When Joshua McFadden, the owner and chef behind famed Italian restaurant Ava Gene’s, decided to start serving brunch, was thinking about babka. He had a particularly good version at New York’s now-closed Arcade Bakery, and his other restaurant, Tusk, has served a version on its brunch menu for years.
He also knew he wanted some sort of waffle. So he, former pastry chef Nora Mace, and current pastry chef Mason Herbert Suda decided to kill two birds with one stone, creating the restaurant’s babka waffle. The gang tested a single recipe, and it worked on the first try.
The waffle is something to behold: Laminated brioche gets a slathering of poppy seeds before it’s tied into little knots, dipped in sugar, and pressed in a waffle iron. It comes topped with maple butter and maple syrup, a tiny wonder ideal as a pre-meal pastry, something to share with coffee before the main event.
It was a smart move: Babka of any kind was bound to do well in Portland. Before 2019, babka was a relative rarity in the city’s restaurants and bakeries. Outside of Tusk’s brunch service, it was occasionally spotted in pastry cases and delis around the holidays, or available wrapped in plastic at the occasional grocery. But when Westside Jewish deli Beetroot announced its impending arrival, and Portland’s pastry nerds and homesick East Coasters fixated. People started asking owner Sonya Sanford about whether the bakery would serve babka; now, loaves often appear in the pastry case, with flavors like pistachio cardamom alongside the classic chocolate.
Portland’s growing interest in babka extended outside the culinary world, as well: In Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble’s Our Ruined House, which premiered in 2019, a character passes out slices of chocolate babka for audience members during a monologue. The effect was to create the illusion of intimacy: There’s something about the pastry — a sweet and deceptively complicated woven loaf — that creates a feeling of comfort.
Ava Gene’s babka waffle, a brunch treat with nostalgic roots, quickly became a best-seller at the restaurant. “We never thought it would be the thing,” McFadden says. But considering the long, labored process of making it, it wouldn’t be worth it unless it was stunning. Luckily, it is.
Herbert Suda starts with brioche dough, which proofs until it doubles and then gets folded down in a large, bus-tub-like container. That dough then sits in the fridge for 24 hours. In the meantime, she takes huge butter blocks and rolls slices of the butter into thin layers, to line each layer of the brioche once it’s ready. Then, Herbert Suda preps the babka filling, a combination of butter, milk, sugar, honey, and salt. It boils and gets a combination of ground and whole poppy seeds. The finished product should cool, and ends up looking remarkably similar to caviar.
The key to lamination, Herbert Suda says, is having the butter and dough at the same consistency. If the butter is too warm, it’ll melt into the dough and disappear. If it’s too cold, it’ll crack when it folds. The pastry chef lays the butter in the center of the rolled dough, folding around it like an envelope. That folds again and again, smearing the poppy seed mixture into the dough, until the final product has 12 layers of butter.
Once the dough is layered, Herbert Suda cuts the dough into strips. She twists each strip so it’s swirly, and then ties the dough into itself. Each little roll gets dipped in sugar, to caramelize when it hits the waffle iron. The final product gets a dollop of maple butter and a swirl of maple syrup.
The final product has the quality of a pull-apart bread, with a caramelized crust. It’s glossy and toasty, with the iron gently toasting the poppyseeds. “I love taking two ideas that don’t make a lot of sense and making them better than the sum of their parts,” she says. “Even though it’s so rich, it’s not too sweet; it has this savoriness to it. It’s this great thing to present, it’s glistening and warm — people freak out about it.”
Updated March 6, 2020, at 10:22 a.m.
This story has been updated to note Tusk’s brunch service.
• Ava Gene’s [Official]
• Previous Ava Gene’s coverage [EPDX]
• Italian Mainstay Ava Gene’s Starts Serving Brunch Labor Day Weekend [EPDX]