CULTURE PEARLS : Babushka Russian Bakery Savors Old World Flavors

<i> Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition</i>

Miniature balalaikas, samovars and smiling Ukrainian dolls decorate the walls; the tables and chairs couldn’t be more American. Beckoning from behind the glass counter are cabbage and egg peroshki, meat and mushroom kulebyaka and poppy seed strudel; the refrigerator case is filled with Pepsi and Snapple.

Continuing this study in contrasts, Babushka Russian Bakery in Orange is new--it opened in March--but its origins are nearly half a century old.

“My bakery is called Babushka, ‘grandma,’ ” Victoria Dorfman explained in her Russian accent. “I loved to stay next to my grandma in the kitchen. When she was getting old, it was my job. My mother didn’t like to bake so much, so even as a young girl, I did for the holidays.

“Some people learn recipes. I do baking. I put a little bit here, a little bit there, and what’s going on: I create recipes.”


Cinnamon rolls, called “snails” in Russia, are a popular item in the mornings. Dorfman offers a variety of peroshki, raised dough concoctions not unlike sandwiches that, depending on the filling, serve as a meal, snack or dessert. A meat-filled peroshki ($1.25) followed by a plum flan ($1.25) or fruit pocket (95 cents) makes an ideal two-course lunch. A Russian tea cake ($1.25) is a perfect snack anytime. The kulebyaka, available by special order, provides a festive, take-home family-size dinner.

The rum raisin cake may resemble a loaf, but Dorfman said she doesn’t bake bread because it would require special ovens and more space than she has. Russian Easter bread, made with nuts, raisins, sugar, cream, egg yolks and butter, and originally designed to break a six-week fast, is too rich to be considered bread except in name--and Babushka’s clientele doesn’t wait till Easter to order it.

Dorfman sees a steady flow of Russian customers.

“Some, their parents came (to the United States) when the czar was (in power), before the (1917) revolution,” she said. “Sometimes they’re 75 years old, they know a couple of wars. They come in and ask can they sit down a little bit and just say something (in Russian).


“But most of my business, 90%, is not Russian. People come, they see (the pastries are) not too sweet, they come again.”

Dorfman’s husband, Michael, runs nearby Victoria’s Pizza; the couple’s son, Jerry, 30, helps Victoria in the afternoons. For the Dorfmans, who came to the United States from the Ukraine 15 years ago, the bakery is a dream come true.

Dorfman contrasted her life today with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, where she was a student adviser at a university and her husband was a researcher in the cement industry.

“My husband finished university, but he could not get a diploma because he was Jewish,” she said. “Then they tell you in your face you cannot have a job because you are Jewish. When it comes to the last step, they always find something. Just by looking at your passport, always you are last in line.”


Even in the United States, the dream wasn’t realized easily.

“Real hard, real hard,” Dorfman reflected. “Five years we worked 360 days a year, every day except national holidays, 12 hours every day. I too finished university in Russia, and here I mopped floors. My husband put gas (in cars) at the gas station.

“But we don’t mind. In Russia, we had an apartment with 25 neighbors--room, room and room--the same kitchen and the same one toilet for 25! Before we came, we thought, five years you have to just take away to build from zero. But anyway, what had we?

“Maybe here are more problems and more problems, (but) all of them are no problems by comparison. . . . When I stepped on this land, well, I tell you true. When people I know meet together and have a toast, we always say, ‘God bless this land.’ ”


Babushka Russian Bakery, 4911 E. Chapman Ave. in Orange, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (714) 538-1232.