Two baking gurus, Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg, recently published a fascinating cookbook called Inside the Jewish Bakery. It documents the "golden age" of Jewish baking from the end of World War II through the 1970s, when bakeries like the Upper West Side's Royale Bake Shop and Gertel's down on Grand Street were crammed with all kinds of savory breads (marble rye!) and sweet and gooey pastries. All those bakeries are now either shuttered or, like Gertel's, wholesale only. When you put the book down, you want to both weep and eat, to mourn the loss of a great baking tradition and get a good onion roll. That is, until you stumble upon Chiffon's Kosher Cake Center.
Occupying a Midwood storefront a short block from the F train station on Avenue P, Chiffon's represents almost a century of Jewish baking tradition. Chiffon's Kosher Bakery was originally founded around 1960 on Coney Island Avenue. About a dozen years ago, the operation was bought by Esther Kramer and her husband Levi, who had learned the trade at Gertel's. (It was the owner of Gertel's who introduced them.) When they lost their lease, they were inundated with calls begging them to reopen. "People were dying for our stuff," says Esther, "especially our breads and challahs." Luckily, the owners of The Cake Center, with over 40 years of history specializing in elaborate kosher birthday cakes, wanted to sell out, and Chiffon's Kosher Cake Center was born.
A few days before Purim, the bakery was bursting with piles of holiday treats, mostly hamentashen ready to be boxed and sent out to customers all over the region. But my eye was instantly drawn to the glossy challah breads behind the counter. Chiffon's makes water challah, egg challah, raisin challah, and big simcha, or ceremonial challah, for weddings and the like. All of them are made fresh six days a week. Supermarket challahs have nothing on these loaves. They're fragrant and moist and have a lovely texture that begs to be pulled apart. Yes, you could turn them into French toast, but why go through all the trouble?
The biggest loaves on the shelf are something called corn bread or "corn rye." This is the subject of fascination similar to the egg cream cult. Egg creams famously contain neither eggs nor cream; corn bread contains no corn, though it does have a corn meal crust on the bottom. For people who grew up near bakeries like Royale, corn bread is the subject of tantalizing childhood memories: buying it by the pound, carved off from huge loaves; smearing thick and moist slices with fresh butter; savoring the rich rye-wheat flavor of the crumb. The corn bread, both plain and seeded, at Chiffon's may not be quite as dense and moist as the bread of memory, but it's a close approximation, with a great aroma and satisfying chew.
I could go on about Chiffon's loaves, the ryes and pumpernickels, but I'm going to veer off toward the amazing roll selection. According to Ginsberg and Berg, rolls were luxury breads for the Jews of Eastern Europe. A little bit of Heaven was an onion roll, fresh from the oven, with a smear of butter. New Yorkers have forgotten how good Kaiser rolls can be; Chiffon's are paragons of the form, physically beautiful, with a fluffy crumb and a faint sour tang. From the Kaisers, a whole world opens up: onion rolls, onion pockets, challah rolls, egg challah bagels, and of course, excellent bialys, perhaps the best in the city, with a thick covering of onion topping.
If you know where to look, Chiffon's also sells the more obscure Jewish specialties, like onion boards—large rectangles of thin dough spread with onion topping--and five varieties of kichelach. What are kichelach, you ask? They're little crisp baked bites, both savory and sweet. The standout is clearly onion kichel, a little rectangle of baked dough flavored with onion, poppy seed, and black pepper. It's an amuse bouche, shtetl-style.
Finally, a separate article could, and should, be written about Chiffon's sweet specialties. All I will say is that the poppy seed roll is almost as good as the one my mother used to make.
Chiffon Kosher Cake Center
430 Avenue P, Brooklyn NY 11223 (map)
About the author: Andrew Coe would love to hear reader's memories about the lost Jewish bakeries of New York City.