The Ubiquity of Babka
by Laura Di Lembo
Babka comes to us from Eastern Europe, Old World yeasted sweet bread to take with sips of scalding tea. Babka is suddenly making an appearance in my life after a very long absence.
What strikes me as odd about this is that during my childhood, I believed it was an insider’s secret from my Ashkenazi Jewish family, gracing our tables because we knew the select kosher or Polish bakeries that made babka. We bought it, but babka wasn’t mainstream, not seen in cookbooks or in the world at large outside of my predominantly Jewish neighbourhood near Montreal.
And then, recently, like a time warp, babka is back! It’s making appearances on award-winning food blogs and in highly acclaimed cookbooks. If we take our cues from New York City, it’s clear that babka is now enjoying some well-deserved attention. Articles in the New York Times are singing its glory and long lineups at Manhattan’s Breads Bakery every morning at 11a.m. when babka appears are a testament to the loyal following.
I recently purchased Breads Bakery’s cookbook: Breaking Breads, A New World of Israeli Baking by Uri Scheft and there is a whole chapter on babka. As if the traditional chocolate, cinnamon and walnut versions weren’t inspiring enough, we now have halvah babka, ricotta streusel babka, babka pie, apple babka, savoury za’atar babka twists and poppy seed babka. These are glorious, golden creations, offering loads of rolling, filling, twisting, proofing, baking and noshing entertainment.
My initiation to babka-making began with Yotam Ottolenghi’s much-loved book Jerusalem. His babka is called a krantz cake, and it takes a standard babka many steps beyond the basics. Richly veined with the most unctuous chocolate/nut mix, it’s topped with a glaze that sweetly crackles on the teeth. And the technique makes me swoon: slather the dough with the delicious goop, roll it up and then slice it along its length to reveal the striations. Twist these strands together, co-joined in a bread pan. Each slice reveals babka’s inner heart of chocolate and nuts, taunting you to take the next piece because you can see exactly how much generous filling awaits you.
With babka enjoying the populist glory it deserves, and debates raging about which ones are best, let’s settle it right now and make our own, which are always the most loved. I offer up an exquisite range of flavours and techniques, the classic chocolate/nut version as well as one with a silky halvah and tahini filling, and a savoury goat cheese and za’atar rendition. We will perform some rolling and slicing, as well as some twisting and turning today in the kitchen. Let’s get messy...
First things first: there are two basic ways to make babka dough, one Easy and one Complicated. I give you Easy. And we use this easy base recipe for all three of our creations.
Read article in the digital issue of City Palate.