You don’t hear much about pletzel these days. For one thing, it’s an Ashkenazi Jewish flatbread that’s topped with raw onions and poppy seeds. On the other hand, it is a district of Paris.
The name comes from Yiddish for “little place”, as in a small area within a city. (Technically, the Yiddish spelling of the neighborhood is “פּלעצל”, which transliterates to “pletzl”. Flatbread, on the other hand, is more commonly spelled “pletzel”.) Le Pletzl in Paris is in the Marais du Fourth District. A nondescript plaque on the corner of Rue des Rosiers and Rue Ferdinand Duval tells the story of Ashkenazi Jews rushing to Paris in the late 19th century, fleeing persecution mainly pogroms throughout the Russian Empire. Jewish immigrants continued to arrive in the city from Romania, Russia and throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I’ve traveled to places where my Jewish ancestors came from, like northeastern Slovakia and northern Romania: plates are rare and Jewish bakeries, butchers and delis are mostly non-existent. But in the Pletzl of Paris, there is a glimpse of Jewish life left untouched by time. Restaurant and bakery signs are covered in Hebrew characters and you can see the tzitzit, fringes worn mostly by Orthodox Jewish men, swaying with the bounce of their step.
But I came to Pletzl for one reason, and one reason only: to visit Florence Kahn’s bakery. I first heard about her bakery when I spotted her cookbook, “Yiddish Cuisine: Authentic and Delicious Jewish Recipes,” on the shelves of my local bagel shop in Berlin, Fine Bagels. I was drawn to the book by its use of the word “Yiddish” in the foreground. “Yiddish” simply means “Jew” in the Yiddish language, but you don’t usually see it on a book cover.
Kahn met me outside his bakery on a beautiful fall afternoon. I had been there earlier in the day for lunch. There was a queue at the door and the few tables outside were full. An incredibly adorable older couple started singing along to each other while standing behind me like they were in their own musical and we were just extras.
Dragging inside, I ordered in a panic the first thing I saw in front of me in broken French. Luckily what I saw was a sign promoting their “pletzel sandwich”. In the end, it was like finding premium whiskey at an open bar.
All recipes are family recipes, Kahn told me when we sat down a few hours later. They come from her mother, her grandmother and her ex-husband’s family. “We don’t change the ingredients,” she said. “It’s always the same thing.”
Kahn said it was essential for her to open a Yiddish bakery in the neighborhood, but she’s not sure why. But after thinking about it for a moment, she found an answer. “I noticed that the Holocaust survivors, their relatives and their descendants, had lost the taste of their childhood,” she said. “I feel like I was on a mission to bring that back to people.” But it’s not just about looking back. It is about preserving a culinary heritage for future generations. “That’s it,” she said of Yiddish cooking. “It’s my life.”
As family members who grew up eating these dishes pass away, Kahn worries that younger generations will lose the classic Yiddish recipes. His cookbook and his bakery are intended to preserve this culinary heritage so that he can live on.
But back to that pletzel – the sandwich, not the square. Traditionally, a pletzel is a simple flatbread with onions and poppy seeds. At Florence Kahn, it’s a more puffy onion sandwich bread filled with pastrami, turkey or corned beef; garnished with eggplant, caviar, red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and pickles.
Food writer Arthur Schwartz called the historic pletzel “hard bread” in an episode of “Joan Knows Best.” “You need good teeth for the pletzel.” Of course, flatbreads aren’t unique to Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, but Schwartz says it’s the onions that make it a Jewish dish. “Onions were the main flavoring in Eastern European Jewish food,” he said. “Because we didn’t have much else.” In the episode, Joan Nathan, a matriarch of contemporary Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, speculates that most 1930s New York City residents used leftover challah batter to make their pletzels.
When I thought about what to stuff into my dream pletzel, my mind immediately went to sabich, the Israeli pita sandwich brought into the country by Iraqi Jews. Similar to a falafel wrap, sabich are stuffed with hummus, fried eggplant, tomato and cucumber salad, and hard-boiled eggs, then topped with tahini, spicy zhug, and a tangy pickled mango called amba. To make my own pletzel-pita hybrid, I adapted my challah recipe with white whole wheat flour, olive oil and a little honey before stuffing and covering the dough with onions and poppy seeds. I also leaned towards adapting Kahn’s sandwich, which makes it a thicker, chewier loaf than the flatter variety. It’s a sandwich that touches on Jewish culinary roots from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. It’s a sandwich full of context, relying on simple ingredients and flavors. It’s a sandwich that brings me back to a special little place, the Pletzl in Paris.