Talk of the Table // Babka (2022)

The Babka Boom

byTami Ganeles-Weiser

What is babka? The iconic Jewish treat is similar to—but not exactly synonymous with—coffee cake (which is lighter, fluffier and sweeter), and it’s not quite rugelach (which has a flaky cream cheese dough and is made without yeast). Somewhere in between bread and cake, the (ideally rich and gooey) babka is often layered with cinnamon or chocolate and baked in a loaf pan.

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Most evidence suggests that babka is simply a Jewish variation of gentile holiday sweets. It originated from baba, a centuries-old, several-feet-tall Eastern European yeasty bread-cake that was studded with fruits or nuts and served on holidays. According to popular theory, the word “babka” is the diminutive of baba, which means “grandmother” in many Eastern European tongues; as the cake became smaller, “babka” became a more accurate description. Baba-like bread-cakes are still served on holidays throughout Europe. In Italy, they are known as pan-ettone and pan d’oro, and in Germany they’re stollen and gugelhupf.

Although Eastern European immigrants brought their babka recipes with them to America, it took some time for babka to establish itself in the American Jewish culinary scene. Most Jewish immigrants around the turn of the 20th century were poor, and the bakers among them had little time for anything but the essentials. “In America the evidence suggests that the first Jewish bakeries baked only bread,” wrote Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg in Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. No cake or cookies, and certainly not babkas. That changed with the postwar economic boom and the abundance of wheat, sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate, which transformed bakeries into pastry shops—and babka into an after-dinner mainstay.

Talk of the Table // Babka (1)

American Jewish bakers changed babka in at least one major way: They made it pareve, both so that it could be eaten after meat dinners and to make it easier to mass produce. Butter was replaced with Crisco or margarine, which was touted as healthier, less expensive and longer-lasting than butter—part of a baking revolution. Non-dairy babkas also meant leaving out milk—a significant departure from the baking techniques that define a babka, according to most experts. Traditional babka recipes called for scalded or powdered milk (or both), which gave it a distinctive flavor and a mild sweetness. Milk’s proteins also created babka’s trademark texture, with its many soft layers and resilient, almost stretchy, flakiness. “Simply put,” says Maggie Glezer, author of A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs, “real babka was always milchik [dairy].”

For the past 50 years, babkas produced for large-scale distribution have been non-dairy, and for a long time, most came from a single company, Green’s. Today, Green’s, founded in 1980 and based in Brooklyn, produces some 2,000 babkas a day and is touted by many as the ur-babka: In 2010, the popular website Serious Eats named Green’s the best traditional babka in New York City, saying, “It’s everything you’d want babka to be: moist, yeasty, swirly goodness. Never a bad bite.”

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The modern babka generally comes in two flavors: chocolate and cinnamon. Chocolate wasn’t common for European Jewish-style babkas—which tended to be flavored with jam, cinnamon or raisins—but it exploded in popularity in the United States. Despite chocolate and cinnamon’s traditional hold, babka bakers in the 21st century have added new flavors. “In addition to the traditional fillings—cocoa and cinnamon—there are babkas with ricotta and raisins, honey and almonds, halvah,” says Janna Gur, author of Jewish Soul Food. Other versions are savory: Jewish food expert and writer Joan Nathan tracked down a recipe from two-star Michelin chef Thierry Marx of Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, France, filled with olive tapenade. Some bakeries have even veered into treif, stuffing babka with ham and cheese or sausage and eggs.

In a 1994 episode, the popular sitcom Seinfeld played up the purported rivalry between chocolate lovers and cinnamon devotees. The characters Jerry and Elaine stop at a Manhattan bakery to pick up a babka. Elaine wants a chocolate one and declares cinnamon “a lesser babka.” Jerry’s retort? “Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka.” The feud rages on. Regardless, whether chocolate or cinnamon, as Elaine says, “you can’t beat a babka.”


