Babka is a buttery, eggy, sweet treat that is filled, rolled, twisted, and baked; it lies somewhere between bread and cake. When you serve a great babka, it takes two seconds for folks to break out their “best ever” babka stories. Sometimes they even go right to the Seinfeld episode where Elaine and Jerry dispute whether cinnamon babka’s a lesser babka or not. This babka is certainly not lesser.
A Quick History of Babka
Babka or baba, comes from a spiced and fruity yeasty bread-cake that dates back as far as the 12th century across the Baltic, the Slavic nations, Russia, and Ukraine. It was a tall cake — the size of a small grandmother (a baba or babka) and baked in a special fluted pan that seemed to have a skirt like grandmother’s apron. This idea of a yeasted bread-cake traveled through western Europe. Some in pans, some baked in wreath-shaped pans. Bread-cake holiday loaves appear in some form, globally, to this day.
In the U.S., babka is associated with and was distinctly popularized by poor Eastern European-Russian Jews in the 20th century; it was a bakery treat that was rarely made at home. By the mid-1950s, as their economic status began to rise, the sweet goodness that is a babka rapidly became a common food. Today it is often found commercially prepared and most often with nontraditional ingredients.
Read More: Sticky Caramel-Pecan Babka Loaves
Shapes, Twists & Turns
Traditional Jewish-style babka is baked in loaf pans. In some communities, babka is called krantz, and it is wreath-shaped. (This recipe is designed for two loaf pans and will work best if baked that way.) But the key to babka’s babka-ness is not the shape — it is all about those twists, turns, layers, coils, and folds. The key is to make layers and twist. If it seems daunting, don’t worry — any and all of the twisting styles, from grandma’s to a Michelin-starred pastry chef’s, will work.
The Wonders of Milk
Traditional babka recipes called for scalded milk, powdered milk, or both. Scalding milk alters it enzymatically so it doesn’t hinder the rise. Milk also has particular fats that make the babka more tender. I use both scalded milk and powdered dry milk to make sure I have the most delicately tender dough with plenty of sweet milky taste.
Read More: Scalding Milk: Is It Really Necessary?
Time Is on Your Side
As with most doughs, babka-making takes patience. The first rise takes about one to two hours for it to double in size. That rise can be done overnight, in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. Just allow the dough to come back to room temperature before rolling and filling and you are good to go.
The second rise, however, is not a place to try a slow, cold rise in the fridge. It takes patience to wait for the second rise, and you just have to tough it out. Leaving it to refrigerate and rise overnight isn’t an option. By then, the texture will have changed and a good amount of the filling will leak out. The best tactic is simply to be patient. It is worth the wait.
Babka is always worth the wait.
How To Make Babka
Makes 2 loaves
What You Need
For the babka dough:
For the filling:
Per serving, based on 16 servings. (% daily value)