My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is understandably very proud of his Sephardic Jewish heritage. Sephardic, of course, is a term for Spanish Jews who were forced to Catholicism or face expulsion from Spain. Estimates indicate this diaspora was responsible for the movement of up to 300,000 Spanish Jews who settled in different parts of Europe and the Middle East. I’ve shared with him that my maternal grandmother practiced traditions consistent with a Crypto Jewish adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith. When a blood test revealed that my mom carried genetic traits also consistent with Judaism, I felt more justified in referring to Sr. Plata as my Jewish Brother.
During our visit to the Phoenix area in 2021, the Hermanos Plata, Bruce and Loren introduced us to Lior the Baker, a kosher baker in Scottsdale. Lior the Baker has been enthralling diners in the Phoenix area for nearly a decade. The eponymous bakery is named for Lior Ben-Shushan, who runs the bakery with his wife Lily. Lior is an ubiquitous presence at his bakery where he probably has to answer the question “Are you out of babka already?” at least a hundred times a day. Get there after eleven and his answer is certain to be “yes.” There’s still plenty to ogle on shelves, bakery cases and tables, but if your heart is set on babka, you’d better get there first thing.
Babka, as pop culture knows, is a Jewish pastry made famous on Seinfeld, the “show about nothing”…but food. Pay attention and you’ll quickly discern that food plays a prominent role in many of the show’s episodes. In an especially memorable episode in season five, Jerry and his friend Elaine Benes stop at Royal Bakery to purchase a chocolate babka. They forget to take a number at the counter. As a result, a couple on their way to the same dinner party, get ahead of them in line and purchase the last chocolate babka. Jerry and Elaine resort to purchasing a cinnamon babka, which Elaine considers a “lesser babka“. They find that the babka has a hair on it, and are forced to wait in line again to exchange it.
We were heartbroken upon espying the babka-less counter with placards listing both chocolate babka and its lesser cousin, cinnamon babka. We would happily have settled for either. Lior’s babka is reputed to be the very best in Arizona. Lior shapes his babka from dough that has been laminated, (folded over on itself repeatedly) like a croissant. “He proofs the dough for two days, creating a fluff and tang like sourdough” according to the Phoenix New Times. One of these days we’ll have to make an early run to see for ourselves how good this babka really is.
On any given day Lior The Baker may offer a phalanx of pastries, both savory and sweet. It may be a mushroom, cheese and onion boureka, pita bread, cheese boureka (pictured below), Challah bread, rye bread and Moroccan bread (draped with za’atar). Make sure to pick up some of Lior’s marmalade (lemon, strawberry, orange) for toast. Sweet pastries include sesame cookies, almond croissants, chocolate croissants, Hamantaschen cookies and handcrafted buttery cookies. There’s something for everyone!
My something, regardless of anything else we may abscond with at a bakery is apple strudel. If that means I’m also related to Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes fame as well as being Jewish, so be it. There’s nothing like a great apple strudel. Lior’s version is light and flaky on the outside with apples a plenty inside. These apples aren’t cloying nor are they mushy like some canned apple pie filling. It was surprising how good we found a strudel with tangy tart apples.
Turnover pastries exist throughout the world: knishes, strudel, samosas, calzones and other variations on the same concept. In the Middle East, one of the more popular baked and stuffed pastries are known as bourekas, hand pies. Bourekas are made with a variety of savory fillings, including cheese, meat, spinach, and eggplant. They are generally made with either puff pastry or filo (phyllo) dough, and served as appetizers, alongside a meal, or as a portable snack. Turophiles will enjoy the cheese boureka, a light, flaky, savory pie covered in sesame seeds. The cheese isn’t of the melty variety, but rather a blend of cheeses that won’t ooze out or burn your tongue.
While we missed out on the babka, we were blessed to have arrived just a few seconds after Lior extricated several loaves of Challah bread from the oven. The beautifully knotted, golden-hued bread is magnificent. We couldn’t wait until arriving at our rental before attacking the bread, confirming there’s nothing quite as wonderful as fresh bread right out of the oven. Okay, there’s toasting the bread, slathering on butter and spreading some of Lior’s orange marmalade. If only we had all our kitchen implements so we could make Challah bread French toast. There’s nothing better.
Lior the Baker’s signage is sub-titled “Taste of the Holy Land.” Until 2018, the bakery was known as Jerusalem Bakery. Perhaps a better name might have been Bethlehem Bakery because “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. By any name, the bread and pastries are fabulous!
Lior The Baker
10953 N Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd, # 105
LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Orange Marmalade, Challah Bread, Apple Strudel