Babka was so ubiquitous during Ayélet Nuchi's childhood in Tel Aviv -- in her mother's kitchen, on the shabbat table, at any Jewish celebration or event -- that she almost took the pastry for granted.
Then, in 2000, she moved to the United States. Good babka was nowhere to be found, she said. She craved homemade, quality babka; procuring some from her favorite Tel Aviv bakery was always her first stop after landing at the airport for visits home.
In December, she opened Babka by Ayélet, a dedicated babka bakery at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto that pays homage to the tastes and traditions of her homeland, with her own twists.
Nuchi wasn't always a baker. She started baking out of boredom in a kitchen in New York City. Alone for her first Christmas in the United States, she started flipping through her roommate's copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Pie and Pastry Bible" and decided to tackle tarts. She said she was "obsessed" with tarts, particularly one from a now-closed SoHo bakery made from chocolate ganache with pears and almonds on top. She recreated that tart, then brownies (another obsession of hers to this day) and was overtaken by a baking bug.
In 2002, Nuchi attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She was constantly baking, sharing her goods with anyone who would take them -- at baby showers, weddings, birthdays -- which eventually grew into a catering company. Her most popular item was always babka.
Nuchi's babka incorporates different sources of inspiration. She adds vanilla bean and orange zest to the dough, like her mother did, and has a heavier hand with butter than is traditional, like her favorite Tel Aviv bakery does. Her raspberry-cheese babka is inspired by a French clafloutis. She also riffs on the classic flavors, like adding homemade apricot jam and walnuts to the cinnamon babka.
Nuchi takes pride in a babka that is indulgently moist and cake-like, unlike the dry and crumbly more traditional version. She lets her butter-laden dough -- a combination of challah and babka dough -- rest overnight in a refrigerator for at least eight hours. She also brushes the top of the finished babka with a sugar-water glaze to add even more moisture.
On a recent morning, Nuchi took out a large, rectangular tray of rested dough and methodically rolled it out until it was thin enough to her liking. The thinner the dough, the more layers there will be -- one of the markers of a good babka, she believes. When you slice into a loaf of chocolate babka, for example, there should be ample swirls of chocolate throughout -- it shouldn't be mostly dough with a small amount of chocolate, she said.
For the raspberry-cheese babka, Nuchi spread a mixture of crème fraîche, yogurt and cream cheese over the dough, sprinkled raspberries on top and then rolled it and cut it in half. She crossed the long stretches of dough over each other in an "X" shape and then twisted the dough onto itself several times to create more layers.
To keep up with demand -- the bakery sells out daily by 2 p.m. -- Nuchi has switched to making fewer flavors of small, single-serving babka ($6 each) and taking special orders for full-sized loaves ($25 each). Babka by Ayélet sells chocolate, cinnamon, Nutella, raspberry-cheese and halva babka (using halva from Tel Aviv). Daily specials have recently included blackberry-almond and pistachio-strawberry. Chocolate is the most popular flavor, followed closely by halva, which Nuchi said surprised her.
While Nuchi is going to sell her babka at Four Barrel cafes and The Mill in San Francisco (she serves Four Barrel coffee at the bakery), expansion is not a priority. She turns her nose up at the thought of selling her babka to grocery stores because of its short shelf-life.
A large commercial mixer sits unused in a corner of the bakery's small, open kitchen. After some early batches of dough came out tasting differently, she abandoned it in favor of two stand mixers, like the ones she's used at home for years.
Dozens of times throughout the day, customers of all ages, from 8 to 107 years old, tell her that her babka "reminds me of my grandma."
That, Nuchi says, is the ultimate compliment.