Babka and New York City:
That endless love affair is no secret. Babka is the ultimate dessert comfort food, Jewish soul food. Mind you, babka mania extends way beyond Jewish homes and Shtibles, and pours into all homes, Jewish or not, European or not, the same way other Old World Jewish Classics like bagels, lox, herring, chopped liver and pastrami do. New York plays a major role in immortalizing all these Jewish favorites and the folklore associated with each of them.
Babka goes by several affectionate aliases:
Depending on the culture and the country of origin: Babka, Brioche, Kugelhopf, Kuchen, Kokosh. The name seems derived from Baba, or grandmother. Recipes vary only slightly, and whatever you call it, you will be crazy about it! My babka version (scroll down) is streamlined and nondairy. My babka fillings are very easy to make, so try a different filling for each.
Babka is a rich yeast bread filled with one of the following:
cheese, chocolate, cinnamon/raisins, nuts, even jam. It originated in Eastern Europe. No point in arguing about who was first to immortalize it, Jewish Cuisine or Christian Cuisine. The genealogical lines are blurred, making its exact origin uncertain. But kids, there’s plenty of room for every babka, for every name it goes by, for all variations in all kitchens, and for every shape (ring, loaf, two-rope braid, individual muffin-shaped), so let’s all play in the same great babka sandbox!
This begs the question: Why so much ado about babka, as opposed to any other cake? The answer is easy: Unlike other cake batters you whip up, pour into a mold and bake, babka – like all yeast doughs – is our perishable high maintenance pastry: It must be kneaded, allowed to rise, rolled out, filled, tightly rolled, topped (or not) with streusel, baked, carefully stored. A rough and conservative estimate makes babka-making a half-day affair, as opposed to a small fraction of that time for a batter cake, a tart, a batch of cookies or muffins. Needless to say, we don’t always have half a day to devote to making a dessert, but we always indulge our undying love for babka, and we always must have some now!
Hence the store-bought babka craze, and the plethora of queries that rush to everyone’s mind about store-bought babka: What brand is the best, who makes the most authentic version, the best dough, the most ethereal texture, the most delicious filling, the most accurate dough/filling ratio, the most ideal sweetness level, the greatest number of layers, the best topping, the tenderest crumb, the most exciting shape. The filling talk alone is enough to make you dizzy: too much, too little, just enough, what brand chocolate, how much cinnamon, lemon peel or no peel, nuts or no nuts, raisins or no raisins.
In my opinion, what we want in a babka, whether homemade or store-bought, is beautifully described in the picture above: distinct and separate layers; light filling but still enough filling to be visible through all layers, which makes the dough the largest part of the babka, and the filling a wonderful garnish but just a garnish nonetheless; pleasantly sweet – but nowhere near as sweet as a batter cake – in the classical yeast cake tradition (too much sugar in the filling not only tastes uninteresting, but makes it objectionably sticky, and rushes all bottom layers together in an unappealing blurry bottom mess); filling must be smooth, not gritty (especially crucial in chocolate babka where we love a creamy filling); baked just long enough to develop a tender and flaky crust but not enough to toughen the inside crumb. Last but not least, need I add, best chocolate quality. Rooting for the delicious new up and coming brand California Gourmet
I recently caught – and passed on – the babka bug from a quasi-viral story on store-bought babka that intrigued me, not altogether positively, on Grubstreet: The Greens Babka Empire In the story you will find some revealing trivia about much internecine squabbling on the subject of which brands New York store-bought babka are most popular and why, but more intriguingly, about how a very institutional and barely average babka brand gets much more delicious to accommodate upscale stores’ private labels, following the said upscale stores’ specs, at a price: A slight to the Kosher public I find somewhat hard to swallow.
What followed was a social media avalanche of comments and opinions. Suddenly everyone turned into a babka aficionado, and it was comical to see as many people swearing by a certain brand as people proclaiming their aversion for it, and even more comical to see the reason for that brand’s popularity for some babka lovers also described as the very reason for that same brand’s unpopularity for some others. Either way, everyone had vehement opinions about their beloved babka! I myself kicked up my fair share of dust about it, so when Carly Stern at Jewish Week recently called me for an interview about New York Babka, I just knew I had it coming. Look out for the story, coming out soon!
