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Meet the future babka king of Los Angeles

Shimi Aaron's chocolate and hazelnut babka, strewn with candied orange zest and rose petals.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A couple of months back, while working on a feature about Palestinian culture through the lens of cookbooks, I was watching Instagram stories posted by London-based chef Joudie Kalla, one of the authors interviewed for the story. In one slide she mentioned a chef friend, Shimi Aaron, who had just moved to Los Angeles. I clicked to Aaron’s feed, and what I saw was babka — loaves and loaves of beautiful, ornate babka.

They were spread with fillings like chocolate ganache and hazelnuts or halva and pecans, rolled, cut to reveal striations and then twisted into curvy braids. Sometimes Aaron scattered them with rose petals and candied citrus zest. One babka was formed into a wreath; another resembled roses in clusters. Poppy seeds filled a Bundt-shaped version.

As soon as he arrived in L.A., Aaron began selling these splendors; he takes orders via his Instagram account and usually bakes them one day a week for pickup in Calabasas. He’s also finalizing some outlets in which to sell babka in Silver Lake.

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When sliced, each babka reveals a swirling, psychedelic interior. My favorite was the brioche-like version painted with halva cream — rich in sesame earthiness, with the pecan bits adding crunch to every second or third bite.

Chef and baker Shimi Aaron flouring a surface while making babkas.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

It had been a while since I’d dropped into the sticky, cakey pleasures of babka. I thought about the craze in New York last decade — energized by Breads Bakery, where Uri Scheft fashions babka from a butter-packed dough, similar to the viennoiserie for croissants, crammed with chocolate chips and Nutella. The babka obsession never reached quite the same heights in Los Angeles, though Wexler’s, Cake Monkey and Lodge Bread Co. make first-rate versions.

There is plenty of room for more babka, though, and Aaron recognizes his opportunity. The elaborate, modern takes on babka stem from Eastern European Jewish baking traditions. Aaron grew up with the treat in Israel, though he doesn’t come from Ashkenazi roots: His father came to the country from Yemen when he was young, and his mother was born in Israel to parents who’d arrived from Iraq and Egypt.

Aaron knew about Scheft, who is also from Israel, during 14 years of living in New York. A private chef and recipe developer, Aaron picked up babka a couple of years ago at first as a passing curiosity, tinkering with variations that restrained the butter and didn’t need such a long time for the yeasted dough to rise. He was living in London when his professional babka boom began — he saw the way it galvanized people on social media, and he started teaching classes on making babka around Europe.

In L.A., Aaron has mastered a vegan version of chocolate babka that he’s working to sell retail for at-home baking. “The smell of babka baking is such an important part of enjoying it,” he said. And he has a store in mind when the world opens up again: a babka boutique.

Shimi Aaron cuts into his freshly baked babkas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For now, Aaron has begun teaching babka classes over Zoom. (He and Kalla are also talking about pairing up to teach online.) Word-of-mouth demand for his babka spread quickly enough that he sometimes has waiting lists. He sells large, braided loaves in pairs. Two halva-pecan loaves, for example, cost $70. There was so much of it that I cut one loaf into thirds and froze them; my household quickly burned through thawed and toasted babka for breakfast.

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Aaron also is developing savory variations seasoned with ingredients like za’atar and feta. Ask him about it via Instagram.

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L.A. Food Bowl returns ... in virtual form

The Los Angeles Times Food Bowl will celebrate 2020 Restaurant of the Year award winner Orsa & Winston and its chef, Josef Centeno, with a special virtual dining experience at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 26. The ticket price, $175 per person, includes a three-course meal prepared by the restaurant — which can be picked up the day of the event. In addition, participants can tune in to a conversation with Centeno and L.A. Times food writer Jenn Harris. Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.

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