On the Chocolate Trail

Launching The Chocolate Babka Project

Admittedly, by heritage I am more a German kugelhopf than an Eastern European babka. I remember eating homemade kugelhopf and bundt cake at family celebrations in Los Angeles. When I mentioned babka to my German speaking father, he looked puzzled and asked, “What’s a babka?” Babka, much less chocolate babka, was just not in our pastry repertoire.

Scanning through the New York Times digital archives surfaced Polish babka with nuts and cinnamon. That caused Seinfeld-speak to echo in my head: “that’s a babka?” It turns out that several cultures enjoy what I have started calling “cognate bread cakes.” These celebratory, special occasion, egg-rich, yeasty treats reflect diversity that is at once distinct and also universal. They include both babka and kugelhopf, along with challah, kulich, pandora, panettone, and more. They are mixed with home and homeland, often multiple homelands, as well as with religion. They are leavened through dislocations and disenfranchisements and migrations. In a Joseph Campbell sense they are heroic foods, voyagers through time and space, from home to home, from generation to generation, victoriously returning to festive tables season after season.

That research had me wondering when chocolate first schmeared a babka. Though chocolate for drinking may be traced as far back as 1000 BCE, chocolate for eating and baking develops much later. It is said that the British company, Fry’s, crafted the first eating chocolate bars in 1847. Marquis de Sade instructed his wife to bring him chocolate cookies in prison in 1779 and the 1871 The Jewish Cookery Book by Esther Levy published in America includes a recipe for a chocolate pudding, really a cake. Dorothy Shirley made ‘biskit’ from chocolate at least as early as 1694, according to her receipt/recipe book. 

In a sense the Babka Chocolate Project started with chocolate as I looked at its connections to religions, cultures, history, and business through many countries, centuries and convictions for my book On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (2nd edition, 2017). Curiosity about the chocolate fillings in babka led to hosting two babkathons in Brooklyn, babka tastings that coincidentally ended up on Sundays of New York Marathons. That only made me hunger for more. So does the growing list of babka bakers in the New York area, with their varied recipes and plentiful babka spin-offs.

I hope that you will share your stories, your baking tricks, and your insights as the layers of the “Chocolate Babka Project” unfold through outings, research, baking, and tastings at #chocolatebabkaproject.

4 thoughts on “Launching The Chocolate Babka Project”

  1. barb House says:

    I never heard of babka until I was an adult. I don’t remember having babka at home or at any Bar Mitzvahs or Jewish weddings. The only Jewish sweets I remember are sponge cake, kichel & hamentashen and the hamentashen were not the sweet cookie filled with jam kind that everyone eats these days.

  2. D. Prinz says:

    Hi Barb, Thank you for this comment. Where and when (approximately) was your childhood?

  3. Fran Rothstein says:

    Until Seinfeld, I had never realized chocolate babka was a “thing.” Then two things happened. I took a course at our synagogue from Rabbi Hannah Goldstein (who had dinner once at your home in NY) and she asked if we’d mind rescheduling one of the classes because she’d be away in NYC. “If rescheduling is okay with you,” she said to the class, “I promise to bring back a chocolate babka.” And the second thing is that our girls (yours, mine, and ours!) have brought chocolate babka down from NY when they have come to visit. Two chocolate babkas showed up at my brother’s shiva, so we were able to compare them. (The one from NY was definitely richer.). I have a Russian cookbook (called “Please to the Table”) which says, “Babas, not babkas, are the real pride and joy of Eastern European and western Russian cooking.” I’ve made the apple baba many times. Not at all like a babka, chocolate or otherwise, but really good (and really easy). Perhaps I’ll try to create a chocolate baba sometime!

  4. D. Prinz says:

    Hi Fran, Thanks for these recollections. I will have to take a look at that cookbook. Part of my #chocolatebabkaproject will be trying to learn to make babka and the other “cognate” yeast cakes. Looking forward to trying your apple baba sometime.

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