On the Chocolate Trail

What is the Chocolate Babka Project?

Admittedly, by heritage I am more a German kugelhopf than an Eastern European babka, having eaten homemade kugelhopf at family celebrations in Los Angeles. Indeed when I mentioned my interest (obsession?) with babka to my German speaking father in LA, he looked puzzled and asked, “What’s a babka?”At one point I wrote him a note that mentioned kugelhopf and he corrected me with the German spelling more familiar to him, gugelhopf. I had no idea what babka was until I moved to the East Coast as an adult. My research into chocolate for my book, On the Chocolate Trail, had me wondering about chocolate (of course) for babka fillings and curious about babka traditions altogether.

The babka boom in New York City, with varied recipes and plentiful babka spin-offs, enabled me to taste lots of babka in the last few years. Initially I was happy to let professionals supply them. Hoping to be thorough and with the help of babka loving friends, we hosted two Babkathons, tastings of chocolate babkas that happened to coincide with New York Marathons.

All set up for Babkathon

 

Locating and tasting them was one thing. But it felt overwhelming to try to bake a babka, especially given my limited baking and cooking skills. How could this neophyte baker ever manage a babka? Until early 2019, I had never once even baked a challah. Neither of my grandmothers, my mother, or my mother-in-law baked challah. I had been avoiding white flour and gluten. Using yeast was out of my culinary realm. I had no idea how chocolate or other filling got into the babka pastry. Should the babka be shaped into a loaf, a circle, a twist, or not? Mostly I wanted it to be the best babka ever.


So, I procrastinated. Before confronting any ingredients or instructions, I needed to research: read babka books (there’s maybe one, so articles), speak to people about babka, scour babka recipes, and taste plenty of babka. Since New York has become the center of the babka universe, I scanned the New York Times digital archives to see if it might yield more about babka, how it came to be a New York food, and when chocolate entered the story. That surfaced a lot of hits for Polish babka, sometimes with nuts/ cinnamon or cheese. Seinfeld-speak echoed in my head: “That’s a babka?” Where’s the chocolate? What’s a Polish babka anyway?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/Ukrainian_Korovai.jpg

Korovai


Along the way I found that many cultures enjoy similar yeasty, celebratory treats, what I have started calling “cognate bread cakes,” with shared sources or ancestry. These special occasion, egg-rich loaves reflect a diversity that is at once distinct and also universal. In non-Jewish traditions they might include korovai, kulich, pandora, panettone, and more. In a Jewish setting, they extend beyond my family’s Ashkenazi (Central European) centered menu to include Sabbath and holiday breads from Africa, the Mediteranean, and the Middle East. I I have managed to prepare and dipped deliciously into Shabbat breads such as Moroccan khobz, Ethiopian dabo, along with Yemenite saluf and lachuch. I have also had fun decorating an Ethiopian special occasion panbread called ambusha, a shlissel or key challah for the Sabbath after the end of Passover, and an elaborate 7 heaven (Los Siete Cielos) challah of Salonika for Shavuot. Oh, the scent of fenugreek, coriander, orange zest, and other spicings wafting from my oven and the fluff of warm bread in my mouth. I had underestimated the comfort of that multi-sensory blanket enfolding me.

These loaves showcase diversity and less familiar worldwide communities. They wander over boundaries of religion, culture, ethnicity, and race. Each mixes with home and homeland, often multiple homelands, as well as with religions. Some are leavened through worldwide dislocations and disenfranchisements and migrations. In a Joseph Campbell sense these are heroic foods, voyagers through time and space, from home to home, from generation to generation, victoriously returning to festive tables season after season.


Surprisingly, or maybe not, Jewish babka and Polish babka are related to each other and indeed also to kugelhopf. In the end I don’t have to chose between these legacy foods. As my confidence grows with each bake, I still intend to craft my first babka. Sometime soon … maybe after do some more research.

Christmas breads

I hope that you will share your stories, your baking tricks, and your insights at my facebook or instagram feed (@chocolatetrail). Stay in touch as the layers of the “#chocolatebabkaproject” unfold.

8 thoughts on “What is 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.

  5. Marji Wollin says:

    Hi Debbie,
    I’ve been eating chocolate babkas all of my life and never gave it a thought until now. Of course, as a kid I lived in Brooklyn where you could buy it at Ebinger’s, a famous bakery on Nostrand Avenue, where my mother treated us to the best of the best black-out cake, fresh charlotte russes, a scrumptuous 7 layer cake, fresh-made chocolate eclairs, and boston cream pies, a the cake with chocolate icing on top, white cake split in half with a vanilla pudding-like filling. Hamentashen were filled with prune or apricot. Needless to say, I grew up having desserts every night. I don’t know when Ebinger’s was
    founded, but what is now known as Junior’s, was a diner first. My parents went to high school not far from what is now called Junior’s. It opened as a diner in 1929, and I believe sold babka. Today Junior’s is famous for it’s fabulous cheese cake, but when I was a kid and into my 60’s they also served freshly made miniature danish with every meal. I’m wondering if they make babkas as well. I’m going to inquire.
    There’s another really famous Jewish bakery around 18th Street in Brooklyn, where you can certainly get babka. And in the lower east side there was also a strictly Jewish bakery, though I don’t know if it still exists.
    When we migrated to Great Neck in the 50’s there were two bakeries, both of which had babkas. The same with the 5 towns.
    So al in all, chocolate babkas certainly were commonly found in Jewish communities in NYC and on Long Island.

  6. Sharon G. Michelson says:

    I am ready to make a chocolate babka once the weather drops to below 80 degrees. I made cinnamon rolls last spring and the process was similar to babka with the rising and waiting times. I grew up in NYC. My dad worked in Shlarma’s (sp?) Bakery from the age of 8 delivering rolls until he graduated from with business degrees and did their books. I used to get up early on Sunday mornings for the trek to the assorted bakeries and smokehouses. He also knew what bakery in the city specialized in which desserts. I was spoiled from a young age.

  7. D. Prinz says:

    This is very informative, Marji; thank you for sharing all of this information. Please let me know if you come across more or new memories pop up.

  8. D. Prinz says:

    Which recipe will you use, Sharon, and have you made it before? Looking forward to hearing more.

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