The Babka Boom
by Tami Ganeles-Weiser
What is babka? The iconic Jewish treat is similar to—but not exactly synonymous with—coffee cake (which is lighter, fluffier and sweeter), and it’s not quite rugelach (which has a flaky cream cheese dough and is made without yeast). Somewhere in between bread and cake, the (ideally rich and gooey) babka is often layered with cinnamon or chocolate and baked in a loaf pan.
Most evidence suggests that babka is simply a Jewish variation of gentile holiday sweets. It originated from baba, a centuries-old, several-feet-tall Eastern European yeasty bread-cake that was studded with fruits or nuts and served on holidays. According to popular theory, the word “babka” is the diminutive of baba, which means “grandmother” in many Eastern European tongues; as the cake became smaller, “babka” became a more accurate description. Baba-like bread-cakes are still served on holidays throughout Europe. In Italy, they are known as pan-ettone and pan d’oro, and in Germany they’re stollen and gugelhupf.
Although Eastern European immigrants brought their babka recipes with them to America, it took some time for babka to establish itself in the American Jewish culinary scene. Most Jewish immigrants around the turn of the 20th century were poor, and the bakers among them had little time for anything but the essentials. “In America the evidence suggests that the first Jewish bakeries baked only bread,” wrote Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg in Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. No cake or cookies, and certainly not babkas. That changed with the postwar economic boom and the abundance of wheat, sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate, which transformed bakeries into pastry shops—and babka into an after-dinner mainstay.
American Jewish bakers changed babka in at least one major way: They made it pareve, both so that it could be eaten after meat dinners and to make it easier to mass produce. Butter was replaced with Crisco or margarine, which was touted as healthier, less expensive and longer-lasting than butter—part of a baking revolution. Non-dairy babkas also meant leaving out milk—a significant departure from the baking techniques that define a babka, according to most experts. Traditional babka recipes called for scalded or powdered milk (or both), which gave it a distinctive flavor and a mild sweetness. Milk’s proteins also created babka’s trademark texture, with its many soft layers and resilient, almost stretchy, flakiness. “Simply put,” says Maggie Glezer, author of A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs, “real babka was always milchik [dairy].”
For the past 50 years, babkas produced for large-scale distribution have been non-dairy, and for a long time, most came from a single company, Green’s. Today, Green’s, founded in 1980 and based in Brooklyn, produces some 2,000 babkas a day and is touted by many as the ur-babka: In 2010, the popular website Serious Eats named Green’s the best traditional babka in New York City, saying, “It’s everything you’d want babka to be: moist, yeasty, swirly goodness. Never a bad bite.”
The modern babka generally comes in two flavors: chocolate and cinnamon. Chocolate wasn’t common for European Jewish-style babkas—which tended to be flavored with jam, cinnamon or raisins—but it exploded in popularity in the United States. Despite chocolate and cinnamon’s traditional hold, babka bakers in the 21st century have added new flavors. “In addition to the traditional fillings—cocoa and cinnamon—there are babkas with ricotta and raisins, honey and almonds, halvah,” says Janna Gur, author of Jewish Soul Food. Other versions are savory: Jewish food expert and writer Joan Nathan tracked down a recipe from two-star Michelin chef Thierry Marx of Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, France, filled with olive tapenade. Some bakeries have even veered into treif, stuffing babka with ham and cheese or sausage and eggs.
In a 1994 episode, the popular sitcom Seinfeld played up the purported rivalry between chocolate lovers and cinnamon devotees. The characters Jerry and Elaine stop at a Manhattan bakery to pick up a babka. Elaine wants a chocolate one and declares cinnamon “a lesser babka.” Jerry’s retort? “Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka.” The feud rages on. Regardless, whether chocolate or cinnamon, as Elaine says, “you can’t beat a babka.”
Raspberry and Almond Babka
Recipe by Tami Ganeles-Weiser
This delicate, feathery dough is easy to work with and even better to eat. You can add finely chopped dark chocolate to the filling, or use any top-quality preserves to make this recipe your own. Makes 3 babkas
¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, divided • 2 packages (14 grams) instant yeast • ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar, divided
4 cups (550 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting, divided • ½ cup (43 grams) nonfat dry milk
1 teaspoon salt • 4 eggs • 2 egg yolks • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract • 5 tablespoons (71 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
Raspberry Almond Filling
1 egg white, lightly beaten • ¼ cup (50 grams) Turbinado (raw) sugar
1 cup (320 grams) strained raspberry preserves (see Kitchen Tip) • 1 cup (130 grams) toasted blanched almonds, finely chopped
1. Make the dough: Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the milk into a saucepan set over medium heat and bring just to a boil, watching it carefully to ensure that it does not spill over the sides. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
2. Pour milk into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and add the yeast, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and ½ cup of the flour. Mix gently to combine and let stand for 7 to 8 minutes; it will be foamy.
3. Add the remaining sugar, the dry milk and salt and mix well. Add 2 of the eggs, the egg yolks and vanilla extract and mix well. Switch to a dough hook and add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, while mixing gently. Knead for 5 minutes. Then add the butter and continue to knead for another 3 minutes. It will be a sticky, wet dough at first, but it will become a smooth elastic ball that still sticks to the sides of the bowl a bit.
4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl into a clean, large mixing bowl, cover with a floured kitchen towel, and set aside at room temperature for 2 to 2½ hours until it has doubled in size. (This can also be done by covering the bowl with plastic and a kitchen towel and refrigerating overnight, but you’ll need to allow time for the dough to come back to room temperature.)
5. Spray 3 loaf pans with nonstick vegetable oil spray and line each with 2 pieces of parchment paper, one placed lengthwise and one crosswise, with a 3-inch overhang of parchment on each side to allow for easy removal. Place the dough, seam side down, into the pan.
6. Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the dough into 3 pieces (about 375 grams each). Working with one piece at a time, roll each into an 8- by 14-inch rectangle. Brush lightly with the beaten egg white. Sprinkle with one-third of the sugar. Then sprinkle one-third of the almonds and one-third of the preserves over the top, making sure to leave a border of about ½-inch bare around the edges.
7. Starting from the long side, roll up the dough tightly. Pinch the seam at the end, pressing gently. Lift and bend the roll in half; then twist from one end to the other and place in the prepared pan. Cover with greased plastic and let rise for about 1½ hours, until doubled in size. Repeat with the remaining rectangles of dough and the filling.
8. Preheat oven to 325°F. Make an egg wash by beating the remaining 2 eggs with the remaining 1 tablespoon milk. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash over the top. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the tops are firm, the babkas are golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out without any dough (there will be filling on it—it’s fine!). Cool in the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes. Then, using the paper overhangs, lift out and continue to cool on a cooling rack.
Strain the raspberry preserves in a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Use a spoon to stir and mash the preserves until all of the fruit has passed through the sieve and all the seeds are left behind. Use the fruit and discard the seeds.