Today, we will focus on the so called “Jewish” form of the buttery, eggy pastry known as babka. The “Christian” form is just as delicious, but is less prevalent in the New World than its Yiddishe brethren; accordingly, its history is less complex. You see, Jewish babka’s history spans centuries and the width of the Atlantic. As a bread which has become an emblem of an immigrant group, the humble babka’s roots reflect the history both of the Eastern European shtetls and the early 20th century Lower East Side tenements. How many deserts can claim such a complex past?
Many theories cloud the origins of babka. It is the distant descendant of communion breads eaten in Slavic regions around Easter. Another possibility has to do with the fact that in ancient northern European societies, “woman [was] the ruling sex” (Tacitus, Germania). This theory states that babkas, generally round, were a symbol of fertility. Yet another explanation exists: according to a 2009 article in The Atlantic,
Historian and food writer Lesley Chamberlain believes that babka came up from Italy, brought by Queen Bona Sforza of Poland in the 16th century and developed into a Russified version of the typical Italian pannetone.
Though we may not know its beginnings, we do know the etymology of the word “babka”: it means “little grandmother” in Ukrainian, Russian, and Eastern European Yiddish. We also know that babka was adopted by actual “babas” (grandmothers) in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Why? Most likely because a version of babka could be made with leftover challah dough, making babka a delicious yet thrifty indulgence. The babka of the shtetls was quite different from modern day babka. Instead of being filled with chocolate or cinnamon, the earliest Jewish babkas were probably filled with nuts such as walnuts and seeds such as poppy. After all, the process of conching, whereby chocolate is finely ground and scraped in order to produce a satisfactory texture and flavor was invented only in 1879 by the Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt. Previously, chocolate was consumed mainly as an exotic (and expensive) beverage. So then where did our modern-day babka come from?
This brings us to the second part of babka’s history- a confection enjoyed by the Jews of New York. Many Jews (such as my great-grandparents) fled the pogroms of the Ukraine and Russia and settled in New York City, specifically on the Lower East Side. They brought with them pieces of the shtetl in the form of recipes. The Jews of New York, with new ingredients available, began to embellish traditional dishes (for example, bagels and lox). Chocolate babka was born. I found my favorite recipe for chocolate babka in Sammi Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem, where it is known as “Chocolate Krantz”. A buttery yeast dough is rolled out, layered with molten chocolate, and rolled twice (it’s not as difficult as it sounds). After being baked, the babka is brushed with simple syrup, adding gloss and helping to keep it moist. The recipe is easy and delicious and yields picture-perfect babkas every time. Here’s my take on an ancient classic: