The Pletzel de Paris and the Bread that bears its name

The simple flatbread of our shtetl ancestors.

Flour, salt, yeast, water, oil, onions and poppy seeds. Welcome to the gloriously simple pletzel.

There is an encouraging resurgence of interest in traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dishes. I’m thinking of the simple, everyday variety that’s relatively easy to prepare — even for newborn home cooks who needed a pandemic to muster up the courage to step into the kitchen. These aren’t the holiday babkas or briskets that can easily eat up an entire afternoon or more. These are the pickles, kasha polishes and haluskis of the Ashkenazic culinary universe – a universe that deserves as much exploration as the Marvel variety. (Black Widow is the black and white cookie.)

These are recipes you can whip up on a busy weeknight that give you a little more cultural grounding than ordering a takeout box filled with nothing more than calories for calorie sake – l human equivalent of plugging in your phone to charge it. (It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a simple top-up once in a while.)

One traditional dish that has yet to make the leap from history to the front pages of Jewish Instagram feeds and cookbooks is pletzel. I can’t for the life of me figure out why not. A pletzel is simply a flatbread with onions and poppy seeds. I just named three of the most popular foods in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: bread, onions, poppy seeds (at least as far as bagels are concerned).

It is a dish that predates the introduction of the tomato into the European diet in the 16th century. Instead of tomatoes, the thin pile of onions on the bun is the sweet star of the show that graces the cover of your Playbill Pletzel. Indeed, the sweet scent of onions will fill your kitchen and sweep across your abode like a plug-in air freshener while cooking this dish. (Call me if you want to talk, Febreze.)

I myself first came to Le Pletzel on a trip to the historically Jewish Marais district of Paris. “Pletzel” or “פּלעצל” means “little square” in Yiddish, as in, the little square where Parisian Jews lived. Le Pletzel de Paris is in the Marais, bounded by narrow cobbled streets and colorful storefronts. The story of 19th-century Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution from Russian pogroms to the relative safety of Paris is told on a plaque at the corner of Rue Des Rosiers and Rue Ferdinand Duval. The Parisian Pletzel continued to be a draw for Jewish immigrants across the Austro-Hungarian Empire throughout the early 20th century.

Source: “L’As du Falafel” by Andrea Schaffer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Today, the Pletzel is a multiverse view (Marvel call back!) of Jewish life relatively undisturbed by history. Hebrew letters feature prominently on storefronts, Orthodox Jewish men stroll down the street with their tzitzit swaying with every step, and a number of Jewish bakeries and kosher restaurants continue to draw long lines of loyal clients. All that’s missing from the wholesome vibe is Mandy Patinkin singing Jewish blessings to her dog. (Can this be a movie?)

I myself came for Florence Kahn’s eponymous bakery. Kahn’s work first caught my eye in the cookbook section of my Berlin bagel spot, Fine Bagels. The book, Yiddish Cuisine: Authentic and Delicious Jewish Recipes, is Kahn’s collection of traditional Jewish recipes. But I knew nothing about pletzels—neither the neighborhood nor the bread—when I arrived outside his bakery on a chilly fall afternoon.

I joined the line, repeating a handful of useful French phrases. The last thing I wanted was to stumble at the front of the line and ruin my visit by panicking to order the first thing I spotted.

Of course, that is precisely what happened. Luckily, the first thing I spotted was Kahn’s Pletzel Sandwich – a sabich-style bread smothered in onions and poppy seeds, stuffed with cucumbers, eggplant, pickles, red peppers and tomatoes. . I devoured every last crumb in a flurry of Tasmanian Devil bites.

This is the meat version.

The aftertaste of this sandwich followed me home to Berlin. I did some research (Google with strategically placed quotes) and learned more about the historical pletzel bread. I’ve never had one before. Kahn was the sequel to the original which I didn’t know existed. I started with The Empire Strikes Back and craved the original dish – the simple flatbread of our shtetl ancestors covered in onions and poppy seeds. No more no less.

Given its simplicity, Joan Nathan’s recipes at Zabars are virtually the same. There are differing opinions on whether to sauté onions before adding them to bread or leaving them as is. But that’s about all. In the end, I used my challah batter recipe using honey and wholemeal white flour for a richer flavor. Although I’m prone to overthinking – is this cough a harbinger of a debilitating illness? – I resisted the urge.

I find the pletzel works best as something on the side or as an appetizing snack. (For example, I ate pieces of the one in the photo while writing this.) Cut the recipe in half if you just want a pletzel of about eight pieces — plenty for two people over a few days.

Get the recipe here.

Main image source: Florence Kahn Bakery

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