Babka, (Yiddish for “little grandmother”), is one of the most iconic Jewish sweets there are. Considered part bread, part cake, babka is traditionally baked in a loaf pan, but can also be braided into a wreath-shape (called a krantz). The secret to making a great babka is about making sure there are lots of sugary twists, turns and layers.
Babka In History
Old forms of babka are said to have been similar to an Italian pannetone, and were much larger and higher than their modern equivalent. Culinary historians credit Polish cooks with babka’s creation. Traditional babka was sweetened and decorated with honey and dried or candied fruits, with chocolate being a much later evolution.
Some of the very first babka may have crept onto the scene as early as 1800s. When making challah, Jewish housewives filled the scraps with cinnamon or jam, rolled it, and baked it for a treat. When Ashkenazi families emigrated to America, they discovered luxurious ingredients unseen in their homeland. Here, in the states, is where chocolate, hazelnut spread, and almond paste got incorporated into babka making.
Seinfeld And Babka
Babka was cemented in pop culture in the now infamous early 1990’s episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry and Elaine camp out at Royal Bakery to wait their turn to buy a chocolate babka to bring to a dinner party. But when they reached the front of then, they learned the bakery was out of chocolate babka. Jerry is then convinced by the attendant to purchase a cinnamon babka instead, which Elaine deems a “lesser babka.” Today, babka of any variety, is considered a quintessential offering on dessert tables at all Jewish celebrations.
Making of Buying Babka
I’ll be completely honest, making babka is not a recipe for beginners. It is a a time-consuming process, but well worth it if your willing to give it a try. It has taken me awhile to develop this babka recipe I (and my babka loving boys) are proud of it.
Raised in NYC, I grew up eating Zabar’s chocolate babka, not the homemade kind, so that is my go-to for babka gifting. But Russ & Daughters is another great choice as well should you find yourself to impatient to bake a babka yourself.
- For the Dough:
- 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2/3 cup whole milk warmed to 110 degrees F
- 5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3 Tablespoons, sugar plus 1 teaspoon for the yeast
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons vegetable cooking oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 1/2-3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- For the Chocolate Filling:
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup unsweetened coco powder
- 2 ounces dark chocolate, melted
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup chocolate wafer crumbles
- For the Sugar Syrup:
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Step 1 For the Dough: Start by dissolving the yeast in the warm milk along with 1 teaspoon sugar. If you do not have a thermometer, the milk should be warm to the touch but not hot. Whisk the yeast into the milk along with 1 tsp sugar to dissolve. Over the next few minutes, the milk/yeast mixture should become foamy as the yeast begins to grow. If it doesn’t, start over or the babka won’t rise.
- Step 2 While the yeast is proofing, place the butter and sugar in a kitchen mixer, such as a KitchenAid fit with the paddle attachment. Blend on high till pale yellow and fluffy. With the mixer on low, add the oil and vanilla extract and mix well to combine. Add the egg yolks 1 at a time and increase the mixer to high. Beat for an additional 2 minutes.
- Step 3 Turn the mixer back to low speed and add 2 1/2 cups flour, and the salt. Mix the foamy yeast mixture and add to the flour-mixture.
- Step 4 Mix until just combined, then replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Continue to mix, adding 1 tbsp of flour at a time, just until a soft dough forms. The amount of flour you need will vary based on humidity (and even altitude), it is best to add the flour slowly and check texture as you go. The dough should be soft a pliable and a little tacky, but it should not be stiff.
- Step 5 Once a soft dough forms that can easily be removed from the hook by hand, transfer it to a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough several times, or until you have a smooth ball of dough.
- Step 6 Place the ball of dough into a greased mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let it rise, at room temperature, for 1-2 hours, or until it has just about doubled in size.
- Step 7 For the Chocolate Filling:Lightly grease a standard size loaf pan line with parchment paper and than grease the parchment. Set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate and butter until you have a spreadable paste. Set near your work station.
- Step 8 Once the dough has doubled in size, roll it on a lightly floured surface until you have a 14×18-inch rectangle. Using an offset spatula, evenly spread the chocolate filling over the dough, leaving an even 1-inch border around the edge. Sprinkle the chocolate wafters on top.
- Step 9 Starting with the long side, roll the dough into a tight log. Roll the log back and forth several times, gently spreading it out until the length of the log is about 20 inches. Trim the ends with a paring knife.
- Step 10 Using a paring knife, gently cut the roll in half lengthwise. Starting at the top and finishing at the bottom, evenly divide the long log into two long halves with the layers of the dough and filling visible along the length of both halves. With the cut sides facing up, gently press together one end of each half, then lift the right half over the left half. Carefully repeat this process now lifting the left side over the right side. Continue doing the same until you reach the end. Gently squeeze the other ends together and tuck slightly underneath the loaf. Carefully transfer to the prepared baking pan. Cover the babka loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- Step 11 Baking the Babka: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the babka in the oven and bake for about 25-30 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. While the Babka is in the oven make the sugar syrup.
- Step 12 For the Sugar Syrup: In a small saucepan add the sugar and water, place over medium heat and bring to a boil whiling stirring. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
- Step 13 Once the babka has come out of the oven, use a pastry brush to brush the babka with the sugar syrup. Use all of the syrup even if it looks like there is too much. Allow the cake to cool almost completely in the pan before slicing and serving.