Is there anything finer than a good chocolate babka? Probably not, but after bringing back no fewer than three such treats from New York City this weekend, I got to wondering, just what is babka, anyway?
Like so many of my favorite baked things, babka comes from Ashkenaz. Wikipedia cites "Eastern European" origins, Russian etymology (Babka = бабка = grandmother), and savory variants from Belarus and Lithuania. But none of those technicalities really get to the soul of the babka.
We all know that Jerry and Elaine spend a good portion of The Dinner Party seeking, discussing, dissecting and obsessing about babka. (I edited the spelling from "bobka" in the amateur transcription linked here) That's a start.
JERRY: That's the last Babka. They got the last Babka.
ELAINE: I know. They're going in first with the last Babka.
JERRY: That was our Babka.
ELAINE: You can't beat a Babka.
JERRY: We should have had that Babka.
My particular prize was a Green's chocolate babka, private labeled for Zabars. It's a little flaky but mostly gooey, disturbingly heavy, and oddly parve. A seemingly similar article can be found at Delancey Desserts.
A little poking around led to a recipe from of all people, Martha Stewart, which including milk, butter and cream, so definitely not that close to Green's, but which does reveal the basic chemistry of the babka:
- 1 1/2 cups warm milk, 110 degrees
- 2 (1/4 ounce each) packages active dry yeast
- 1 3/4 cups plus a pinch of sugar
- 3 whole large eggs, room temperature
- 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, room temperature, plus more for bowl and loaf pans
- 2 1/4 pounds semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped
- 2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
This makes three loaves, but we're still talking 3/4 of a pound of chocolate per loaf, similar to a full bag of chocolate chips. That's got to have something to do with it. Another variant from Su Good Sweets is Nutella Babka, which seems to mix in about 1/3 nutella with the chocolate.
Green's babka is kosher, and depends on oil (palm, I hear) for fatty goodness, but that renders it parve, and allows it to be served more flexibly in kosher households. A definite benefit for some that might impede the flavor for others. I've never felt compelled to complain when my babka answers to a higher authority.
Should you find yourself in posession of a babka, be sure to warm it slightly before serving to bring the chocolate to the necessary state of gooeyness.
I should probably quit while I'm ahead, but I found a couple more babka notes that I must impart. We've dwelled on chocolate babka so far, and while I won't even mention the usual secondary or "lesser" babka variant, it appears that there are savory dishes also called babka.
Again, via wikipedia, there is the savory dish from Belarus and Lithuania: "It is made from grated potatoes, egg, onions, and smoked bacon. It is baked in a crock, and often served with a sauce of sour cream and pork flitch. Depending on recipe and cooking method it may be either a flaky potato pie, or a heavy potato pudding." Sounds delicious in its own right, but seems pretty far off from the sweet stuff, and awfully distant from anything kosher, too.
From Aloyada, we also have a Ukrainian fish babka, described as "...souffle-like. Which meant that when baked, it rose almost as much as a conventional souffle-- but stayed puffed up and impressive. The egg yolks, milk, fried onion, bits of bread and stiff egg white give it a lovely light and very tasty texture; an aerated clear yellow omlette-style base in which the embedded pieces of fish and herbs (nutmeg and dill or tarragon) are delicious, subtle and moist." Also interesting, and maybe a little more likely to be related to the chocolate babka of ashkenaz.
Enticing as the savory options are, there will always be just one true babka for me, and unless I freeze some of it now, it's not going to last till my next trip to New York.