This miserable weather coupled with an equally miserable furchild had me melancholic this last Monday morning. Constant rain and cold make me feel like Autumn came and went in a flash, no warm hues in the trees, no brisk afternoon walks in the park looking at cosmos. Just sad… but then I found inspiration for the week. The leftover babka that I baked for Saturday morning. I cut myself a “dik” slice, microwaved it, threw on lashings of butter and made myself a strong cup of tea. Fine layers of chocolate with pannetone like pastry, apricot glazed crust and darker sticky bits where the sugar meets the corner of the bread tin. Just sublime. Monday’s aren’t so bad, they just need some treats.
I happened on babka in my travels to California. I was lucky enough to come across a Persian bakery that sold Jewish goods, I know I know, very different parts of the world but California feels like a hodge podge of rich culture. Anyway… California educated me on Jewish bread, and really fantastic Jewish bread. I think the idea is that because you are competing with generations of baking quality passed down, you have to be great to stand out. Like a bagel is always boiled, no question. Otherwise it’s just bread. Babka is always sticky and light and delicious, otherwise it belongs at Costco and not a gorgeous little bakery in the heart of Woodland hills in the Armenian strip. There is a point here, I promise.
I love babka because its rich heritage is filled with history, revelation and remaking.
From what I’ve read babka originates in the early 1800’s in Eastern European Jewish communities and comes all the way to America along with Jewish immigrants in the early 1950’s. With immigration came an increase in exposure to Jewish food and culture, opening bakeries and deli’s seemed natural and thus recreating homemade favourites for retail. Some of the oldest deli’s in New York use recipes passed down from their grandmothers and are kept family run ( Russ & Daughters; Oleg Heimische Bakery)
The word babka derives from the Yiddish word bubbe (an affectionate word used for grandmother) and babka meaning little grandmother. The description could come from the pleats in the dough looking like the pleats in grandmother’s many skirts or from the fact that only grandmothers and mothers used to make them. In any event, this gorgeous little bread is named after something synonymous with a feeling of home. For Sabbath, extra dough would be made for challah (kitka in RSA) and then braided with cinnamon or jam and baked as a treat
There is great Seinfeld episode that takes place in a Jewish bakery where Elaine and Jerry need to purchase a babka to take for dinner and because they’re so busy chatting they forget to take a ticket. Fight ensues as they realise they only have one chocolate babka left and after wasting time drooling over it, they miss it. It literally sells out just before they get to the counter. The frustration relates . The episode aired in 1994 and some food writers say (Gil Marks) that Babka’s popularity in mainstream food culture started here. It was a highly sought after bread but only really found in Jewish bakeries. From 2005 babka culture started to boom and in 2013 The New York Magazine deemed The Breads Bakery babka, the best in the city. Babka was officially on the map and finding specialty bakeries around New York was extremely on trend and their success in the hands of influencers.
If it was decadent and ridiculous, it went in or on babka. Imagine French toasted babka ice cream sandwiches and Nutella and orange laced babka. It became so trendy that bakeries dedicated themselves to it like a delicious deity.
The chocolate babka we serve is far from the Jewish dessert found in the 1800s. The introduction of butter and moreish chocolate spread has made it a classic and family favourite on our Easter table. We are not a very religious family, but at Easter time we all celebrate together and hunt eggs. We bake things that make us happy.
My role is always to bring a chocolate babka to the family table and for this reason it tastes like home.