family photos.

The overall effect certainly created strong brand identity.Einstein’s bought Noah’s 35 stores for $100 million (Alper receivedabout $10 million). The corporation paid the same price for more than300 Bruegger’s Bagels outlets. Noah’s was a marketing phenomenon,like Gap or Starbucks, which owned 20 percent of the chain. WhileEinstein’s corporate M.O. has been to buy up bagel chains and renamethe stores, it left the Noah’s name untouched, even opening numerousnew locations. Einstein’s was paying for a well-tended image –something more valuable than bagel-vending real estate.

Those who know Alper say that the Noah’s image accuratelyreflected the man. Murray Kalis, whose Pacific Palisades advertisingagency Kalis & Savage designed many of Noah’s ads and brochures,said Alper took his store’s commitment to Jewish communal lifeseriously. When visiting Los Angeles, he made sure to attend servicesat Temple Mishkon Tephilo on Main Street in Venice, just down thestreet from the company’s first Santa Monica store, and he donatedprofits and goods from his stores to local Jewish charities.

Now Noah Alper is, by his own admission, out of the loop. “I takemy kids to school and soccer practice,” said Alper, “and I study.”

Of course, even as he deepens his understanding of his heritage,he has had time to sample the bagels of Israel. “They’re not bad,” hesaid, “but I don’t think they’re as good as Noah’s.”