Once upon a time, there was a lowly twisted loaf of bread called the babka. It was a cast-off, an afterthought made when leftover dough was dusted with cinnamon or dabbed with jam and baked alongside the star of the show, the Jewish celebratory challah. Babka was dry and crumbly, lovely to look at, but more of a doorstop than a delight. That was then; now babkas have become internet sensations, garnering more Instagram traffic than a clan of Kardashians.
The journey of the babka has almost as many twists and turns as the bread itself. Originally baked in a tall pan with fluted sides, the shape of the loaf was reminiscent of the skirts of an old woman. Perhaps that explains the name—babka, which is Yiddish for “little grandmother,” is thought to have originated in 18th-century Ashkenazi Jewish communities, where those long matronly skirts were a common sight.
When those Ashkenazi families emigrated to America, they discovered luxurious ingredients they dared not even dream of in their homeland. Chocolate, hazelnut spread, and almond paste were affordable and began to appear in babkas. Yet, the little loaf remained in relative obscurity . . . until February 3, 1994, when the episode "Dinner Party" of Seinfeld was broadcast.
Suddenly, the dry, crumbly afterthought was plucked from obscurity to near nobility. Everyone wanted babka—obviously, they didn’t know what they were asking for. It was still dry, crumbly, and simply an antoyshung (disappointment).
Why should something stay crappy just because it’s been crappy in the past?
— Peter Shelsky, co-owner of Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, a non-traditional Jewish delicatessen and eatery
The Bread Gets a Makeover
And the world waited. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, it was another 18 years until the joy of rich, luxurious babka would be revealed. Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian chef Sami Tamini cowrote Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Within its pages was a recipe for a brioche-like chocolate babka, enriched with butter and eggs, the dough slit vertically to reveal mahogany layers of dark chocolate, the crust glistening with a syrupy glaze, the heraldry of Middle Eastern baking.
1. Cinnamon Babka
Our first recipe is a traditional cinnamon-swirled babka. The flavor and aroma are reminiscent of cinnamon rolls but in a loaf form. Wonderful on its own, but if you have leftovers, it makes the most amazing French toast!
2. Chocolate Babka
Imagine that a sweet (but not too sweet) cake and a chocolate croissant fell in love and had a baby—this chocolate babka would be the result. This is the babka of your dreams. Let me suggest that if you are going to invest your time in creating a beautiful babka, use the best quality chocolate you can find for this loaf.
3. Cranberry Orange Babka
You can use either fresh or frozen berries in this cranberry orange babka. Orange zest flavors the dough, the filling, and even the orange glaze. This is a perfect loaf for the fall and winter holidays.
4. Cream Cheese Blueberry Babka
Buttery dough envelopes swirls of sweetened cream cheese and quick, made-from-scratch blueberry preserves to create this cream cheese blueberry babka. This recipe makes two babka loaves so you have one to stash in your freezer when you need delicious homemade bread in no time at all.
5. Double Chocolate Babka
There is one thing more wonderful than the chocolate babka—are you ready for a double chocolate babka? The dough is soft and pillowy; it has the earthy warm flavor and aroma of chocolate without being too sweet. This filling is rich and dark with a dual punch of cocoa from Dutch-process cocoa and almost a full cup of dark chocolate chunks. Purists will stick with a strictly chocolate loaf; some of us enjoy a bit of orange zest stirred into the filling.
6. Gluten-Free Cinnamon Babka
Gluten-free baking no longer results in a leaden loaf of bread. Kitchen wizards have developed the exact proportions of non-wheat flours, cornstarch, and xanthan gum to replicate the taste and texture of wheat bread without gluten. This recipe for gluten-free cinnamon babka can be adapted to use any of the other fillings discussed in this article.
7. Pecan Pie Babka
In many homes, pecan pie is a part of the Thanksgiving feast tradition. May I offer a twist (pun intended) on that sweet-sticky dessert? How about a pecan pie babka?
8. Pesto Babka
This pesto babka has a soft, tender crumb and a generous amount of pesto swirled throughout. It would be a perfect accompaniment to a spaghetti dinner, or as a side with roast chicken or a main dish salad.
9. Pizza Babka
Swirls of bread, savory rich tomato sauce, and ooey-gooey melted cheese—what more does one need in life? Pizza babka isn't kosher, but it sure is good.
10. Raspberry Almond Babka
Almond paste and raspberry are perfect partners in this raspberry almond babka. Almond paste is a product that’s made with blanched ground almonds or almond meal and sugar; it's often used as the filling in frangipane. Don't confuse it with marzipan (the much sweeter cousin). Raspberry jam is, of course, sweet but has a top note of tartness so it provides a perfect contrast to the sweetness of the almond paste.
11. Savory Babka with Gruyère, Mozzarella, and Black Sesame
This cheesy bread is easy to pull apart and share. It's great for toasting too—two types of cheese make gooey ribbons through each slice of this savory babka with Gruyère, mozzarella, and black sesame.
12. Vegan Spinach Tomato Babka
So many of these recipes focus on sweet or savory cheese fillings—I can't finish this article without finding something for my vegan friends or those who are lactose intolerant.
But, before I say anything more, stop for a moment and look at that photo. I would eat this vegan spinach tomato babka, not because it is plant-based and/or lacks dairy, but because it looks so delicious!
Megan explains each step carefully and thoroughly; you'll feel as though she is standing next to you in the kitchen offering her advice.
© 2021 Linda Lum