Babka has long been a favorite in Jewish delicatessens, a tasty indulgence for breakfast or dessert. However, in recent years the treat has undergone a huge increase in popularity and become far more widely available. Those interested in the baking and pastry arts should take note of both the essential characteristics of babka and the more recent variations and innovations that have made it a trendy item across the country.
The babka basics
Featuring a moist, buttery, yeasty and exceptionally tender dough, babka is otherwise difficult to classify. It shares characteristics with cake, pastry and challah bread. Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted the differences between the babka popular with American Jews and the yeasty cake of the same name traditionally served in Eastern European countries like Poland and Bulgaria on Easter. The Eastern European version is usually made in a Bundt cake pan and has no filling. It is topped with simple syrup or confectioner’s sugar and fruit or nuts.
“Babka shares characteristics with cake, pastry and challah.”
On the other hand, as the Kitchn explained, bakers of Jewish babka roll the dough around a dark chocolate or cinnamon filling before slicing it into two long pieces. They then twist those pieces together before baking them in a loaf pan. Depending on the bakery, the sweet loaf is frequently finished off with touches like syrup, rum-soaked raisins, sultanas, cinnamon sugar or a streusel topping.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ari Weinzweig, the co-owner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., discussed the murky origins of the dish. The use of chocolate sets babka apart from other dishes traditionally enjoyed by Eastern Europe’s Jewish people. Considering that this ingredient would have been an extravagant luxury for the Jewish population in that region, Weinzweig argued that Jewish babka as we know it is in fact an American invention.
Fresh variations on babka
Delis and bakeries have made high-quality babka for years, earning a loyal following for the dessert. Breads Bakery in New York City is particularly renowned for filling their buttery dough with hazelnut-scented chocolate. The Village Voice named the dish one of the 100 best in the city for 2015.
Food editor Karen Tedesco explained, “Neither too sweet for snacking nor too humble for dessert, this babka is to ordinary yeast bread what a croissant is to an English muffin.”
“Bakers have developed unique hybrid forms of the dessert.”
Now, though, Bon Appetit reported that babka is expanding its appeal and becoming more commonly available across the country. This increase in popularity is thanks in part to bakers who have developed unique and appealing hybrid forms of the desert.
Still, New York City remains the focal point of babka experimentation. Russ and Daughters Cafe offers a chocolate babka french toast served with sour cream and berries. At the Flatiron location of Dough Donuts, you can try an amalgam of babka and doughnut called a doughka, which is available in both Mexican chocolate and banana-pecan varieties.
If you are interested in baking and pastries, you will likely explore many versions of the babka and even create your own. Sweet, tender and versatile, this traditional Jewish food has become an important offering for many bakeries.