Learn to bake with the 'king of bagels'

Avi Kniznik teaching his Jewish baking class

Avi Kniznik teaching his Jewish baking class - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

Food (entwined with greed) has always been a huge part of my life. I spent my formative years flicking through a folder of mum’s Home & Freezer Digest magazines...through snippets of recipes cut from women’s weeklies...a dog-eared copy of The New York Times Cookbook. 

Oh, and dreaming of the creations that could be conjured from the Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book. Every little girl growing up in the 80s surely will have been presented with a ‘swimming pool’ featuring a naked Barbie doll floating in a vat of blue jelly, surrounded by a ‘fence’ of Cadburys chocolate fingers? 

Mum comes from a big Jewish family that spans the world, while dad isn’t religious. We grew up atheist. Unless we were on a trip to see my maternal grandparents in London’s East End, for grandma’s roast chicken and Brick Lane beigels. Always beigels. They were a seminal part of my childhood, and I can’t visit the capital without bringing a huge bag (or two) of them home. 

Avi Kniznik puts the finishing touches to a lunch of bialys with salt beef, pickles and mustard

Avi Kniznik puts the finishing touches to a lunch of bialys with salt beef, pickles and mustard - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

Avi Kniznik of Bagel or Beigel (always beigel by the way) had a similar (if slightly more religious) upbringing. 

One of seven from a well-at-heel Jewish family rooted in Toronto, Avi and his siblings weren’t expected to be super orthodox. But they did feast on beigels with cream cheese and lox. His mum would pay him in rugelach on trips to the stores for being good. Granny’s cellar was fit to burst with homemade pickles. 

No Jewish or semi-Jewish household is ever knowingly understocked. Eating, talking about eating, cooking, interfering with others’ cooking, sharing food – it's in our blood, whether we follow the Torah or not. 

Avi went on to set up his own cheesecake business while working for two beigel companies in Toronto – supplying around 10 shops in his early 20s. He then landed a gig in London, before rooting himself in Suffolk, begging and borrowing to open his own café - Carrot Cake in Ipswich. Anyone who visited or worked in the town in the noughties, will surely have queued down the street to get their chops around one of the chef’s doorstop sandwiches, pizza beigels, or massive slabs of rocky road – this (then) young journalist included. 

Braiding challah bread

Braiding challah bread - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

Avi Kniznik demonstrates how to shape a beigel

Avi demonstrates how to shape a beigel - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

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A career in photography followed. But when Covid hit, Avi had to come up with a new plan, launching Bagel or Beigel in early 2020 with the help of his young daughter and chief taster Poppy. 

Today Avi supplies multiple shops, delivers ‘picnic’ boxes of beigels with salt beef or cream cheese locally, and has a nationwide delivery service for his part-baked beigels. Customers rave about them. 

So he thought, why not teach ‘em how to bake these at home from scratch? 

Avi has just launched a unique cookery experience from his Thornham headquarters, just off the A140. Like his beigels, they’re a small batch affair. Just four people can take part at a time, learning first-hand from the master himself. It’s more than your traditional cooking class. The day fuses tradition, heritage, stories and, in true Jewish fashion, lots of heart. 

“To me, being Jewish is not something I bought on the high street, or decided to adopt after spending time with someone else who is Jewish,” says Avi. “My heritage is Jewish, which makes me Jewish. That being said, I may not go to Synagogue or pray to the person above, but the one thing I truly love is the food. The food my mum and my bubbies made for us growing up that still brings back memories when I catch a whiff of a certain ingredient. 

Rolling up rugelach

Rolling up rugelach - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

“Luckily, I am fortunate to be blessed with a working knowledge of a kitchen to be able to recreate the many sweet and savoury dishes that have been passed down to me. That’s one of the great things about Jewish food - it’s passed down from generation to generation, rather than written down in a cookbook. Though I’m sure there are some Jewish chefs that have sold a cookbook or two on Amazon, I can guarantee that it won’t taste the same as what your bubbe makes.” 

I rock up to try the first ever class alongside a three of Avi’s customers/mates - who were soon to learn that I’m a horribly messy cook, often found with batter on my butt, and flour in my hair. 

Straight away Avi launches, in his own inimitable, energetic style, into the history of Jewish food culture – a thread of conversation that will continue throughout the day. 

