What Exactly Is Babka?

If you've ever watched "Seinfeld," then you know the hallowed space reserved for the chocolate babka (via Facebook). What exactly is a babka though, and why is it so revered?

The Chocolate Professor describes babka as a rich, sweet, yeast-leavened dough that is usually formed in a braid. It also tends to fall somewhere between bread and cake in terms of texture and flavor. This makes it similar to the equally enriched and braided challah. According to My Jewish Learning, babka is often featured as a dessert for Jewish family gatherings and religious celebrations alike. MasterClass says that it can be flavored with a variety of ingredients including jam, chocolate, streusel, or cinnamon. The New York Times claims that the Jewish version of babka is the most famous, but that it also resembles other enriched breads throughout Europe. There's the Italian Panettone, French Baba au rhum, and the Polish baba which all share similar traits with the babka. They also likely have similar roots as well.

Gil Marks' "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food" points out that it was that episode of "Seinfeld" in which Jerry and Elaine proclaim that "you can't beat a babka," which gave babka a national identity. This baked good was around well before it was immortalized in pop culture, though.

Babka's history

In Gil Marks' "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food," it is explained that the babka that is popular today has its roots in 19th-century Poland. It was originally a tall, sturdy loaf that was baked in a circular and traditional Polish pan. Its unique pattern would have given the cake-bread hybrid an outer crust resembling the pleats of an older woman's skirt. Because of this, or maybe just because of who was doing most of the baking, the cake was named baba, or babka, two words meaning 'grandma.' These would have been made using leftover dough from crafting the weekly challah loaf for the sabbath, but with the addition of a sweet filling or topping to transform it into a special treat.

Food52 points out that these cakes would have been very different because they wouldn't have used butter. Instead, the earliest bakers would have used oil to craft their babkas. This choice would be mostly ignored by modern babka bakers, though, who use the dough as a rich palette to paint a luscious landscape of fats and sweets. Gimmee Jimmie's Cookies adds that the more recently invented, over-the-top babkas might be too much for traditionalists. Like any cake though, the babka makes a great starting point for plenty of rich fillings and toppings.

How to make or find your own babka

Thanks to the influence of that "Seinfeld" episode, many will attest to chocolate being the superior babka flavor. That's a very minimalist approach to all that babka has to offer though. Make no mistake, making a cinnamon babka recipe at home is by no means falling back on the "lesser babka." My Jewish Learning says that sweet flavors like chocolate, cinnamon, apple, and raisin are typical traditional favorites, but if you're choosing to make your own at home you might as well get creative. Or, take inspiration from the original babka-making grandmas and add whatever you have lying around. A favorite jam, honey, dried fruits, and rich icings can all be fillings or toppings of a babka.

Hill Street Grocer adds that you don't have to limit yourself to sweet options either. Because babka is part cake and part bread it can be just as delicious with savory fillings like goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, or roasted garlic.

If you aren't feeling adventurous enough to make your own babka, you can always seek out a local bakery or market, or order them online. My Jewish Learning says that legendary New York Jewish bakeries like Green's Bakery, Oneg Bakery, and Russ & Daughters all ship their babka through Goldbelly as well.