This is the first of what will be three posts about babka.
My mother’s friend Abby says that babka is a ghost that will haunt you until it is eaten. In this case, I prefer many exorcisms. I love babka.
Too bad that it’s a pain to make.
A sweet yeasted dough, twisted and wrapped around a filling of chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or fruit and perhaps sweet cheese. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is not. Sweet yeasted dough is quite difficult to work with, and wrapping it around the filling is always my downfall. (My hand-eye coordination, to quote my boyfriend, is “erratic.”) As it happens, bakeries sometimes do a very good job with their babka. I am more than happy to fork over some money and enjoy the babka without the anxiety.
Babka is, in fact, a very common food that people will only ever savor store-bought. Jewish bakeries across the world specialize in the Ashkenazi treat. Haredi bakeries in Jerusalem make “Krantz cake” – an alternate name for babka – that people from all walks of Israeli life travel from across the country for. The beautiful bite of the dough and the coy sweetness of the filling is a triumph. Breads in New York has become famous for their babka, which seems to elicit joy everywhere. (Note: I believe that all properly-made babkas cause joy.) In any case, Breads’ perfectly textured babka is divine. I have seen visitors from out of town bee-line to Breads for babka before going anywhere else in the city. And of course, one cannot forget supermarket babkas. As dowdy as these can be, some brands’ babkas are perfectly tasty and delectably un-shareable. A few readers have mentioned the Trader Joe’s babka as their ideal babka, but I am more partial to Green’s obscenely swirly chocolate babka.
Of course I want to make my own babka. A plum jam and cottage cheese babka will never be mass market in a country rightly obsessed with chocolate babka. Yet it is so delicious – especially when you hit a plum and a gob of cheese right by a doughy bit. Divine! The braiding is beautiful, and making a babka is really the height of Ashkenazi balabostakeit. I should try it out! But I am also a klutzy graduate student with limited time and even more limited hand-eye coordination. I refuse to only have babka as often as I can make it.
So I have no shame in buying from a bakery. In fact, that has been done for generations. Now, babkas have long been in the repertoire of Ashkenazi home cooking – especially as Jewish communities, like neighbors, used leftover bread dough for the task. However, making babka – and actually, challah and bread generally, was hard work then, as it is now. It also used relatively expensive ingredients, which is why both were reserved for a Sabbath treat. Many people did not have the time or energy, and one of the promises of America or Canada was the prosperity to have a treat like that – and pay someone else to make it. Babkas were a frequent feature of bakeries that opened up across Jewish neighborhoods in New York in the early 20th century – and continue to be a feature at remaining bakeries today. Having a babka that’s not “homemade” is a tradition.
Enough rambling. I want to know: what’s your favorite babka?
In the late ’50s, my dad had a laundromat next door to a bakery in Miami Beach. Babka was almost a daily treat! When I left home for college in Gainesville, I thanked heavens for Publix and their excellent babka. In the ensuing 50+ years, I’ve lived in lots of places where no one had heard of babka (a few where they’d never heard of Jewish people) –Now, I’m retired in Helena, MT where “exotic food” is Taco Bell and only one place even has challeh, albeit much too highly priced for me to enjoy weekly. And babka? It takes vacations back east to treat myself to a slice of my favorite, chocolate babka, toasted and slathered with butter! I haven’t baked babka in decades but maybe it’s time to start trying again! You’ve got my mouth watering just thinking about it!
I love the haunting quote! The bread is beautiful!