Sadie's Babka in chocolate and cinnamon. (Photo/Courtesy Sara Eisen)
Sadie's Babka in chocolate and cinnamon. (Photo/Courtesy Sara Eisen)

Sadie’s Babka arrives on the scene with a sweet family story

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Sara Eisen moved to the Bay Area with the goal of working as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse. It only took her three years to land a job there as a pastry cook. Four months later, the restaurant was shut down by the coronavirus.

“It was a huge bummer, to be honest,” said Eisen, who came to the Bay Area from New Jersey specifically to work directly with farmers and local ingredients.

After doing an Urban Adamah fellowship in Berkeley, the pastry school graduate had worked her way through a number of fine dining restaurants, including San Francisco’s highly acclaimed Moroccan restaurant Mourad, before landing the job at the renowned Berkeley farm-to-table restaurant.

“Chez Panisse was the place I wanted to work, and I had finally gotten there. It’s sad for everyone in the industry. However, I’m so glad I had started there before all this happened, as there are so many wonderful things that have come of it.”

One of the silver linings is that Chez Panisse is offering take-home meal kits, with desserts, so most of their chefs, including Eisen, have at least part-time employment. That has given Eisen time to start her own side hustle, Sadie’s Babka. She launched it last month.

If Eisen was going to specialize in anything, it was going to be babka, the Eastern European yeasted cake that is enjoying a resurgence right now. “It was something I had thought about pre-pandemic,” she said. “Whether it was going to be a brick-and-mortar place or not, I didn’t know. But I want it to be ongoing, as babka was such a source of comfort for me in my childhood, and it seems like a good thing to share during such a rough time.”

Sara Eisen with some of her babka babies. (Photo/Courtesy Eisen)
Sara Eisen with some of her babka babies. (Photo/Courtesy Eisen)

Babka is not easy to make. “You have to make a lot of them and burn a lot of them to get good at it,” Eisen said, noting that the thickness of the dough, the ratio of dough to filling and how many times you fold it all affect its ultimate structure.

So far, she’s keeping it traditional, with cinnamon and chocolate — using two local brands, Guittard and Tcho — but might offer another flavor soon.

Sadie’s Babka is sold on Sundays at the Magnolia Mini Mart in Oakland while Eisen looks to add more locations. She recently teamed up with Reesa Kashuk of Poppy Bagels for a Hanukkah bagel and babka platter that quickly sold out. Find her at her website or on Instagram (@sadiesbabkas).

Eisen made her first babka locally for the summer fundraiser Bakers Against Racism, after the killing of George Floyd, where many out-of-work pastry chefs donated items to raise money for nonprofits doing anti-racism work.

She ended up making 60 babka, using the Urban Adamah kitchen.

“In selling them, I realized I loved doing a huge number of them and sharing them with people,” she said. “And people got excited about them, so that was exciting for me too, as I had been working on this recipe for years.”

Eisen, who turns 29 this month, grew up in West Caldwell, New Jersey, where Judaism played a central part in family life. Both of her parents are from Brooklyn, where babka is a staple.

You have to make a lot of them and burn a lot of them to get good at it.

While she attended Jewish day school through eighth grade, and attended synagogue weekly, she said she always connected most to Judaism through the food.

“Bagels were for Sunday mornings, but we always had something sweet on Shabbat mornings, and it often was babka. It was just a grocery store brand, but it was still a huge treat.”

Her mother was the main cook in the family, but her father specialized in making a lemon sponge cake for Passover, and he taught Eisen her first advanced culinary technique, how to separate egg whites.

The fellowship at Urban Adamah — which helped her realize she is much better suited to work in a kitchen than be a farmer — was what brought Eisen out here in 2017, but she knew she’d stay afterward.

She named Sadie’s Babka after her great-grandmother, whom she never met, but was known to bake every single day.

“My mom often told me when I was younger that she sees a lot of her in me when I’m baking,” she said. Sadie was said to consider sweets a necessity, and because she couldn’t afford to buy them, she baked them herself.

“I love the idea that baked goods are a necessity,” said Eisen. “Because you’d sit with a baked good and tea and talk about your day; that was something she provided for her family.”

Of course, babka is one of those things that gets New York transplants excited, though until recently it wasn’t much on people’s radars. Nevertheless, when Eisen shared the babka with a friend whose parents were Brooklyn natives, the friend’s response was, “Now that’s a babka.”

“That’s the highest compliment I’ve received so far,” she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."