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Braid’s babka pie is available in the Outer Sunset, but it’s far from the only babka in the Bay.
Braid Bakery

Big, Beautiful Babka Are Taking Over Bay Area Bakeries, One Menu at a Time

“I’ve never seen so much babka in the streets,” Hadeem’s Spencer Horovitz says

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Paolo Bicchieri is a reporter at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, coffee and cafes, and pop-ups.

The Outer Sunset, awash in fog with the infrequent piercing arrow of sun, is home to stylish, swirly, sweet-to-the-nose babka. And before anyone points out the other items for which the neighborhood is well-known — garlic noodles at Thanh Long, hoagies at Palm City — it’s worth noting these babka are a new addition to the landscape. Arriving in cake, pie, and roll renditions, these babka are made each morning at dawn by Irving Street’s Braid bakery, which has been open since April.

It’s not just San Francisco’s west side either. Babka is taking over dessert menus at fine dining pop-ups and joining the starting lineup at lux bakeries across the city. The Jewish pastry is a platform, a grand stage, for chefs and bakers to riff into sweet, savory, and zany renditions. Across the country in recent years there’s been a babka boom, spawning pizza babka, char siu pork floss babka, and old-school New York-style versions, too.

Babka is originally an Eastern European Jewish pastry, originating in the 1800s when housewives baked leftover challah dough with cinnamon and jam rolled inside. Over time descendants riffed on the baked good, giving it the confection treatment by the end of the 19th century. San Francisco delicatessen Wise Sons, which opened in 2012, is amongst the cohort of Jewish American bakers who pushed the dessert into the 21st century with a passion for tastier ingredients, such as butter instead of palm oil. Now, the dessert is an undeniably hot menu item for pastry chefs all over the United States — and has been for a bit over a decade.

But in San Francisco, the trend seems to have accelerated in recent months. Valentine Erman, Braid bakery founder and owner, noticed the trend when she launched her business earlier this year. She grew up in a family of restaurant owners, cooking and baking in her home country of France, and completed an internship at Maas, a now-closed restaurant in Metz, France. She brought her talent to the city’s west side six years ago when her husband got a job in San Francisco. It was then she decided to upgrade her pastry skills online with French education outfit Youschool. In the city, she worked at Vive la Tarte before deciding to launch her own venture.

Babka Braid Bakery

In April 2023 she opened the cottage business, meaning she makes all of her food out of her home in the Avenues for pick-up only, Wednesday through Saturday. She offers two staple flavors, chocolate and hazelnut and cinnamon walnut, both made from brioche dough. She sells rotating items, too, including strawberry tarts, challah ratatouille, and cast-iron grilled cheese. “I make everything from scratch every day,” Erman says. “I’m home-based because I have two super little kids. It’s easier to start like this.”

For a few years now, Erman says babka has been one of the It Girl pastries in Paris; that’s where she first encountered the spirally delight. Each time she visits France she tries new babka, but in the United States she feels options are still limited. She says that while her other items at Braid get love, customers reach out to her about the babka time and time again. “It was natural for me to start something with babka,” Erman says. “I wanted to do something classic like the Parisians do.”

That wasn’t Spencer Horovitz’s inspiration when he started his Jewish diasporic pop-up Hadeem, but he agrees the pastry is having a moment. He grew up getting babka from his aunt for Hanukkah, and his version takes after the sweeter variety one might have on Shabbat or for ceremonial purposes in a synagogue. Jewish culture is prolific, he says, but it’s subtle in many ways, especially if there’s not a strong Jewish community in the town or city where one lives. That means that while babka is a classic for East Coast Jews, it hasn’t been so ubiquitous on the West Coast until recently. “I’ve never seen this much babka in the streets,” Horovitz laughs.

The future of the pastry is wide open in his mind, since it’s ultra-customizable; Horovitz has served eight or nine versions of babka at Hadeem pop-ups, with another eight or nine in the pipeline. There’s so much history and variety to the dessert, such as the Polish riffs that are cakier and Greek versions incorporating walnuts. He prefers to push the boundaries: The first professional-setting babka Horovitz made was infused with five spice, sweetened tahini paste, and served with foie gras on the side and chili crisp on top. He’s made pistachio and orange blossom babka with ice cream, an Iranian baklava play. The newest version features apples and honey, resembling a Jewish New Year cake. He even made a char siu babka stuffed with pork floss and scallions that, once it went through the Jewish community gossip train, he was promptly called out for by his mom’s friend. But that’s alright with him, as, ultimately, it reflects his mission of demystifying and discussing what Jewish food and cuisine really is. “In a silly way, the babka has become a vehicle for this discussion,” Horovitz says.

The scene is indeed booming. Other babka bakers in the city include Hayes Valley’s Loquat with its innovative flavors such as lemon-poppy seed and cardamom-ricotta, and Berkeley’s Sadie’s Babkas, which was launched by a Chez Panisse alum. Evident from all these renditions, babka is not a dessert that can be thought of as merely sugar and flour anymore. Still, one of the reasons the bakers think it could be so popular is because of those simple and popular elements — hard to go wrong with such beloved ingredients. “Overall, cultural conversations are really important,” Horovitz says. “And babka is bread with a lot of sugar in it. I think it’s an approachable vehicle.”

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