Most people have never heard of Murray Jaffe. But if you shop at stores that stock mainstream natural foods
like Whole Foods, you are familiar with products from a company called Barbara’s. From the best instant mashed potatoes (yes, there is such a thing–I use them in bread machine recipes all the time) to dry cereals with no refined sugar, the man who conceived, created, and promoted the products is Murray Jaffe. The moniker Barbara is the name of his daughter.
Murray, a longtime resident of the Napa area, which is the portal to California wine country, passed away in 2009, rounding the 90 mark.
Locals in the Palo Alto area remember Barbara’s Bakery off California Street in the early 1970s across from the courthouse and around the corner from New Age Natural Foods, the first natural foods grocery store (owned by Fred Rohe and Paul Hawken of the future Smith and Hawken), which had its own mill house in the center of the store. These were the days of Acme Bakery in Berkeley, Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, all sorts of mom and pop bakeries in Santa Cruz, and Tassajara Bakery in San Francisco up the hill from the Haight—the movement for rich, flavorful breads made by hand with freshly ground wheat to counter the commercial breads pumped up with chemicals that sat for a week on supermarket shelves. There was no storefront, just double doors opening up into the parking lot. The bake ovens and Hobart mixer were in full view and an old wooden kitchen table was set up with the bread for sale.
Barbara developed and baked the Tassajara-style whole grain loaf breads, a rage at the time, and I still remember a flavorful, moist sesame whole wheat bread. The secret was a very fine grind whole wheat flour from Guisto’s in South San Francisco and golden unrefined sesame oil. That still is a bread that stands out for its unique flavor. Locals embraced the bakery and it became a standard shopping stop for those in the know. “Within a few weeks, the San Jose Mercury News sent out a photographer and ran a great double page story on the bakery,” reminisces Murray. ”It really helped us get the word out.”
Murray ran the back, his wife manned the sale table, and soon he had to hire two young men to work the heavy bakery schedule when Barbara left the baking fold and headed to a kibbutz in Israel. After two years, Murray purchased a packaging machine for his products (everything up to then had been done by hand), closed the retail outlet and went wholesale. His product line expanded and he even ended up working in conjunction with Granny Goose to develop his potato chips.
Although he sold the multimillion dollar Petaluma-based company in the 1990s after twenty years in the business, Jaffe’s retirement years were still marked with his characteristic entrepreneurial spirit, planning his next food-related venture and writing a humble little cookbook with his favorite cookies, cakes, muffins, and pies called The Perfect Recipe Baking Book. It is one of my favorite books and always in easy reach atop piles of dessert books.
And perfect they are. Culled from his world travels, the banana nut bread came from a hotel on Maui, and the bran muffins from a coffee and treats stand on Victoria Island outside the gardens. This isn’t a muddle of recipes–just one or two of the best straightforward classics you really make–brownies, a New York Cheesecake (“I made over 20 variations of the recipe before I got the perfect one,” says Murray.), apple crisp, peach cobbler, coconut macaroons, the notoriously persnickety snickerdoodles (the first cookies I ever made in home ec class), buttermilk biscuits, blueberry muffins, a golden yellow cake, a strawberry shortcake, a sponge cake and the like. The book didn’t sell a lot, probably to down to earth in a world of fancy cookbooks, so it went out of print fast. But it is still available on Amazon.com for pennies.
When I asked Murray to name his favorite recipe, I was pleased to hear Blondies. “My wife swears she won’t eat any more of these, but can’t help herself,” says Murray with a chuckle. Many people prefer butterscotch blondies to brownies. A friend who rarely bakes, claims she made the best Blondies granny-style– with just a wooden spoon and a bowl. The recipe came from Murray’s book.
So, I set to work making the rich brownie-without-the-chocolate bar cookie with my Kitchen Aid. Bar cookies use a drop cookie recipe proportions but you pat it all into a pan and cut the portions from the single block. Murray adds chocolate chips to his; I didn’t have any, so I used white chocolate chips and a heaping tablespoon of candied ginger with walnuts. Since brown sugar is the critical flavor here, I use dark brown sugar to get that great butterscotch flavor. I couldn’t find the right pan, so I made them into individual 5-inch heart-shaped cookies in some pretty pans I had and rarely use. They turned out perfect and didn’t even stick to the pan when I turned them out to cool on the rack. Need I report that they were a hit?