Shawn McKenzie has big plans for Penny’s Coffee — and they involve za’atar.
Penny’s, known for its modern design, artisanal coffee, and crepes, added Shawn to the team in the fall as its culinary director. In March, they unveiled their in-house bakery. On the menu: tahini babka, bourekas, and — new this week — challah.
Shawn joined the team heavy on pastry experience, but not quite as practiced in Israeli cuisine. “I think [owner Ben Hertz] knew I was adaptable,” she says. “He wanted an Israeli Jewish feel, and I was down for the challenge.”
In the fall Shawn embarked on a culinary tour of Israel. “You know when you take a trip somewhere and you think ‘oh yeah, I could totally live here?’ I could totally live there just because of the food.”
With the guidance of tour guide Arava Allon, Shawn received a crash course of Israeli flavors and toured the kitchens of some of Israel’s best bakeries. Below, some of the most influential (and delicious) places she visited.
THE SHUKS | Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Shawn has been making her way through a one pound bag of za’atar she bought from an off-the-beaten-path shop at a market near the Old City in Jerusalem.
“We’d be looking and looking at all of the people selling spices,” says Shawn, “and finally [Arava] would say, ‘THIS is the best.’ Hopefully, my second round of spices will be coming from the same place.”
Penny’s plans to offer pita baked with za’atar and olive oil, and Shawn experimented with a za’atar scone. Ultimately, she decided on a different home for the za’atar: sprinkled on top of a flaky boureka. Our verdict? It’s delicious. “Every bite has something different,” says TC Jewfolk editor Lonny Goldsmith. “That’s hard to do.”
PORT SA’ID | TLV
Ironically, in the great sweet versus savory debate, Shawn is team savory. So, it’s no surprise that her favorite meals in Israel were salads.
The best one, says Shawn, was at the restaurant Port Sa’id. She fell in love with a simple salad — herbs, parsley, radish, and kale. And the icing on the cake — a burnt challah crouton.
“With challah, you have that cotton candy type texture, and in the crouton you still have it, yet you have a crunchy burnt quality.”
After Shawn and her team at Penny’s find a rhythm with their pastry options, she plans to incorporate savory offerings. A Port Sa’id-inspired salad is part of that plan.
Shawn and Ben hadn’t considered babka before their trip to Israel, but after a trip to Lehamin Bakery in Jerusalem and spying the rolling carts overflowing with babka, it was a must.
“My babka isn’t super traditional,” says Shawn. “It’s me taking challah dough and reworking it.”
A departure from the standard cinnamon or chocolate babka, the Penny’s babka is fluffier and swirled with grapefruit marmalade and tahini. Of the new menu items, Shawn says the babka is one of the biggest hits—and we can see why.