When Paula Shoyer, the Chevy Chase, Md., pastry chef and cookbook author was invited to conduct a cooking demonstration for a group of enthusiastic foodies at a Brooklyn, N.Y., Jewish center, she never expected to be standing in the very kitchen where as a little girl she first learned the art of baking.

“After the house was sold, it changed hands a couple of times,” explains Shoyer of the Oceanside residence at 3844 Lyme Avenue where Shoyer and her late grandmother, Sylvia Altman, baked traditional Jewish desserts from scratch.

Shoyer, author of The Kosher Baker: 160 Dairy-Free Desserts From Traditional to Trendy, learned that the family home now housed Chabad-Lubavitch of Sea Gate.

“My grandmother introduced me to pareve desserts in that kitchen,” Shoyer fondly recalls, referring to baked goods that per Jewish dietary law can be served with either meat or dairy dishes.

Prior to last month’s cooking class, attended by 45 women in the Sea Gate community, Shoyer hadn’t visited the home for 17 years.

“I thought I was going to be upset and very overwhelmed by the emotion,” admits Shoyer of the momentous experience. “Instead, I had this absolute feeling of calm and peace, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It felt completely natural, like I was in my own kitchen.”

“It was such a thrill to see Paula cooking in my mother's kitchen,” gushes Toby Marcus, Shoyer’s mother. “I felt like my mom’s soul was beaming with pride.”

“As Paula demonstrated her cook techniques all I could see and smell was scenes from my childhood over 60 years ago,” adds Ethelind Altman Weiner, Shoyer’s aunt. “I cried tears of joy as I witnessed our heritage passed from my grandmother, a restaurant owner in Brooklyn, to the fourth generation. Paula is a real culinary star.”

Ironically, Shoyer, who grew up in Long Island amidst a slew of kosher bakeries and attended a local Orthodox yeshiva, never intended on becoming a rising star in the world of kosher cakes and cookies. Upon graduating from Brandeis University in 1986 as a pre-med major, she entered law school at American University and became a successful environmental attorney.

It wasn’t until Shoyer and her husband, an international trade lawyer, moved to Geneva, Switzerland, that her epicurean interests took flight.

“I thought it would be fun,” recalls Shoyer of her decision to enroll in Ritz Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Française in Paris, from where she received her pastry diploma. “I wasn’t looking for a new career.”

Paula Shoyer grew up in the Oceanside home.
Paula Shoyer grew up in the Oceanside home.

But Shoyer, who adheres to Jewish dietary laws, soon ran into a culinary quandary.

“I was learning all these delicious dairy desserts, but I couldn’t serve them with meat dishes for Shabbat,” she explains. “So I decided to make pareve versions. I started substituting margarine in for butter and non-dairy creamer in for milk. It was a lot of trial and error.”

Word of mouth spread and the budding pâtissière was suddenly in demand, baking desserts for friends’ birthday celebrations and dinner parties in and around Geneva.

“The next thing you know, I’ve got a catering business,” says Shoyer, who also taught cooking classes in French to raise money for Jewish organizations.

After returning to the States, Shoyer launched Paula’s Parisian Pastries, giving instruction in pastry making and Jewish cooking to kids and adults – including those with special needs – in the Washington, D.C., area and throughout the country. Soon after, cookbook author Susie Fishbein enlisted Shoyer to edit the best-selling Kosher by Design Entertains and Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen.

The Kosher Baker, which includes gluten-free, vegan and kosher for Passover recipes, was inspired by Shoyer’s desire to meet the gastronomical needs of not only Jews, but people with other dietary restrictions, such as diabetics.

“I just really enjoy the challenge of creating amazing new desserts like pastry puffs, biscotti and tarts that can be enjoyed by everyone,” relates Shoyer. “My job is to make baking easier and to show people there are ways to work around these challenges.”

Paula Shoyer is the author of "The Kosher Baker: 160 Dairy-Free Desserts From Traditional to Trendy."
Paula Shoyer is the author of "The Kosher Baker: 160 Dairy-Free Desserts From Traditional to Trendy."

Since Kosher Baker’s publication, Shoyer has fielded countless letters from grateful fans who’ve rediscovered their Jewish roots through her traditional yet on-trend recipes.

“I get emails from people all the time telling me that I’ve gotten them in the kitchen and connected them to their grandparents,” she reveals.

“Sometimes it’s not just a kosher blintz,” adds Rivkah Brikman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Sea Gate. “It’s about how Jewish cooking can impact the next generation.”

Nechama Shemtov, director of education and programming for American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, D.C., and founder and director of Aura Jewish Women, dubs Shoyer “a Jewish Rachael Ray.”

“Everybody connects with Paula,” says Shemtov, who’s played an instrumental role in forwarding Shoyer’s career within the Chabad events circuit. “She combines her passion for food and her commitment to Judaism and her love for bringing her family and friends together and brings them all together in her presentations. It’s a recipe for success.”

But while Shoyer remains ever passionate about the beauty of kosher cuisine and pareve deserts, she’s also motivated by pure epicurean pleasures: “Every time I walk into a bakery or an event and I see those three-layered rainbow-colored cakes or those same boring old jelly rolls, I think to myself, ‘Aha! So this is why I became a kosher pastry chef.’”