The American iteration, anyway.
You know the one I’m talking about. The babka of Seinfeld fame and New York extraction: thin layers of yeast-raised dough cradling swirls of dark chocolate, butter, and sugar. The babka that’s so associated with old Jewish bakeries, even though it’s a recipe that isn’t particularly old or particularly Jewish (at least, not any more or less Jewish than New York City as a whole).
But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story of the babka as it’s typically told.
Both the loaf of Seinfield fame and its European cousin are yeast-raised, butter-enriched loaves that exist halfway between dessert and breakfast food. And there’s no question that the American loaf is the younger, sexier cousin.
There are basically two stories told about the origin of the babka. One is that the name is a corruption of a word a few Eastern European countries use to mean an older woman or grandmother, that the babka was originally tall, and that the fluted pans used to create one looked like the pleats of a grandmother’s skirt. The other is that it’s derived from the baba au rhum.
Either one of these could provide the origin point where cake-like sweet baked goods could earn the name babka, but neither one describes a baked good anything like the chocolate babka we know and love here. The Eastern European babka is an Easter bread that has more in common with a panettone than anything familiar to Jerry or Elaine.
Compare an Easter babka on the left to the chocolate babka on the right:
Yesterdish’s babka after being glazed, before the glaze has set.
Even early domestic mentions of babka describe entirely other dishes. Consider this gritty soufflé sort of thing from the August 27, 1927 edition of The (Indiana, Pennsylvania) Evening Gazette:
By Alice Langelier
(I.N.S. Staff Correspondent)
PARIS — With cherries in the market, try “Babka Aux Cerises” for dessert.
Blanch in boiling water one pound of firm cherries. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Cook with sugar, a little wine and the zest of a lemon.
Mix in the yolks of six eggs with sugar, a few chopped almonds, one-fourth pound of butter worked with a little flour, four spoonsful of fine bread crumbs and the whites of 3 eggs well-beaten. Finally, add the cherries which have been cooled and drained. Turn all into a well-buttered mold and bake in a moderate oven.
Apart from an ad mentioning a “Christmas babka” in the 1940s, the next babka recipe pops up in 1955 as a coffee cake. From the June 30, 1955 edition of The Brownsville (Texas) Herald:
Coffee Cake Can Be Plain Or Very Fancy
By Ella Elvin
The coffee cakes of middle European origin usually dwarf our sim[ple?] crumb or nut toppings. THey are more likely to be substantial yeast breads rich with butter, eggs, and fruit.
Today’s Polish Babka is baked in a tube pan, its cinnamon dusted top rising high and handsome above the rim. We have used candied cherries and citron to supplement the raisins but these are not essential. Walnuts or pecans would be a good addition too.
One-fourth cup lukewarm water
Kneading time: Two minutes
One teaspoon sugar
Oven temperature: 350 degrees
Pour the lukewarm water into a large bowl. Sprinkle the active dry yeast over the water and set aside to soften. In a small saucepan, scald the milk. Remove from heat. Add the butter and stir till dissolved. Stir in the sal tand sugar, then the beaten eggs. When lukewarm, add to the softened yeast. Stir in two cups of flour. Add the grated lemon rind, cherries, citron, and raisins and enough of the flour to make a soft dough.
Turn dough out upon a floured board and knead until smooth, elastic, and not sticky. Place dough in a greased bowl, turning over once to grease the top. Cover with a clean cloth and place in a warm spot to rise. (An unheated oven is a good place with a pan of boiling water beside the bowl to provide the moist atmosphere.)
When dough has doubled in bulk, punch down. Knead briefly then transfer to a buttered tube pan (9 inch). Permit to rise again in a warm spot, then sprinkle the top with the combined sugar and cinnamon. Bake in a moderate oven until well browned on top. Remove to rack to cool thoroughly before slicing.
A 1960 mention takes on shades of the baba au rhum with a rum-flavored syrup soaked in and repeats the “women’s skirt” theory of the name evolution. From the December 23, 1960 edition of The Logansport (Indiana) Press:
Babka is a Polish bread with a name that derives from the fact that the finished bread rather resembles the full skirts worn by old peasant women.
