Eating Jewish: Babka
With all the delicious desserts that are part of the Ashkenazi culinary repertoire it’s hard to choose a favorite, but I think that after trying many of them I can safely say that babka is my favorite. My love for babka only developed relatively recently but it’s a strong one. I owe my introduction to this delightful dessert to my wonderful friend and fellow blogger Alma Heckman. We lived together in Boston over the summer of 2008 when we both cooked and ate considerable amounts of Jewish food. One of our culinary adventures involved a trip to a kosher grocery store where we purchased my initiatory chocolate filled babka. It was rich with countless layers of gooey filling that made my first bite a revelation, of sorts. There was no looking back and I knew right then that I had to make up for all the time I had been missing out on eating this dessert. Needless to say, a lot of babka was consumed that summer and upon my return to Montreal I made it my mission to find a bakery where I could buy this treat when the craving hit. Having found babka that pleased my taste buds just as much as that first one did, I’ve been a regular babka buyer ever since but I thought it was time to try my hand at making my own.
According to Gil Marks in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, babka originates from the areas of Poland and Ukraine. The name of this dessert is derived from the Slavic word for grandmother, babcia, and is a form of endearment. Two possibilities from which the name of this dessert was derived include the fact that when it was baked in its traditional Polish pan, the fluted sides the pan created were similar to an old woman’s skirt. The other reason is simply that grandmothers were the primary bakers of the dessert and it was thus named after them. In the early nineteenth century in Poland, housewives would spread the extra dough from the egg challah they made for Shabbat with jam, cinnamon or raisins and bake it along with the challah to make the precursor to what we have come to know as babka. In turn, although non-Jews also made babka, the variety made by Jews usually contained oil rather than butter in order to ensure they were pareve and could be eaten after meat meals. The traditional filling for babka is cinnamon, however other fillings now include chocolate, cheese, almond paste, poppy seed, walnut or apricot lekvar (apricot butter). It was only in the 1950s that babka started becoming well known outside of Polish Jewish areas in the United States, when they began appearing in Jewish bakeries and in sisterhood cookbooks. It then went on to receive national recognition when it was made a point of discussion between Elaine and Jerry in this Seinfeld episode.
Making babka is a long process that requires the good part of a day to make. Most of that time is needed for the dough to rise so there’s no active work involved but I would still recommend choosing to make this on a day when not much else has to be done. This recipe produces a dough that is both sweet and rich, and is a cross between bread and cake. There is a slight dryness to the dough that is perfectly complemented by the filling that is sandwiched between the layers of dough and becomes deliciously sticky and gooey after being baked. It’s the abundant layers that I think make babka so delicious, and in order to get this effect, make sure to roll the dough tightly, making small folds. I will definitely be using this technique next time I make babka to get the profusion of swirls I love so much. Both the chocolate and the cinnamon fillings I chose to make were equally delicious with just the right amount of sweetness making the babka perfect as a decadent breakfast treat or as a snack along with tea or coffee.
So whether you prefer chocolate or cinnamon, try making your own babka and I can assure you that nothing will beat that first slice of freshly baked babka.
Dough From Gil Mark’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast or 1 (0.6-ounce) cake fresh yeast
½ cup warm water or ¼ cup warm water and ¼ cup warm milk
½ cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil or unsalted butter
4 large eggs, or 2 large eggs and 2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
About 4 ¼ cups bread or unbleached all-purpose flour
Babka fillings (recipes follow)
½ to 1 cup raisins, dried currants, or coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
Egg wash (1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water) or egg white for brushing
Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, remaining water, remaining sugar, butter, eggs, salt, and enough flour to make a dough that holds together. Knead until smooth and springy, about 5 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.
Once the dough has risen, turn it out on a lightly floured surface or in an electric mixer with a dough hook, knead the dough, adding more flour as needed, until smooth and springy, about 5 minutes. Place back into the oiled bowl (adding more oil if necessary) and turn to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise again in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours. You may also cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. If refrigerating, let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before using.
Punch down the dough and divide in half. Roll each piece into 12-by-8 inch rectangles, about 1/3 inch thick. Spread each with the same or different fillings, leaving a 1 inch border on all sides. If using, sprinkle with the raisins or chopped walnuts. Brush the edges with a little egg wash to help seal the babka. Starting from the narrow end, roll up jelly-roll style and pinch the seams to seal.
Place each babka, seam side down, in a greased 9-by-5 inch loaf pan, 9-inch tube pan or 10-inch round cake pan; each pan should be no more than two-thirds full. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees if using glass pans)
Brush each babka with the egg wash. Bake until the babkas are golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let stand in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool. Wrap and store at room temperature for up to 2 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Cinnamon Filling From Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
1 cup brown or granulated sugar, or ½ cup each
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted margarine or butter, melted
2 tablespoons honey or corn syrup
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon. Stir in the butter and honey to make a smooth paste.
Chocolate Filling From Gil Marks’ The World of Jewish Cooking
½ cup sugar
1/3 cup ground walnuts or bread crumbs
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
2 tablespoons water or milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine all of the ingredients. If the mixture is too thin, stir in a little more walnuts or bread crumbs. If too thick, stir in a little more water.