While I will not go into the many New York store-bought babka brands I have sampled with various degrees of enjoyment, I will happily share the great winner of my informal survey: I found that the New York store-bought babka brand that comes closest to a homemade babka was BabkaliciousByLana. Oh boy, we could not keep our hands off it! and did I mention my house is full of babka-obsessed people? Babkalicious owner Lana Steiner bakes her wonderful babkas (and several other classical Jewish favorite desserts: do check out her website) in a small kitchen, yet ships them everywhere and see to it that they arrive to their hungry and eager destinations perfectly fresh and in perfect shape. Lana lovingly and meticulously wraps her babkas with the same utmost care you would wrap a newborn baby right out of the maternity ward.
Here is my own Recipe. I have devoted a separate post to the all-dairy and all-decadent Cheese Babka so the following recipe is strictly for the cinnamon and the chocolate one, even the jam. I trust you will appreciate my pulling off a perfectly delicious, natural and dairy-free babka. I have my mother in law Z”L to thank for passing on her superior baking standards, especially when it came to yeast pastries, for her magical kneading hand and for this ridiculously simple little secret: Do you want your yeast pastries to come out ethereally light and airy? The less sugar the better!
Freezing babka: It freezes beautifully. When you make several loaves, leave out the loaf you will be serving, and tightly wrap and freeze the remaining loaves. Like all yeasted preparations, babka is as perishable as it is irresistible, and we all feel a compulsion to eat more so as not to “let it go to waste” (yeah right!). Here is my solution for pacing yourself: Slice the uneaten babka into serving portions, and wrap and freeze each portion separately. A serving you will take out of the freezer will thaw in just a few minutes; you can also microwave it very briefly (20-30 seconds max)
For three babkas total
For the bread:
- 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1⁄3 cup warm water
- 1⁄2 cup sugar
- 51⁄2–6 cups flour
- 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
- 1 cup soy or other dairy-free milk at room temperature
- 3 eggs
- 2⁄3 teaspoon salt
For the topping (optional):
The topping amounts given are for 1 loaf. If you are making topping for all three babkas, simply multiply by three (approximately: 1/2 cup natural margarine spread, 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar)
- 2-3 tablespoons natural margarine spread (health food stores), or coconut oil, or even vegetable oil, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2-3 tablespoons sugar
Fillings: Each filling is for 1 loaf
- Chocolate babka: 1/3 cup cocoa powder, 1/4 cup oil, 3 tablespoons water or dairy-free milk, 1/3 cup sugar, melted and mixed perfectly smooth.
- Cinnamon Babka: 1/3 cup sugar mixed with 2-3 tablespoons cinnamon. For a more elaborate filling, throw in a handful of raisins and/or a handful chopped walnuts
- Jam Babka: 1/2 cup of your favorite jam or preserves, heated with 2-3 tablespoons orange juice and strained perfectly smooth
To make the bread: Mix the yeast, water, and sugar together in a small bowl and let it bubble while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Combine the flour (start with 5 1⁄2 cups, and add the remaining 1⁄2 cup only if you need it), oil, soy milk, eggs, and salt in a bowl and stir together. Add the yeast mixture and knead for 10 minutes; the dough should be soft and elastic. (Alternatively, use an electric dough mixer, set at low speed for 5 minutes.) The dough should be softer and stickier than bread dough. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, in a warm draft- free place, covered.
To make the topping: Mix the topping ingredients in a small bowl with your fingers until the mixture is the texture of coarse meal.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Divide the dough in three pieces. On a barely floured board, roll out each piece into a 10" x 16" rectangle, with the short side facing you. Brush the dough lightly with oil. Spread your filling of choice lightly, carefully and evenly on each rectangle and roll it up tightly, jelly-roll style.Transfer each roll to a loaf pan, seam-side down, and sprinkle on the topping (if you are not using topping, brush on beaten egg mixed with a little water).
Let the loaves rise in a draft-free place for about 30 minutes. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Unmold the cake and place on a cooling rack.