We start out prepping challah dough. A plump, squidgy concoction enriched with egg, butter and sugar, learning later that the reason challah is braided is to represent all the strands of a family’s week, good and bad. They’re combined, baked and then cut, to symbolise a new beginning for the following week. I didn’t know that. It made me love challah even more than I already do. 

Babka dough is next. Like challah, it’s enriched and a joy to work with. I’ve eaten all kinds of babka (a filled sweet bread) - from date and fennel to cinnamon and almond – my eyes light up when Avi tells us this will be a s’mores babka! 

Charlotte enjoys licking the spoon while making a s'mores babka

Charlotte enjoys licking the spoon while making a s'mores babka - Credit: Leigh Brooksbank

While those two bowls are set to rise, we’re unleashed on a bowl of pre-measured beigel ingredients, which we add water to and knead, before being told we can add anything from around 40 different types of inclusions in store to the mix. These really were going to be ‘everything’ beigels. There was a whoop or cheer for practically every ingredient Avi listed off. Cheese: ‘ooh’. Jalapenos: ‘yum’. Blueberries: ‘yes!’. But maybe not all together. 

The groups’ efforts are along a similar theme. Mine stuffed with jalapeno, cheese, herbs, bacon and more black pepper than is probably sensible. 

Again, the dough is left to rest while we crack on making an actual bucket of salad/pickle Avi grew up with. We rip a whole head of iceberg lettuce, and slice cute baby cucumbers and red onion into the pail, topping with garlic, vinegar, sugar, salt and, alarmingly, a shedload of boiling water. “What is this wizardry?” I think to myself, having never seen pickles made like this before. The proof will be in the eating later. 

Our challahs are braided and popped in the oven next, before we move on to shape our beigels – cue the obligatory jokes about the best way to get a hole in the middle (come to this class with a sense of humour). 

The rounds are briefly dunked in hot sugared water, before taking their turn in the oven, with a spritz of water on the tray for added crunch. 

And then. Lunch. Avi’s prepared a vat of Jewish chicken soup. A soul soother. A culinary cuddle. The golden, savoury broth served with a fist-sized Matzo dumpling in the middle. Sublime. We’re also treated to a new product of Avi’s - the bialy, which is similar to a beigel but slightly softer and sweeter. They arrive with silky, slow-cooked onions in the hollow on top, each one crowned with a hunk of Avi’s homemade salt beef, pickles and a tear-inducing amount of mustard. Just the way they should be. Food nirvana. 

Fit to burst we move on, schmearing our babka dough with an insane amount of chocolate and hazelnut spread and marshmallow fluff...some of which may have ended up in our gobs, and in my case on the back of my neck! It’s definitely an ungodly, sinful creation and none of us can wait to try it later. Avi shows us how to shape and score it, and off the babka goes to cook after the challah, with the baker returning time and time again to the oven, dosing the already sucrose-heavy dough with sugar syrup. 

Rugelach dough is next up. Something I’ve never made before. The whole group have to hear about my unnatural (for a Jew by blood) aversion to cream cheese, a whole tub of which is emptied into a bowl with sugar, butter and flour. It’s a fun dough. Avi promises me it won’t taste of cheese.  

It’s cut into three and rolled out into circles - or, in a few of our cases, square-circles - before Avi shows us how to fashion the signature crescent shape. Mine are messy. I’m too busy thinking about the sweet, sweet chocolate bread in the oven. 

The day ends with the rugelach baking and us surveying our work. At least three bags of goodies. Enough to put a few families into a carb coma. My challah looks terrible. The braiding is too loose. It’s like a rubbish attempt at a Halloween-style bread mummy. It does, however, taste amazing that night topped with cool slivers of smoked salmon. 

The beigels are split and turned into pizzas for tea. The babka has a seriously caramelly crust that’s just addictive. And my mate Joel – a pickle fiend – makes off with the bucket of lettuce. 

A fun, informative foodie day that’s unlike any other cookery course I’ve been on. It’s informal. Properly hands-on. No one goes hungry. And there’s loads of chat. A proper Jewish kitchen. 

Book a session by emailing hello@bagelorbeigel.co.uk. It’s £180 per person for six hours including lunch, an apron to take home, all ingredients and recipes and, of course, the treats you make.