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

Chanukah menu dishes up a travelogue of treats

Just back from Italy, I was inspired by the foods served at our favorite restaurants. My Chanukah menu this year is a travelogue of those culinary experiences.

We devote Chanukah to our children and grandchildren, and many of the dishes are easy to prepare and perfect for the whole family. In addition to the traditional potato latkes, I have included two special treats to begin our Chanukah celebration.

We discovered baked homemade potato chips at Restaurante dal Pescatore, a three-star Michelin restaurant in the Po Valley. Created by chef Nadia Santini, she calls them Tuiles of Potatoes and Rosemary. After dinner, when the guests had left and I complemented her on the paper-thin delicacies, she gave me a lesson on how to prepare them.

Along with the potato latkes and Nadia’s Tuiles, another fried treat sure to become part of our Chanukah tradition is Gnoccho Fritto, small squares of pizza dough deep fried in olive oil.

We were first introduced to them at our favorite seafood restaurant located in Varigoti. We have been known to travel several hours just to eat at Muraglia Conca Di Oro on the coast just north of Genova. It has been their custom, when diners arrive, to serve them hot Gnoccho Fritto, along with a glass of sparkling wine.

This incredible restaurant is strictly a family affair. As dad Enzo is in the dining room grilling fish, one of his daughters greets guests and waits tables with his sister, while his wife, Emma, and his other daughter are cooking in the kitchen.

Our family loves chopped chicken liver, but my new presentation will be a surprise. We visited Modena during the annual festival celebrating balsamic vinegar, Balsamico Gusto.

That evening we were guests at a special dinner in Villa Cavazza, where every dish served included balsamic vinegar. The dinner was prepared by French chef Michel Troisgros and Italian chef Massimo Bottura, chef-owner of Ristorante Francescana in Modena.

Bottura, one of the cutting-edge chefs in Italy, served a dish that was fun, as well as delicious. It consisted of chopped liver coated with roasted hazelnuts, served on a stick in the shape of an ice cream bar and garnished with balsamic vinegar. I am sure my family is going to enjoy this dish, especially the grandchildren, because it is picked up by hand and eaten off the stick.

In Naples, we returned to another of our favorite restaurants, L’Europeo di Mattozzi. A traditional Neapolitan restaurant, the owner, Enzo Mattozzi, knows all his customers by name. His pizza is the best in Italy, but the dish that won us over was Baked Eggplant in a rich Onion-Tomato Sauce.

Most of the dishes are served family-style, so when we finished the first large platter of eggplant, we couldn’t help but order another. We had to try it again just to see if it was as delicious as we thought — and it was. When preparing a dairy menu, add fresh mozzarella cheese for an added taste adventure.

Dessert features a traditional pastry made in the Puglia region, called Cartellate (Italian Wine Cookies). Since fried foods are eaten during Chanukah, commemorating the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days, these pastries are perfect. The dough is rolled out like pasta, cut into thin strips, then each strip is twisted into a lacy round, deep fried in olive oil and drizzled with a wine-honey syrup and nuts. It is crunchy and delicious.

Nadia’s Tuiles of Potatoes and Rosemary
1 small Idaho potato
1 tablespoon nondairy margarine
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Peel and dice potato, place in water to cover, bring to a boil and simmer until soft. Transfer to a shallow bowl and mash until smooth. Set aside.

In a skillet, heat margarine and saute onions and mix with a wooden spoon until soft. Add rosemary and continue cooking for two minutes. Add three tablespoons of mashed potato and mix well. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, add the flour, water, salt, olive oil and mix to combine. Add the potato mixture and mix well. Mixture should have an elastic consistency.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat pad or aluminum foil and brush with olive oil. Using a tablespoon, place a small amount of the potato mixture on the prepared baking sheet and spread into a paper-thin oval shape. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. They crisp up as they cool. Continue with remaining potato mixture.

Makes about three or four dozen.

Gnocco Fritto (Fried Dumplings)
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil for frying
Salt for dusting

Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of a cup of water. Set aside until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining three-quarters of a cup water, the olive oil and yeast mixture. Stir in the flour and salt and stir in one cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball.

Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, brush top of the dough with oil, cover and set in a warm place to rise for about one hour, until doubled in bulk (or can be used immediately).