Raspberry and Almond Babka

Recipe by Tami Ganeles-Weiser

This delicate, feathery dough is easy to work with and even better to eat. You can add finely chopped dark chocolate to the filling, or use any top-quality preserves to make this recipe your own.Makes 3 babkas

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Babka Dough
¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, divided 2 packages (14 grams) instant yeast ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar, divided
4 cups (550 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting, divided ½ cup (43 grams) nonfat dry milk
1 teaspoon salt 4 eggs 2 egg yolks 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 5 tablespoons (71 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature

Raspberry Almond Filling
1 egg white, lightly beaten ¼ cup (50 grams) Turbinado (raw) sugar
1 cup (320 grams) strained raspberry preserves (see Kitchen Tip) 1 cup (130 grams) toasted blanched almonds, finely chopped


1. Make the dough: Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the milk into a saucepan set over medium heat and bring just to a boil, watching it carefully to ensure that it does not spill over the sides. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

2. Pour milk into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and add the yeast, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and ½ cup of the flour. Mix gently to combine and let stand for 7 to 8 minutes; it will be foamy.

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3. Add the remaining sugar, the dry milk and salt and mix well. Add 2 of the eggs, the egg yolks and vanilla extract and mix well. Switch to a dough hook and add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, while mixing gently. Knead for 5 minutes. Then add the butter and continue to knead for another 3 minutes. It will be a sticky, wet dough at first, but it will become a smooth elastic ball that still sticks to the sides of the bowl a bit.

4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl into a clean, large mixing bowl, cover with a floured kitchen towel, and set aside at room temperature for 2 to 2½ hours until it has doubled in size. (This can also be done by covering the bowl with plastic and a kitchen towel and refrigerating overnight, but you’ll need to allow time for the dough to come back to room temperature.)

5. Spray 3 loaf pans with nonstick vegetable oil spray and line each with 2 pieces of parchment paper, one placed lengthwise and one crosswise, with a 3-inch overhang of parchment on each side to allow for easy removal. Place the dough, seam side down, into the pan.

6. Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the dough into 3 pieces (about 375 grams each). Working with one piece at a time, roll each into an 8- by 14-inch rectangle. Brush lightly with the beaten egg white. Sprinkle with one-third of the sugar. Then sprinkle one-third of the almonds and one-third of the preserves over the top, making sure to leave a border of about ½-inch bare around the edges.

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7. Starting from the long side, roll up the dough tightly. Pinch the seam at the end, pressing gently. Lift and bend the roll in half; then twist from one end to the other and place in the prepared pan. Cover with greased plastic and let rise for about 1½ hours, until doubled in size. Repeat with the remaining rectangles of dough and the filling.

8. Preheat oven to 325°F. Make an egg wash by beating the remaining 2 eggs with the remaining 1 tablespoon milk. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash over the top. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the tops are firm, the babkas are golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out without any dough (there will be filling on it—it’s fine!). Cool in the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes. Then, using the paper overhangs, lift out and continue to cool on a cooling rack.

Kitchen Tip
Strain the raspberry preserves in a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Use a spoon to stir and mash the preserves until all of the fruit has passed through the sieve and all the seeds are left behind. Use the fruit and discard the seeds.


Where does babka come from? ›

Babka originated in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Part bread, part cake, the name is thought to derive from a popular Easter cake made in Poland called “baba” which means “grandmother” in Polish.

Is babka kosher? ›

Green's Chocolate Babka is Certified Kosher and Pareve, made of natural ingredients, and baked in a certified nut-free & dairy-free kitchen.
IngredientsFlour, Sugar, Palm Oil, Water, Whole Eggs, Cocoa, Vanilla, Yeast and Salt
Seasonal AvailabilityYear Round
Baking ScheduleBaked Daily
UPC Code00028448002004
2 more rows

Why is my babka dry? ›

To my friend who posted on February 19: Your dough is dry because kneading for 16-20 minutes is WAY too long. Babka is delicate, not at all like regular bread dough and should not be kneaded but for maybe 30 seconds to combine the softened butter as the last step (far less than even this recipe recommends).

