Let Them Eat Babka
Now is the time to bake this traditional Jewish delicacy. Including special Shavuot recipe.
For millions of people around the world, the quintessential Jewish babka was introduced into the American consciousness by Jerry Seinfeld. In his 1994 episode “The Dinner Party”, Jerry and Elaine are invited to a dinner party and plan to buy a chocolate babka on the way. While they’re waiting in a bakery another couple buys the last one. Jerry and Elaine commiserate that no other cake is as tasty: “You can’t beat a babka!” The pair eventually spy another babka stuffed with cinnamon. Calling it the “lesser babka” they reluctantly buy the cake.
Babka is indeed a fantastic pastry: light and airy, with a yeasty fluffy dough containing swirls of sweet stuffing inside. Popular fillings include nuts and cinnamon, marzipan, jam and chocolate. While there are babka like cakes found throughout Eastern Europe, babka today is indelibly tied to Jewish cuisine. Sliced and served with a cup of tea or coffee, babka is the ideal dessert after a Shabbat or holiday meal.
Historians aren’t entirely sure where babka originated. Cookery writer Lesley Chamberlain, who specializes in Eastern European cuisine, thinks that babka, with its bread-like texture and taste, is reminiscent of the Italian festive pastry panettone. She posits that Queen Bona Sforza of Poland brought the pastry to Eastern Europe in the 1500s, where it evolved into a distinctively Eastern European confection.
Babkas were baked in high, wide, round pans, like panettone. They became popular throughout Eastern Europe, in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, the Baltics and Belarus. The name babka evolved from Baba, which means Grandma in several Eastern European languages, including Yiddish. Babka is a diminutive of baba, meaning “little grandma”.
Jewish bakers developed their own versions of babka, inextricably linked to the Jewish Shabbat. On Fridays, Jewish mothers and grandmothers would prepare large batches of sweet, fluffy bread dough for their family’s challah loaves. The dough was ideal for baking babka, and in many homes, housewives would prepare extra dough, then use it to bake babkas inside smaller bread pans. Jewish babkas were small and loaf-like, as opposed to the taller round versions their non-Jewish neighbors often made.
A key difference between Jewish and non-Jewish families’ babkas was the presence of oil versus butter. Non-Jewish housewives typically made their babkas with butter and milk, giving them an airy texture, much like the French loaves of sweet bread called brioche. Jewish women usually wanted their babka to be parve (without milk or meat products) so that they could be enjoyed after a festive Shabbat meal containing meat. Jewish bakers would add a streusel topping of sugar, flour and oil or margarine to the top.
Food historian Gil Marks notes that a special version of shikkera babka (literally “drunken grandma”) was drizzled with a syrup containing whiskey or rum and served on the Jewish holiday Purim. Polish Jews would break the fast on Yom Kippur with babka, and special “milchig” versions containing dairy were sometimes baked for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot when it’s customary to eat dairy foods. (Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, by Gil Marks. John Wiley & Sons: 2010.)
When Jewish families began emigrating from Eastern Europe to North America and elsewhere in the late 1800s, they brought their taste for babka with them. Many Jewish housewives began adding chocolate, now affordable, to their traditional babkas
Many families have their own beloved babka recipes. Here are three delicious versions to get you started.
Babka with Cinnamon and Raisins
- ¼ cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
- 1 envelope dry yeast (¼ oz or 2 ½ t)
- ¼ cup plus 1 t sugar
- About 2 ¾ to 3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 t salt
- ½ cup butter or margarine, melted, or vegetable oil
- 3 large eggs
- ½ cup plus 2 T warm milk or water
- 1 T cinnamon
- ⅓ to ½ cup white or brown sugar (for sprinkling)
- ½ cup raisins
Pour ¼ cup of water into small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over water. Sprinkle 1 t sugar over yeast. Let stand about 10 minutes or until foamy. Stir if not smooth. Oil a large bowl.
Fit food processor with dough blade. Combine 2 ¾ cups of flour, ¼ cup sugar, and salt in food processor. Process briefly to mix them. Add yeast mixture, 6 T melted butter or margarine or oil, and 2 of the eggs. With blades of processor turning, pour in milk or water. Process until ingredients come together into a soft dough. It will not form a ball. Process about 30 seconds to knead dough. Pinch dough quickly: if it sticks to your fingers, add more flour 1 T at a time until dough is no longer very sticky. Knead again by processing about 30 seconds or until smooth.
Remove dough from processor and shape it into a rough ball in your hands. Put dough in oiled bowl and turn dough over to oil all surfaces. Cover with warm, slightly damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in warm draft free area about 1 hour 15 minutes or until doubled.
Grease a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan. Mix cinnamon with ⅓ to ½ cup sugar. Roll or pat out dough into a 9 by 11 inch rectangle. Brush with 2 T melted butter or margarine or oil. Sprinkle evenly with cinnamon-sugar mixture, then with raisins. Press so raisins adhere to dough. Roll up tightly into a cylinder. Put dough in prepared loaf pan.
Cover loaf with a warm, slightly damp cloth and let rise about 1 hour or until nearly doubled. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Beat remaining egg with a pinch of salt. Brush risen loaf gently with beaten egg. Bake about 40 minutes or until top and bottom of loaf are firm and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on bottom. (Remove bread from oven before testing.) Run a metal spatula or a think knife carefully around loaf. Turn out of pan and cool on a rack.
Makes one loaf.