Babka: Scald 3/4 c. milk and cool to lukewarm.
Measure 1/4 c. water into large bowl. Use warm, not hot, water for active dry yeast; lukewarm water for compressed yeast.
Sprinkle or crumble 1 pkg. or cake active dry or compressed yeast into water. Stir until dissolved. Add the lukewarm milk.
To yeast-milk mixture, add 1 c. sifted flour and 1 Tbsp. sugar and mix well. Cover. Let rise in a warm place, free from draft, until light and bubbly.
Add to risen sponge 1 c. sifted flour and 3 Tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 c. butter or margarine, melted, 4 eggs, 1/4 c. candied fruit and 1/4 c. raisins.
Beat batter vigorously. Put in large, well-greased mold. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on volume desired.
Bake in hot oven (400 deg. F.) for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and immediately pour Babka Syrup over bread while still in pan. When syrup is absorbed, remove from pan and ice with confectioners’ icing.
Babka Syrup: Combine 1/2 c. sugar, 1/3 c. water and 1 tsp. run flavoring in saucepan. Bring to boil.
The only way the loaf-shaped chocolate babka would remind anyone of their grandmother’s skirt is if it was named by Spongebob Squarepants.
How can you tell? Chocolate. Until the 1880s, the process of conching chocolate that is, grinding it over and over to produce a smooth and even texture didn’t exist. Chocolate in solid form was gritty, and as a result, it was primarily a drink. Even then, affordable chocolate for the masses didn’t show up until the 20th century.
Which raises the question: given that its cousins traveled under the banner of Easter Bread and Christmas Bread (in its “au rhum” iteration), how did the chocolate babka end up a specialty of Jewish bakeries? Even Claudia Roden’s (James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year) 1998 tome The Book of Jewish Food has 600-plus pages, 800 recipes, and not a single mention of the existence of babka.
I think the most likely explanation is that the immigrants who came to develop our chocolate babka arrived from Eastern Europe sometime around or just after World War II, and it’s not unreasonable to think that many of them were of the Jewish faith avoiding persecution. So when the babka came to the land of abundant and cheap chocolate remember, Hershey’s had wartime contracts that ended up giving a nation a taste for their product they incorporated what they found in New York.
So there it is. The chocolate babka: an American original. And since you’ve been so patient, here’s the clip you were waiting for all along.
From Yesterdish’s recipe box.
Yesterdish’s Chocolate Babka 2 loaves
4-1/2 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. yeast
1 orange, grated zest only
3 extra large eggs
1/2 cup of water plus 1 or 2 Tbsp. if needed
3/4 tsp. salt
11-1/2 Tbsp. butter
Mix in a mixer with dough hook about 10 minutes. You want a smooth, shiny dough.
Oil a plastic bag’s interior (I use baking spray). Put the dough in; zip it and let it rest in the fridge overnight.
Make the “Filling.” We have a tree nut allergy so nuts are omitted, but you can add nuts that are chopped and toasted to your filling.
Melt and cool:
- 5 oz. of the best bittersweet chocolate you can find, shaved or
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 Tbsp. espresso coffee granules
- pinch of salt
Make the syrup:
- 1/3 cup of water
- 6 Tbsp. sugar
Heat, dissolve, reduce to simple syrup set aside.
Make the egg wash:
- 1 yolk
- 1 Tbsp. cream
Prep two 9 by 13 inch loaf pans with parchment and oven spray.
Divide the dough that was resting in the fridge in half. Flatten each piece into an 18 by 10 inch rectangle with the long edge parallel closest to you.
Spread 1/2 of the melted and cooled filling on one rectangle, leaving a one inch border clean. Starting with the edge away from you, rolling toward you, roll the dough and filling into a tight cigar toward you. Pinch the ends to seal them.
Make one large ring and then twist twice, making a double figure eight. Put in the prepped loaf pan and egg wash.
Repeat with second rectangle.
Rest and rise for 90 minutes preheat oven to 350 deg.
Bake about 40 minutes until they sound hollow when tapped.
When ready, take them out of the oven and brush with syrup. Let them cool enough.
Cut, eat enjoy! Babka time!