Can you knead babka by hand? ›

Tips for perfecting this chocolate babka recipe

I recommend using a stand mixer for kneading this dough. Kneading by hand would be too time-consuming and messy (because of the sticky nature of the dough). Make sure the ingredients are at room temperature, especially the butter.

What does babka symbolize? ›

The word 'babka' means grandmother, referring to the grandmothers on Shabbat who made this out of the leftover challah. Chocolate wasn't added to babka until Jews arrived in New York. Chocolate became more affordable and accessible, so Jews started embellishing their babkas with rich chocolate instead of cinnamon.

Why is babka called babka? ›

One theory says that with the "modern era's" smaller sizes the name shifted to the diminutive, "babka," meaning "little grandmother." Some others say the tall shape they were made in resembles a grandmother's pleated skirts.

Who makes Trader Joe's babka? ›

Chocolate Babka is a sweet, swirly, cake loaf rooted in Eastern European Jewish traditions. Trader Joe's Chocolate Babka is made for them by a small, kosher bakery in Brooklyn that literally grew out of a grandmother's kitchen.

Is babka OK for Passover? ›

Chocolate babka: a sweet bread treat made with enriched dough and layered with chocolate – a weekend project you'll be glad you made. Greetings, Easter (and Passover***) bunnies! ***This babka is leavened and therefore not suitable for Passover, if your family, unlike ours, cares about such things.

How long does a babka stay fresh? ›

Babka will stay fresh for 24 hours in an airtight container at room temperature. Do not place it in the fridge. It also freezes well for up to 2 months. To thaw, leave at room temperature for 2 hours, or overnight in the fridge.

Is brioche and babka the same? ›

babka is a rich pastry or rather brioche bread. Overbaking bread will cause it to dry out. Alternatively, if left open at room temperature or the fridge bread does dry out.

Are challah and babka the same? ›

Babka developed in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Extra challah dough was rolled up with fruit jam or cinnamon and baked as a loaf alongside the challah.

Can you eat babka for breakfast? ›

Not that New Yorkers' love of babka is anything new, and it's easy to see why. Babka's rich, buttery, brioche-like crumb, woven with ribbons of chocolate, is unfussy and approachable. You can eat it as dessert or breakfast, as a brunch side or a quick snack.

Do you need a stand mixer for babka? ›

Or if you are on a nut-free diet, you can omit the nuts and just use the cookie (or brownie) bits. This can, of course, be made by hand without a stand mixer. Simply mix the ingredients for the dough in a mixer bowl, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and knead until smooth.

Does babka need to be refrigerated? ›

Store your babka at room temperature in the provided packaging using the reseal tab on the back if opened; do not refrigerate. Our babkas are baked daily and, if you can resist eating them, will stay delicious for up to 5 days after purchase.

Can you prove a babka overnight? ›

The babka dough will need to rest in your fridge for at least 6 hours, but overnight is best. Unlike most bread doughs, babka will not double in size, so don't panic if your dough doesn't rise a bunch in the fridge!

What do you eat babka with? ›

Both the chocolate and the cinnamon fillings I chose to make were equally delicious with just the right amount of sweetness making the babka perfect as a decadent breakfast treat or as a snack along with tea or coffee.

Is babka a dessert or breakfast? ›

Babka is a sweet dessert with Jewish roots. Somewhere between bread and cake, its name comes from “babcia,” a Slavic term of endearment for “grandmother.”

What is a Brooklyn babka? ›

This is like a cross between bread and a croissant, all marbled and swirled with chocolate. The top is glazed and studded with chocolate chips.

How many calories are in a slice of babka? ›

262 calories

Is babka rugelach? ›

These festive, fudgy confections are a mash-up of two traditional Jewish favorites: rugelach and chocolate babka. They have a tender, flaky pastry wrapped around a bittersweet truffle-like filling that's sprinkled with chopped nuts or cocoa nibs for a contrasting crunch.