(From 1,000 Jewish Recipes by Faye Levy. IDG Book Worldwide: 2000.)
Chocolate Babka Meltaway
- 2/3 cups milk or unsweetened soymilk
- 2 large eggs
- 1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted but not hot
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
- 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast or bread machine yeast
- 4 cups bread flour
- Non-stick cooking spray
- 12 ounces good quality semisweet chocolate
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ½ stick butter or margarine, melted
- Crumb Topping:
- 1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 stick butter or margarine, melted
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or the bowl of a Magic Mill or Bosch mixer, beat the milk or soymilk, eggs, butter or margarine, water, sugar, salt and yeast, until combined. If using a stand mixer, switch to a dough hook. On low speed, incorporate the flour and mix until smooth, shiny dough is formed, about 6-7 minutes. If using a bread machine, add the ingredients to the pan according to manufacturer’s directions and set to dough cycle. You can also knead all the ingredients by hand until a smooth satiny dough is formed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
2. Meanwhile prepare the chocolate filling. On a cutting board, with a sharp knife, preferably serrated, very finely shop and shave the chocolate. Transfer it along with any of the shavings from the cutting board to a large bowl. If you don’t have good knife skills, you can transfer moderately sized chunks to the food processor to pulse until finely chopped. Return the chocolate to the large bowl. Mix in the sugar and cinnamon. Pour the warm melted butter over the mixture and stir until chocolate is coated and it looks like wet sand.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 2 (9-inch) springform pans with nonstick cooking spray.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a large 17X21 inch rectangle. Sprinkle on the chocolate filling in an even layer to cover all the dough. Starting with the long side of the rectangle, roll up the dough, jelly-roll fashion. You can use a bench scraper or thin metal spatula to help ease it off the counter and to help roll. Using a sawing motion, cut into 1 inch thick slices.
5. Place the rolls flat into the prepared springform pans. It’s okay if the rolls don’t completely fill the pan; they will expand as they bake.
6. Prepare the crumb topping. Place the confectioner’s sugar and all-purpose flour into a medium bowl. Add the melted butter or margarine and pinch to form large crumbs. Make sure they look moist, but don’t over pinch: leave most of the crumbs nice and big, about 1 inch.
7. Bake, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes, until the crumbs look dry, the chocolate looks melty, and the dough is baked and starting to brown in some spots. Do not overbake or the cake will be dry, especially if making in advance and reheating.
8. When ready to serve, release the spring on the pan and remove outside ring. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes one loaf.
(From Kosher by Design Cooking Coach by Susie Fishbein. Shaar Press: 2012)
Sweet Cheese Babka With Toasted Almond - a Shavuot Treat
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 1/2 cups bread four
- 2 tablespoons dried yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 5 tablespoons softened butter
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Up to 1 1/2 cups whole milk
Sweet cheese filling:
- 1 3/4 cups mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
- Small pinch salt
- 1 large egg
- 3/4 cup sliced, blanched almonds
For later: Egg wash (1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water) for brushing cakes before baking.
Basting Syrup (to add to babka once it comes out of the oven)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cups water
- 1/4 cup butter, optional
- Few drops lemon juice
- 1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches in length)
To make the dough:
In an extra-large bowl, combine flours, dried yeast, salt and sugar, mixing briefly after each addition.
Add the butter, and work it into the flour mixture using your fingertips.
Lightly beat eggs and add to the flour mixture along with the vanilla extract.
Mix to combine, then add milk a bit at a time until the flour is moistened enough to form a dough without being sticky.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured working surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 5 to 10 minutes.
Form the dough into a ball, and return it to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until at least tripled in size. Allow a few hours at least for this step to ensure your dough has risen to its maximum.
After the dough has risen, you can either work with it immediately, or store it in a plastic bag (squeeze out any excess air) or airtight container in the fridge for up to three days before using.
To make the filling:
Whisk all ingredients together except the almonds to create a smooth mixture. Use immediately, or cover and keep in the fridge for 1-2 days. Reserve the almonds for sprinkling over the formed cake just before baking.
To make syrup for basting the Babka once it comes out of the oven:
In a medium saucepan add all the syrup ingredients.
Bring to a light boil without stirring, and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved completely and the syrup has thickened slightly. Skim off any foam made by the butter.
Evenly pour about 1/2 cup of the hot syrup over the hot cakes just after they come out of the oven. If the syrup has cooled, reheat just before removing cakes from the oven.
To assemble the Babka:
Roll dough into a rectangle shape about half-an-inch thick, fill and roll up like a jelly roll and seal the open seam at the end by pinching it together with your fingers
Move the jelly roll 90 degrees so that it lays vertically in front of you, and push down on the top to flatten slightly.
Cut completely in half down the middle using a very sharp knife, then turn the two strands so the swirled insides face outwards, while the strands are laying back to back.
Twist the strands around each other 2 to 3 times, and place down into a parchment-lined, 8-inch loaf pan.
Let babka rise over the top of the pan (about 1 hour), then brush with egg wash, top with desired topping (if using) and bake for 30 to 35 minutes at 350°. A properly baked loaf should be deep golden brown and have a firm exterior with a little give when push down on.
Once baked, remove the cake from the oven and immediately baste with 1/2 cup hot syrup.
Let cool completely before serving.
Makes three loaves.
Recipe adapted from Jessica Halfin’s The Babka Bible, Hadassah Magazine, February 2019.