Baker Zoe Kanan didn’t grow up eating challah. There was one Jewish bakery in Houston, where she and her family lived. “My first experience with challah was when I moved from Texas to New York. I was eating it at a diner and [was] like: ‘This tastes exactly like Texas toast,” she says, the thick slices of toast slicked with butter that are a signature in her home state.
“This isn’t a family heirloom recipe,” she says of the seed-studded sourdough challah. “This is sort of like an early 20s in New York challah,” instead, she jokes. Instead, she explains: “If I were to combine my favorite things about challah...this is the challah I’d make for me.”
And it’s one we are grateful she shared with us. With her coffee-laced chocolate babka and sourdough challah, Zoe is part of a new crop of chefs reimagining Jewish food. But, her path to Jewish baking was a circuitous and unplanned one. She grew up near her grandmother Helen, whose family was from Poland and Russia. Helen was an avid baker of Jewish sweets, “cookies and cakes, but yeast was definitely not her thing,” Zoe says. Still, “she was my introduction into the world of Jewish baking.”
Less than a year into college, Zoe knew school wasn’t the right fit. “I pitched this idea to my parents,” to go to a French culinary program and study baking, she says. “[They] were not initially that supportive, but I was more organized and determined about wanting to do that than anything else up to that point,” so they agreed.
After a few years of working for acclaimed pastry chef Christina Tosi at Momofuku Milk Bar and then for a dairy company, she found herself in an interview with baker Melissa Weller, who had built a reputation as a bagel whisperer at the New York weekend food market Smorgasburg. Melissa was looking for a sous baker to help her launch Sadelle’s, a nouveau Jewish restaurant specializing in bagels and lox. “I secretly felt like maybe I was a little underqualified,” Zoe says, but the two connected.
Around the same time, she returned from a culinary Birthright trip to Israel. It was “this weird convergence of these different factors,” Zoe explains. “My path became clear to me, however cheesy that is.” Blending her French pastry training with Jewish tradition seemed to fit. “I was just so excited that my family was really connected to the things I was making,” she says.
That excitement carried to her new job. A photo of babka on her Instagram account earlier this year came with a short caption “Thinking of my grandma every time I Babka. ✨Helen ❤️Luntz✨”