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Exploring Babka: Story of the Jewish Bread and 12 Amazing Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

The journey of the babka has almost as many twists and turns as the bread itself.

The journey of the babka has almost as many twists and turns as the bread itself.

In the Beginning

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.

What happened?

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

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.

Cinnamon babka

Cinnamon babka

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!

Chocolate babka

Chocolate babka

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. May I 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.

Cranberry orange babka

Cranberry orange babka

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.

Cream cheese blueberry babka

Cream cheese blueberry babka

4. Cream Cheese Blueberry Babka

Buttery dough envelopes swirls of sweetened cream cheese and a 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 a delicious homemade bread in no time at all.

Double chocolate babka

Double chocolate babka

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.

Gluten-free cinnamon babka

Gluten-free cinnamon babka

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.

Pecan pie babka

Pecan pie babka

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?

Pesto babka

Pesto 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.

Pizza babka

Pizza babka

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.

Raspberry almond babka

Raspberry almond babka

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.

Savory babka with Gruyère, mozzarella, and black sesame

Savory babka with Gruyère, mozzarella, and black sesame

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.

Vegan spinach tomato basil babka

Vegan spinach tomato basil babka

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.

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 07, 2021:

Nell - Last week I also wrote about "Exploring Challah." If you Google that phrase I'm sure you'll find it. Enjoy.

Nell Rose from England on January 07, 2021:

I had never heard of it before, now I want to jump straight in and make all of them! lol! I am studying Jewish things at the moment as I discovered I am pretty much 30 percent Jewish. So I am trying to incorporate as much stuff as I can. And I can't imagine a better start than this!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 07, 2021:

Well Flourish, you've made my day as well. Comments like yours make me so happy. I can almost envision you in the kitchen whipping up that blueberry-cream cheese babka. It's a good way to escape for a while, which is what we all need.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 07, 2021:

Oh, wow, oh wow does do these sound wonderful. With all of the politics going on, I missed this until now but this is the PERFECT thing that I need to make me forget about things. My favorite is the blueberry and cream cheese. You've made my day.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 04, 2021:

Denise, you've made me so happy. I'm glad that I led you to a "new taste sensation" (something my girls would chime when they were little), that you'll try it soon, and that you enjoyed the back story. Blessings to t.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 04, 2021:

I can't wait to try these, especially the vegan one. I'll fire up my breadmaker and make the dough tomorrow. I never heard of these before so this was an education and a treat. Thanks for all the research you do. The backstory made me laugh.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 04, 2021:

Manatita (hahaha), no I'm not planning a trip to the Holy Land. I've been invited several times (someone close to me is a tour guide for the trip) but even when COVID is over I cannot physically do it. Far too much walking involved. I'm glad you liked the vegan one. You'll be baking one up soon?

manatita44 from london on January 04, 2021:

Another Jewish recipe with a great story. Checked out the vegan one. Interesting colours, but my video didn't play, or played in Silence. You're taking a trip to Jerusalem? Sweet!!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 04, 2021:

John, you must have been quick on the draw--this article was published just 10 minutes ago and already it's on Discover Hubs. I'm glad I was able to introduce you to something new.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 04, 2021:

Good morning Pamela. Well, with all those yummy add-in's they are doorstops no longer. Thanks for stopping by.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 04, 2021:

I have never heard of Babka before, Linda, so this was very educational. The double chocolate banks is very tempting, but their seems to be a babka for all tastes in this article. Great job.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 04, 2021:

I think the Cinnamon Babka is my first choice, but each one of these babkas look absolutely delicious. They don't look like a doorstop! Thanks for a bit of history, and all of these delicious recipes, Linda.