Shimi Aaron Is the King of Babka

With experience working around the world, Aaron, who moved to L.A. in June 2020, brings his Egyptian, Iraqi and Yemeni heritage to his creations. 
February 2, 2023
Photo by Giora Stuchiner

Shimi Aaron is the king of babka. His spectacular, delicious babkas, full of color, flavor and texture, symbolize his essence. 

“I feel food is telling a story,” the Israeli-born chef told the Journal. “It’s telling your journey in life, especially for me.”

Photo by Dirk Verest

With experience working around the world, Aaron, who moved to L.A. in June 2020, brings his Egyptian, Iraqi and Yemeni heritage to his creations. 

Aaron started making babka while interning in London for his friend, Israeli chef Eran Tibi. 

“This recipe came to me,” Aaron said. “It was supposedly like a yeast cake. They didn’t even call it babka. Middle Easterners didn’t know what babka was.”

Babka (meaning “grandmother”) started from leftovers of old challah dough that women in 19th century Eastern Europe used, the chef explained. 

“Back then, chocolate and other ingredients were very, very expensive, so women just used dried fruits [and] cinnamon,” he said. “Sometimes they cooked it with some sugar, and then stuffed it with it. That’s how babka started.”

Aaron uses three things in his babka that were a part of his childhood: the dough, the orange peel and the rose petals. His babka is unique in that the dough doesn’t have butter and doesn’t use a lot of eggs, which makes it lighter.

“The dough is very much my mom’s, the best cook and baker I know,” he said.

Since his mother kept a kosher home, she used oil, margarine and other substitutes so they could eat baked goods after meat.

The orange peel, which he chops and uses in the syrup, is another distinction.

“I never liked artificial candy, so I used to force my entire family and my neighbors to keep all the orange peels, pomelos … anything zesty and citrusy,” he said. “And I used to make candy with my mom.”

Aaron tops his babka with roses, reminiscent of his late grandmother’s scent.

“They were poor, and they didn’t have money to buy perfume, so she was wearing rose water and orange blossom,” he said. “When I smell [the babka], I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! That’s Nana.’“

Babka gained in popularity in the 1990s, after the babka-themed “Seinfeld” episode, “The Dinner Party.” 

While babkas have been popular in New York for decades, they never quite caught on in L.A. When Aaron moved here — when the pandemic started, he decided it was time to move back to the States — people told him they had babka delivered from New York, but it was never quite as good.

Aaron was coined “the future babka king” in 2020 by Bill Addison of The Los Angeles Times, and his business exploded. He was baking 100 babkas a week, then 300 a week. “My friend’s house became like a babka station,” he said. “People were lining up on the street with their cars to pick up babka. It was so surreal.”

When the article came out, it was a huge compliment, but Aaron now needed to live up to the hype. “I was not a baker,” he said. “I was baking babka, but I didn’t know how to bake bread [and] other cakes. I was very intimidated by it, because it’s one thing to be a good chef, but it’s a different thing being a good baker.”

Being a good baker is science; you need to follow a recipe. Aaron started teaching himself baking by watching online videos. He took what he learned, and started teaching Zoom classes in baking, which he said pushed him to be better.

“It’s only now in the last six months that I bake without using recipes,” he said. “I allow myself to feel more free, like I do with [cooking].”

Aaron needs and loves challenges. 

“It’s exciting because it’s the journey,” he said. “When people were so happy and excited about [the babka]. I was like, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ And then the savory babka came out, and then the poppy seed and the pizza babka … and then there was so much after that.” 

And for this chef, there is so much more to come. These days, Aaron mainly does private chef work and events for high-profile clients. And he also bakes babka at least once a week. Follow him on Instagram and check out ShimiAaron.com.

Chef Aaron’s Classic Babka is part of the Jewish Family Service Los Angeles (JFSLA) new “Jewish Family Recipes” cookbook. All proceeds from the book will be donated to JFSLA, earmarked for Food & Hunger Programs.

The Classic – By Chef Shimi Aaron 

Chocolate Ganache & Orange 

This recipe is for 2 loaves of babka

For the dough:
4 cups & 2 tbsp all purpose flour flour
½ cup all purpose flour for dusting
½ cup granulated sugar
2 ¼ (7gr) tsp dried yeast
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 medium egg
1 1/4 cup room temperature water

For the ganache:
1 ½ cups dark chocolate
2/3 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup hazelnuts (or any other nuts you
like) unsalted, roasted & chopped

For the Syrup:
2 cups water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 orange skin, sliced
1 star anise

One egg + 1 tbsp water for brushing
Rose petals for garnishing (if you have

Preheat oven to 360°F

1. Mix all dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Then add the oil, egg, vanilla and the water. Knead at a medium speed until combined (about 5 minutes). Remove from the mixer bowl and knead lightly by hand on a clean surface. Place the dough in a clean and lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside and let the dough rise for no longer than 1 – 1 and half hours
2. Make the chocolate ganache. In a saucepan, melt the butter. Then add the chocolate and let it melt on a low temperature. Use a whisk to help it combine. Add the powdered sugar and cocoa and whisk until all combine and smooth. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half and start working with one half at a time. Roll out the dough into a triangle shape (17×15 inches). Then, using a spatula, evenly spread half the ganache. Sprinkle half the hazelnuts on top. When finished, use both hands to roll up the rectangle like a roulade starting from the long side and ending at the other long end. Trim the edges.
Using a bread knife, slice the roulade in the middle: lengthwise. Then start braiding the two.
Place on a baking tray with parchment paper. When they’re both ready, brush lightly with the egg wash on top. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes.
4. While the babka is in the oven, make the syrup. Boil the water, add the sugar until it dissolves and then add the orange peel, cinnamon stick and star anise. Keep it at a low temperature until the babka is ready.
As soon as the babka comes out of the oven, remove the cinnamon and star anise from the syrup, and use a ladle to slowly pour the hot syrup on top. Let it soak for a few minutes, then cool down for about 45 minutes and slice gently with a bread knife.

Enjoy every bite!

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