Until fairly recently in American history, babka came in two flavors: chocolate or cinnamon, and it probably wasn’t the most exciting item at a synagogue kiddush or dessert spread. When Breads Bakery introduced their signature chocolate babka in 2013 made with a laminated dough (like croissant dough), they started a babka renaissance across the U.S. Since then, bakers on every coast have breathed new life into the beloved sweet, including Israel-born Chef Shimi Aaron, who now resides in Los Angeles.
Aaron didn’t start his career as a pastry chef, but you would never know that by looking at his gorgeous, swirled sweets. To look at Aaron’s babka, though, is not just to see a beautiful cake: his jewel-toned bakes present like a piece of art or, if you will indulge me, possibly a piece of jewelry. This is no accident. Aaron worked in the high-end costume jewelry business for 15 years in Israel and New York City, managing sales and also designing.
A lifelong passion for food prompted Aaron to spend time in London with Chef Eran Tibi from the Bala Baya group, and travel through Europe learning about different cuisines. Chef Tibi made a significant impact on Aaron, instilling a sense of confidence that he could pursue a culinary path professionally.
Aaron always loved the idea of moving to the U.S., particularly after his stint in NYC. So in June 2020, Aaron relocated to Los Angeles to focus on building a culinary career. Despite moving in the middle of the pandemic and the many challenges of that came with it, Aaron ended up becoming a “babka king.”
Aaron shared his babka creations with the world via Instagram. And, as luck would have it, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times discovered them and cited them in several articles, changing Aaron’s life overnight. Since then, Aaron has been featured in the LA Times several times, The New York Times and BBC Good Food. He even collaborated with Chef Einat Admony of Balaboosta in New York City in November 2021.
Aaron, who “never thought it would get to this level,” cites his inspiration coming very much from his family: his mother, Shoshanah, and his grandmothers were all fantastic cooks. He loves bringing his Egyptian, Iraqi and Yemeni Jewish heritages to life through his babka, cakes and other recipes.
Today, Aaron is a private chef, baking instructor and sells his artisanal babkas on his website in wide-ranging flavors, including classic chocolate, halva, savory za’atar and cheese, and even pizza. Although many of his most visually striking flavors are sweet, he actually prefers his savory babkas.
“I love making my classic babka with candied orange and rose petals because that’s the one who put me on the culinary map and got me all the attention to what I wanted to do most. But I love eating my savory za’atar, olive oil and mixed cheese. I was always more of a savory person than sweet,” he shared in a recent interview.
Aaron isn’t the first prominent Israeli to translate non-culinary professional experience into a baking career. The Challah Prince, AKA Idan Chabasov, began as a dancer; he shared with me last year that he thinks about his challah-shaping videos as choreography. Food Network personality and Israeli chef Ron Ben-Israel, known for his elaborate wedding cakes and intricate sugar flowers, started his career as a baker after a 15-year career as a professional modern dancer, dancing with companies around the world.
Inspiration comes from so many places, and it’s fascinating to see how different art forms translate into striking and delicious creations, like babka. Babka that’s so beautiful, you might just wear it.