In a deep pot, heat four inches of olive oil to 350 degrees. Divide dough into four parts, and with a rolling pin, roll out one part to a rectangle about one-eighth-inch thick. With a pizza wheel, cut the dough into one-inch squares. Repeat with remaining dough.

Getting Stuffed on Sukkot

“Have you ever noticed how plump autumn foods are?” asked my 9-year-old daughter two decades ago as we passed a sukkah, a leafy hut, locked behind the gate of a Manhattan synagogue.

“You mean the peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, apples and squash?” I said, staring at a farmers market worth of produce dangling from the sukkah’s flimsy walls.

Outside the synagogue’s iron bars, we looked from afar but could not touch or smell the year’s final harvest, a sight more brilliant than fall foliage in New England. Dwarfed by high rises in a city lined with concrete, we were still attached to Judaism’s agrarian roots.

This scene was a far cry from what I recalled from my childhood. During the 1950s, the sukkah at my suburban synagogue was open all day to people who wanted to step inside. Each evening, the sisterhood women carried steaming pans of stuffed peppers, squash and eggplants to the backyard sukkah, where members of the congregation shared a communal meal. Many of the dishes they prepared entailed stuffing one plump vegetable inside another. Were these women merely paying homage to the garden’s last blast of the season, or was there a deeper, perhaps unconscious meaning to the traditional Sukkot fare they prepared year after year?

“The most common Sukkot dishes are filled foods, particularly stuffed vegetables and pastries, symbolizing the bounty of the harvest,” wrote chef Rabbi Gil Marks in his cookbook, “The World of Jewish Entertaining” (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Over the centuries, Jewish cooks have gutted and chopped nearly every edible plant species, mixing the pulp with onions, breadcrumbs, matzah meal, meat, spices and assorted vegetables and fruit. They then stuffed these aromatic concoctions inside the vegetables’ cavities, roasting them to create heavenly results.

During the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, people eat their meals in a sukkah, or temporary hut, and holiday recipes call for seasonal produce.

Often migrating throughout their history, Jews both shared and borrowed cooking techniques from local people wherever they settled.

“In the Hellenistic world of Greek and Roman dominance, stuffed foods were prominent features at banquets,” said Corrie Norman, chair of the department of religion and director of the Rome Program at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Filling an already full-looking food, such as a fig, was a double way of indicating celebration and abundance. A common sweet throughout the Sephardic Middle East is a nut-filled date.

“Jews picked up on and advanced the significance and artistry of celebratory stuffed foods,” Norman said. “For example in modern Rome, stuffed fried vegetables are associated with Jewish origins.”

This group of recipes is called alla Giudia (in the Jewish style). While this vegetable-stuffing technique has fused with Roman cuisine, its name credits its Jewish origin.

A former “semiprofessional” cook, Norman is currently combining her enduring passion for food with her studies in religion and history. As an affiliate of the Harvard Pluralism Project, she coordinates student research on food, meaning and gender.

“Fruits, vegetables and their harvest are the realities of fertility,” Norman said. “Roundness or fullness also signify fertility, which also means life.”

Throughout time, there has been a link between agriculture and fertility, the harvest and birth. Stuffing one food inside another at the end of the growing season underscores this point.

“Stuffed squash is full and round,” Norman said. “It is full of mysterious, wonderful ingredients, hidden initially but eventually bursting forth.”

She explains that whether most people are aware of it or not, they understand the significance of a symbolic food, such as stuffed cabbage, by its taste and its presence — or absence — on the Sukkot table. They may associate that sweet apple strudel of their youth with their mother or grandmother.

“That form of embodied knowing — often not rational or conscious — is key to sustaining symbolic meaning,” Norman said.

This is one reason why many people continue to prepare family recipes on holidays, when they could more easily order the entire menu from a deli or restaurant, Norman explained.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a Jewish grandmother, making her stuffed eggplant from scratch, felt that going to all that trouble in a day of convenience foods somehow helped make Sukkot special for her family,” she said. No doubt, after she is gone, her family will savor their memories of her and the special eggplant dish that she prepared, which connects them to their Jewish ancestry and the mystery of the harvest.

This must be why when the season’s first chill penetrates my sweaters, I reach for a booklet of holiday recipes that my grandmother gave me in desperate hope that I’d keep a Jewish home. That autumn of 1968, I was a 20-year-old in miniskirts, indifferent to her concern. I must have hurt her feelings when I left that booklet on her coffee table. But undeterred, she mailed it to me anyway.

