Sara Eisen moved to the Bay Area with the goal of working as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse. It only took her three years to land a job there as a pastry cook. Four months later, the restaurant was shut down by the coronavirus.
“It was a huge bummer, to be honest,” said Eisen, who moved from New Jersey specifically to work directly with farmers and local ingredients.
After doing an Urban Adamah fellowship in Berkeley, the pastry school graduate had worked her way through a number of fine dining restaurants, including San Francisco’s highly acclaimed Moroccan restaurant Mourad, before landing the job at the renowned Berkeley farm-to-table restaurant.
“Chez Panisse was the place I wanted to work, and I had finally gotten there. It’s sad for everyone in the industry. However, I’m so glad I had started there before all this happened, as there are so many wonderful things that have come of it,” said Eisen, who now lives in Oakland.
One of the silver linings is that Chez Panisse is offering take-home meal kits, with desserts, so most of their chefs, including Eisen, have at least part-time employment. That has given Eisen time to start her own side hustle, Sadie’s Babkas. She launched it last month.
If Eisen was going to specialize in anything, it was going to be babka, the Eastern European yeasted cake that is enjoying a resurgence right now. “It was something I had thought about pre-pandemic,” she said. “Whether it was going to be a brick-and-mortar place or not, I didn’t know. But I want it to be ongoing, as babka was such a source of comfort for me in my childhood, and it seems like a good thing to share during such a rough time.”
“Babka was such a source of comfort for me in my childhood, and it seems like a good thing to share during such a rough time.” — Sara Eisen
Babka is not easy to make. “You have to make a lot of them and burn a lot of them to get good at it,” Eisen said, noting that the thickness of the dough, the ratio of dough to filling and how many times you fold it all affect its ultimate structure.
Eisen is mainly keeping it traditional, with cinnamon and chocolate — using two local brands, Guittard and Tcho — but for Hanukkah, she made a black sesame babka for Chez Panisse. She also recently teamed up with Reesa Kashuk of Poppy Bagels for a Hanukkah bagel and babka platter that quickly sold out.
Sadie’s Babkas are regularly sold on Sundays at the new Magnolia Mini Mart gift shop at Classic Cars West in West Oakland while Eisen looks to add more locations. For now, find her at her website or on Instagram (@sadiesbabkas).
Eisen made her first babka locally for the summer fundraiser Bakers Against Racism, where many out-of-work pastry chefs donated items to raise money for nonprofits doing anti-racism work in response to the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.
She ended up making 60 babkas at the Urban Adamah kitchen.
“In selling them, I realized I loved doing a huge number of them and sharing them with people,” she said. “And people got excited about them, so that was exciting for me too, as I had been working on this recipe for years.”
Eisen, who turns 29 this month, grew up in West Caldwell, New Jersey, where Judaism played a central part in family life. Both of her parents are from Brooklyn, where babka is a staple.
While she attended Jewish day school through eighth grade and attended synagogue weekly, she said she always connected most to Judaism through the food.
“Bagels were for Sunday mornings, but we always had something sweet on Shabbat mornings, and it often was babka. It was just a grocery store brand, but it was still a huge treat.”
Her mother was the main cook in the family, but her father specialized in making a lemon sponge cake for Passover, and he taught Eisen her first advanced culinary technique, how to separate egg whites.
The fellowship at Urban Adamah — which helped her realize she is much better suited working in a kitchen than as a farmer — was what brought Eisen out here in 2017, but she knew she’d stay afterward.
Sadie is Eisen’s childhood nickname, and it’s the name of her great-grandmother, whom she never met, but who was known to bake every single day.
“My mom often told me when I was younger that she sees a lot of her in me when I’m baking,” she said. Sadie was said to consider sweets a necessity, and because she couldn’t afford to buy them, she baked them herself.
“I love the idea that baked goods are a necessity,” said Eisen. “Because you’d sit with a baked good and tea and talk about your day; that was something she provided for her family.”
Babka is one of those things that gets New York transplants excited, though until recently, it wasn’t much on people’s radars in these parts. Nevertheless, when Eisen shared the babka with a friend whose parents were Brooklyn natives, the friend’s response was, “Now that’s a babka.”
“That’s the highest compliment I’ve received so far,” she said.
A version of this story first appeared in J. The Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.