Can you freeze babka? ›

Stale babka has a decadent second life as french toast, monkey bread or bread pudding. You can freeze your babkas for up to 30 days after they're baked. Allow them to cool completely, then wrap in both plastic wrap and aluminum foil. To defrost, take them out of the freezer and remove the foil.

Is Trader Joe's babka Pas Yisroel? ›

Trader Joe's brand of Chocolate Brooklyn Babka, Cinnamon Babka and Half Moon Cookies are all Pas Yisroel.

Can I freeze Trader Joe's babka? ›

Can you freeze Trader Joe's babka? Yes, this product can easily be frozen and defrosted when you are ready to enjoy it.

Should chocolate babka be served warm? ›

I can now attest, having consumed the whole thing (ok, I shared a little), that warmed up babka is not the better way of eating babka. It is the only way. Even if you're not a huge babka fan, I suggest you give it one more warmed-up try.

Is babka Italian? ›

Babka means little grandmother or piccola nonna in Italian. The Eastern European Jewish grandmothers would make this bread with the scraps from challah bread.

What does babka taste like? ›

Babka is a sweet, buttery yeast bread. Usually, a babka has swirls of chocolate running throughout but another popular flavor is cinnamon. Those swirls pull apart into delectable, irresistible layers.

How do you store homemade babka? ›

Chocolate Babka will keep at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 days. For longer storage, wrap in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil for up to 1 month. To defrost, place on the countertop for several hours, and reheat in the oven at 350°F for 10 minutes before serving.

How do you keep babka from burning? ›

Tenting them with aluminum foil halfway through can prevent burning and allow your babka to bake thoroughly.

Is povitica the same as babka? ›

What is the Difference Between Babka and Povitica? Babka may be the most well-known, but it is not the only twisted or braided bread from Eastern Europe. Povitica, an Easter bread from Slovenia and Croatia, is a similar enriched bread rolled with a walnut filling.

Can you microwave babka? ›

Be aware that over microwaving Babka is likely to make it either overly chewy or hard and stale. This is because the Babka loses its water content as the microwave turns that water into vapor, which leaves the Babka. Heat up frozen Babka in an oven.

Is brioche like challah? ›

Yes, challah bread is similar to brioche. Challah bread is typically a Jewish bread that is kosher with no dairy in it. On the other hand, brioche is a french bread made with similar ingredients and it included butter rather than an oil such as vegetable oil. Overall, they taste pretty similar.

Can you make babka from challah dough? ›

How to Make Babka. The dough for this babka recipe is Holly's Challah with the addition of orange zest and vanilla: After you mix the dough, let it rise till it doubles in volume: Once doubled, divide the dough into two equal portions; then roll each portion out into a 12X15-inch rectangle.

What is the difference between a quick bread and a yeast bread? ›

Point out to students that quick breads are made with leavening agents that allow immediate baking. Yeast breads, on the other hand, are leavened with yeast and must be kneaded and allowed to rise before baking.

Does Zabars make their own babka? ›

Eli Zabar makes his traditional babka with a chocolate and almond schmear, raspberry jam, and raisins.

Does Zabars babka have nuts? ›

Places like Zabar's, Dean & Deluca, Katz's Deli, and Russ & Daughters unwrap this stuff and sell it as their own—usually without crediting Green's. It's good. Good enough for Green's to have come into a babka monopoly. And by some Jewish miracle, it's all nut-free.

How do you know if babka is done? ›

When it's finished, the loaf will be a deep golden brown on top and sound hollow when the bottom is tapped. You can also use a thermometer to check the internal temperature, which will be 185º F when the loaf is finished. Let the babka cool to room temperature before slicing.

Can I freeze Zabars babka? ›

It is by far the best I've had so far and I just learned it can be frozen for up to 4 months. If you're in NY in the UWS you must stop in at Zabar's!


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