Feeding a community: Ravenna bakery helps nourish the city's growing Jewish population

Friday is the busiest day of the week at Leah's Catering & Bakery. Well before the sun sets and the Jewish Sabbath begins, the shelves will be empty of all the challah, kugel, knishes, babka, cakes and salads that Leah Lucrisia and her staff prepare under kosher supervision.

"The Sabbath meal is like Thanksgiving dinner for religious Jews," says Lucrisia. "Imagine having to come up with a feast like that every week. Here they can buy everything but the chicken."

Chicken is prohibited at Leah's because her catering kitchen is a dairy-only operation while the bakery is pareve, or neutral. Kosher laws prohibit the marriage of dairy and meat in cooking, serving or eating. Products designated pareve contain neither meat nor dairy. That means the pastry at Leah's is made with margarine, not butter, soymilk is used in the cupcake icing, and you won't find a cheese Danish.

Linda Burns lives on Capitol Hill, but every Friday she makes a pilgrimage to Ravenna for Leah's challah, the sweet, white, egg-enriched bread that observant Jews must have on the Sabbath.

For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration that began at sundown Monday the challah were baked in special crown-shaped loaves, and Burns has ordered every kind Leah's makes: plain, wheat, raisin and mixed fruit.

To ensure a "sweet New Year" she'll have honey cakes as well, including Leah's chocolate honey loaf flavored with espresso, Canadian whiskey and orange juice.

"Leah's is a rare thing to find in this area. It's real kosher food, and it's good," says Burns, who keeps a kosher kitchen in her Capitol Hill condo, and baked her own challah in the days when she lived in a house in Laurelhurst with two kitchens (one for dairy, the other for meat) that were mirror images of each other. She recently calculated that she spends about $3,000 a year on food from Leah's.

"Before Leah's came along, I would have challah Fed Ex'ed from the East because I just didn't care for any you could buy in Seattle," she says.

Baking challah was how Lucrisia began her catering career four years ago, after 20 years working as a fashion designer. Raised Catholic in predominantly Jewish Seward Park, Lucrisia says she didn't grow up eating kosher food but was always a baker.

Nine years ago, when she converted to Orthodox Judaism, it changed her life in more ways than she could have foreseen.

"It's hard when you start living the Orthodox life to get a job that's going to give you Friday night. When I was doing free-lance fashion design, I'd make trips to Hong Kong leaving Sunday and coming back Thursday night. Those were killer trips," Lucrisia recalls.

Once she started baking challah as a sideline, she discovered a demand for Jewish caterers. Eventually she had three separate kitchens in her home to comply with kosher laws, and she has doubled her business every year since she started.

In spring 2000, Lucrisia moved her catering operation to a minuscule storefront on Northeast 65th. The 600-square-foot space doesn't even have a stove, just portable butane burners and several convection ovens, but from it her staff of about a dozen work 15-18 hours per day in staggered shifts, catering everything from dinners for 40 to bar mitzvah receptions for 400.

"One weekend we had three synagogues and 600 people to feed out of here. It gets intense sometimes," says Lucrisia, "but my crew gets me through."

By last September, business was almost too good.

"Last Rosh Hashanah scared me," she confesses. "We had 12 people working at one time in this tiny kitchen. We joked that we had to go around the table in one direction and whoever had the tray had the right of way. All the food had to be sold outside. We baked challah for 18 hours straight, and they were lined up in white bags with names on them from one end of the block to the other.

"People would drive by and honk for their order."

Room for a cafe

This year, Lucrisia was ready for the Rosh Hashanah rush. She took over the Morningstar Bakery space across the street last January, which added 2,800 square feet to the operation, allowing room for a cafe.

She also brought in chef Benoit Daures as her business partner. "He makes sure my knives are sharp," jokes the woman who says she got her culinary schooling in ninth-grade home-ec class.

"It's nice to have the cafe," says Lucrisia, "because there aren't many places for kosher where people can sit and eat." In a short time, Leah's has become a gathering place for the Jewish community.

Linda Burns says she often comes by on Sunday to eat tomato-and-cheese sandwiches or matzoh-ball soup (made with vegetable broth, not chicken). "Leah's reminds me of the Jewish neighborhood where I grew up in Minneapolis," she says. "There were lots of kosher shops, and you'd always see people you knew. Seattle has never really had anything like that."

Indeed, the block of Northeast 65th Street straddled by Leah's Catering & Bakery is becoming something of a center for Jewish food and culture. Leah's bakes bread for the Panini Grill next door, a kosher eatery despite its Italian-sounding name. On the other side of Leah's is Bagel Oasis, where certain products including the bagels are made under kosher specifications.

Anchoring the corner across the street is Tree of Life, a bookstore and gift shop selling a range of Judaica from prayer books to kosher wine to "The Cat in the Hat" in Hebrew.

Michele Yanow, who with Emily Freedman owns Tree of Life, points out that the Jewish population in the north end has grown considerably.

"Within a few miles of here you have five synagogues, the Jewish Community School and a community center, and all those congregations are getting bigger," she says.

Overall, Seattle's Jewish community, which numbers 37,180, has increased 27 percent in the past decade, according to a study commissioned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. That study confirms the significant growth in the Jewish population in the north end — up more than 50 percent in the past decade — and shows that more than one-third of the Jewish community resides north of the Ship Canal.

Two tons of challah

That the Jewish community is migrating north is not news to the busy staff at Leah's. On an average Friday, they might sell 600 pounds of challah, but over the next three to four weeks, with Rosh Hashanah closely followed by several other Jewish holidays — they expect to move at least two tons of the sweet loaves.

Coming up are Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, sundown Sept. 26 through sundown Sept. 27, and Sukkot, a harvest festival in early October. . (The bakery is closed during some holiday periods. Call ahead, at 206-524-4020, before visiting.)

"We probably see people from other neighborhoods a little more frequently now that they are picking up their challah from Leah's on Fridays," acknowledges Yanow. "But the question on everyone's lips is when will there be a real kosher meat restaurant in town. I think if someone wanted to start one, they'd be smart to do it on our block."

A meat kitchen is on Lucrisia's wish list, too.

Providence Cicero can be reached at providencecicero@aol.com