Today as withered leaves blow across the sidewalks of New York, I think of my grandmother as I head to the nearest Korean market, where at Sukkot, the onions are their most pungent, the squash bulging and beautiful and the cabbage ranging in color from green to purple. I wish she were still alive so I could tell her that I make the stuffed cabbage and squash recipes from that booklet, which is now wrinkled and yellowing with age.

I remember her as a portly woman with a kind heart who urged her family to eat more than they cared to. Spiritually connected to Sukkot, she was a good Jewish grandmother who insisted that her loved ones leave the table completely satisfied, if not a little stuffed.

Holishkes: Stuffed Cabbage

1 large cabbage

Freeze cabbage overnight. Defrost completely (about 4 hours). Gently pull off leaves from half of the cabbage, about 12. (Save remaining cabbage for soup or other recipes.) Don’t worry if leaves tear. Cut away their course center spines and discard. Cut larger, outer leaves in half.


2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce

Juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 1/2 cups honey

1 cup red wine

4 cloves garlic, minced fine

Salt and pepper to taste

2/3 cup raisins

Place all of the sauce ingredients, except the raisins, in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on a medium flame.

Remove from heat and stir in raisins. Reserve.

Meat Stuffing:

1/3 cup raw rice

1 pound chopped beef

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon dill, minced


No-stick spray

Prepare rice according to directions on package.

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl, mixing well.

Place a heaping tablespoon of meat mixture on cabbage leaves, selecting a spot away from tears and where it nestles well.

Gently roll leaves around stuffing, tucking in edges and sides. Fasten with toothpicks in strategic places.

If stuffing mixture remains, roll it into meatballs.

Coat a large roasting pan with no-stick spray. Place cabbage rolls and meatballs inside, layering if necessary. Pour sauce over the top, making sure it dribbles between all cabbage rolls. Simmer on a low flame for 90 minutes, until sauce thickens slightly and meat is well done. Serve hot. Recipe can be prepared ahead and reheated on a low flame.

About 12 entree-sized portions, plus several meatballs.

Vegetable Curry Stuffed Peppers

2 potatoes, peeled

1 cup walnuts, chopped

8 peppers: Select ones with flat bottoms so they don’t topple during cooking. For eye appeal, choose red, yellow, green and orange peppers.

3 tablespoons cooking oil

3 large onions, diced

8 cloves garlic, minced

19-ounce can Cannellini (white kidney beans), drained in colander

4 tomatoes, seeds removed and diced

4 tablespoons parsley, minced

3 teaspoons curry powder

2 teaspoons cumin

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

Salt and pepper to taste

no-stick cooking spray

15-ounce can vegetable broth

1/2 cup white wine

Cut potatoes into chunks and boil until soft. Drain.

Roast walnuts at 350 F until light brown, about two to three minutes.

With a knife, cut a circle around pepper stems, large enough to insert stuffing. Discard stems. Cut away interior fibers. Rinse with cold water to flush out seeds. Place upside down to drain. Dry skins with paper towels.

In a large pot, heat oil on medium flame. Sauté onions and garlic for one minute. Mix in potatoes, walnuts, beans, tomatoes, parsley and spices. Stir for three minutes.

Coat an ovenproof pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Spoon enough vegetable mixture inside peppers so it bulges into a dome over their tops. Arrange peppers in pan. Gently pour broth and wine into pan, surrounding but not saturating peppers.

Roast for 45-60 minutes, until peppers soften and pucker and vegetables on top turn golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.

8 servings.

Autumn Harvest Acorn Squash

No-stick spray

2 1/2 pounds acorn squash

5 carrots, peeled and coarsely diced

1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted for 2 minutes until brown

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/3 cup dried cherries

3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/4 cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray Pyrex baking pan with no-stick spray.

Cut squash in half along one of the grooves on its skin. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash in pan flesh side down and skin side up. Pour water into pan 1/2 inch deep. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until flesh is soft. (While baking, check water level and add more if too much evaporates.)

Meanwhile, steam carrots until soft, about three to five minutes.

When squash is ready, cool for five minutes and remove from pan. Gently scoop out flesh with a spoon, being careful not to rip skin. Place in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well.

Spoon mixture into squash shells and serve immediately.

6-8 servings.