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When Ayelet Nuchi worked as a pastry chef at Palo Alto’s Spago, she would often take fancy French desserts to her friends’ dinner parties. She’d treat them to whatever lavish tart or rich macaron she was perfecting in the kitchen. And Nuchi, who is Israeli, would also take along one of her babkas, a buttery, yeast-risen loaf cake typically swirled with chocolate.
Every time, one favorite emerged.
“Nobody cared about the fancy desserts,” recalls Nuchi, now 48, with a laugh. “They just wanted the babka. People love dough and fillings. They want something warm, something traditional, something that reminds them of home.”
Spago closed in 2006 and ever since, Nuchi has had babka on the brain. Last year, she opened Babka by Ayelet, a chic bakery-cafe in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village where Nuchi crafts eight unique babka flavors in four sizes, from a personal-sized babka to a celebration size that’s perfect for Hanukkah, which starts Dec. 22.
Awash in pale pink and gold hues, with stylish cookbooks lining the shelves, the small cafe has been called the country’s first babka-only bakery and garnered attention all the way from the East Coast, even though Nuchi doesn’t ship. Yet.
Since opening, Nuchi has heard the phrase “my grandma’s babka” countless times and received hugs, cheek pinches, phone calls and frantic text messages — don’t you text your baker at midnight? — in the hopes of securing one of her small-batch babkas.
“Tasting the babka makes people think about their old neighborhood, deli or home, whether it was in New York, Poland or Israel,” Nuchi says. But the clientele is not strictly Jewish or Israeli, as Nuchi presumed it would be when she opened last December.
“I see everyone here and I love that it’s become a community gathering place,” she says. “My customers are really special.”
You could blame the babka fever on nostalgia or the overall rise of Jewish delis and Israeli food in the culinary world, but that would mean dismissing Nuchi’s pastry prowess. She is, after all, California Culinary Academy-trained and Wolfgang Puck-approved, and her babkas are far from Bubbe’s margarine-laden loaves or the dry offerings next to gefilte fish jars at the grocery store.
Nuchi bakes daily using high-quality ingredients, from top-notch cream and butter to the best vanilla beans she can find. And her innovative flavors, especially savory versions, like feta and spinach babka, set her pastries apart. Chocolate is the classic and most popular; kiddos love the Nutella babka; and the newest, halvah babka, swirled with the sesame candy, is gaining buzz. How’d she come up with the flavors?
“I basically turned all of my favorite dishes into babkas,” Nuchi says. “I have this famous dish among my friends, it’s a butternut squash lasagna with sage and thyme. So I took the fillings and put it in a babka. My chocolate babka is a combination of my flourless chocolate cake and my best brownie recipe. And the cinnamon and walnut babka is a take on my sticky bun.”
As Babka by Ayelet heads into its second year, Nuchi has visions of opening another location, hopefully in San Francisco. Until then, you’ll have to visit the Palo Alto cafe, where you will soon be able to take a babka workshop with Nuchi.
You’ll no doubt take it — not your famous cheesecake — to many dinner parties to come.