How chef Chef Shai Lavi creates Yemenite kubaneh

The delicate layers of this ancient Jewish bread might have inspired the French croissant

Anatomy of a Dish: Yemenite kubaneh
Yemenite kubaneh

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

There’s nothing like waking up to the aroma of baking bread, especially bread that brings back memories of home. Yemenite kubaneh is commonplace in many Jewish homes and touches all the senses. Hues of brown, a crispy crust, and a slightly sour fragrance indicate its readiness. Pull the brioche apart with your hands, and you’ll expose its beautiful swirls and feathery, flaky layers. Some historians believe that kubaneh, a relative of another Yemenite Jewish pastry called jachnun, predates puff pastry and inspired the French croissant.

Chef Shai Lavi (owner of the Third Space dining experience near Krog Street) grew up eating it in Israel on Shabbat, when lighting fires and turning on electrical devices were forbidden. His mother braided the loaves in thin aluminum pots and left them to slow-bake overnight in a gas oven.

But it wasn’t until Lavi launched his own culinary career that he became curious about the technique, and asked his Yemeni best friend’s mother to show him how to make her version. Lavi experimented with different variations at his former bakery (Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee) and adapted the ancient recipe to modern-day technology and quality ingredients.

Making kubaneh is time-consuming but not complicated. Lavi starts off with basic bread dough—flour, water, yeast, salt—mixed together in a stand mixer, then divides it into smaller, manageable balls. He then flattens each ball into a thick disk using a rolling pin. These are soaked in a bath of extra-virgin olive oil overnight in the fridge, to add fat and flavor without making the dough too moist and heavy.

When he’s ready to bake, he stretches the disks out further by hand, similar to how pizza dough is stretched. Then he swiftly folds each sheet, rolling, twisting, and braiding, and neatly arranges them in greased cast iron pots of all shapes and sizes. A generous amount of butter and a sprinkle of sel gris (gray sea salt) complete the human interaction, and now it’s time to introduce heat.

Lavi proofs the bread at room temperature until the dough doubles in size, then bakes it, covered, at 475°F for approximately 30 minutes.

Like one’s memories, any flavors can be infused into the kubaneh. Sprinkle on za’atar or nigella seeds, or stuff it with cheese, ground meat, dried fruits, or nuts.

Traditionally, kubaneh is served as part of a breakfast meal, along with zhoug (hot sauce) and baked eggs. Grate fresh tomatoes to make a condiment called resek agvaniyot. You could also easily dunk this irresistible treat into your favorite dips, wintry soups, or even your morning coffee.

This article appears in our January 2024 issue.