In some circles, I’m acknowledged as a “Jewish baking goddess,” so it was a shock to discover that when it came to babka, I knew what I knew — but apparently there was more.
The classic loaf I had been teaching for years is a really good babka. But it’s not The Babka of the Hour. Babka, it should be explained, is a sweet yeast bread, like cake. Its dough is richer than that of a cinnamon bun but not as rich as Danish dough. It features a sticky, gooey, addictive filling of cinnamon sugar or chocolate sugar spread and either a glossy glaze or a crumb topping — or both.
Lately, babka has been getting its due online at various sites and blogs, perhaps prompted by the glorious cover shot on Food & Wine in January. Once that magazine put babka front and center, it seemed like a trend you’d want in on.
Thing is, the babka recipe in those features, including the one I was used to making, is the same one your grandmother might have preened over and passed down until it achieved family legend status. That babka is amazing in its own right and one of those things that’s great fresh, almost better toasted and not unlike the one many bakeries produce. Variations or derivatives of it are everywhere: Greek Easter breads, Italian panettone and Russian kulich.
Which brings us to some history notes: All indications point to babka’s roots as Central European — at least that’s the cinnamon connection. The word “babcia” (BAHB-cha) itself is Polish for “grandmother”; lots of folks contend that puffy babkas recall a grandmother’s pleated, voluminous skirts. And although the bread seems tethered to Jewish bakeries, it is not baked for any particular Jewish celebration. Babka is as welcome at a Yom Kippur break-fast as it is at a brunch spread for a bris.
Chocolate babka is more of a mid-20th-century invention, purported to be descended from chocolate-making Spanish Jews who fled Spain around the time of the Inquisition. My baker’s instinct favors another possibility: that baking in central Europe collided with France, because to me, chocolate babka has a strong connection to pain au chocolat. Of course, these days beyond the cinnamon-babka-vs.-chocolate rivalry (the “Seinfeld” Dinner Party episode comes to mind), there’s poppy seed, cheese, almond, prune and Nutella. But I digress.
Happily, all Jewish baking seems to be getting a new glance. Clearly, the style of babka that inspired swoons was the chewy, sticky, dense, impossibly sweet one you can get only at some bakeries. Where I live, the best babka, bar none, is made at Montreal’s kosher Boulangerie Cheskie. And that is where this particular babka adventure took off.
Can you make Cheskie’s babka? a friend asked. It’s the best.
I bought one to do reconnaissance in my own kitchen. Hefty and redolent of industrial baker’s cinnamon (i.e., sweet and hot), Cheskie babka is sold by the hunk — that is, by weight — at about $6 per pound. It features multiple coiled layers and is indeed sweeter than a typical babka, dense with so much cinnamon or chocolate schmear that you have to sit down to savor it. (Also at Cheskie: a Russian babka, cut into squares, that comes in a cheese variety, too.)
A Cheskie babka rarely makes it home untouched; people tug and pull at it in their cars. There isn’t a pervasive sense of butter in this yeasted loaf because it’s pareve, a.k.a. dairy-free. But the texture is remarkable and the sheer heft is impressive. Leftovers — mostly a result of my studying the loaf scientifically at my house — lasted for a week without going stale. I considered it a testimony to the shellacking of baker’s sugar syrup, not to mention the cinnamon schmear bonding both interior and exterior of the luscious pastry.
Begrudgingly, I conceded that it was different from my babka. And maybe better. I like them both, though, and love a challenge. After all, I invented Matzoh Buttercrunch and figured out a way to re-create Montreal-style bagels and New York’s H&H bagels. I could make this babka.
I called Cheskie and explained my quest. The woman I spoke with generously invited me to the crew’s early-morning baking to watch and learn, albeit with one condition: “No recipe.”
Fine by me; intel on the bakery’s technique was what I was after. Upon arrival, I spent a good half-hour waiting, perusing the cases filled with black-and-white cookies, giant sprinkle cookies, Danish, challah, strudel and other mouthwatering goodies. The employee — whom I’ll call Ms. Cheskie, honoring her request for anonymity — came out at last and told me politely: no. They had rethought the idea and would not grant me access to the production area. But she said she would offer a few technical notes.
“First, roll it thin on the sheeter,” she said.
A sheeter is a huge, standard commercial bakery machine that makes phyllo dough out of anything. That thin. A sheeter? That was news.
“Yes, on the sheeter.”
Ms. Cheskie carefully folded a nearby paper envelope on the counter in half, maybe once more and showed me. It was about 1/8 inch, maybe less.
Then I asked: A cold rise or what, an hour or 90 minutes, egg wash and bake?
“No,” Ms. Cheskie said. No rise.”
On a yeast bread! That also accounted for the dense texture. Truth is, Cheskie babka has swirls upon swirls of schmear. The layers are not especially bready and are almost compressed; I counted 12 to 14 of them.
The bakery notes paid off, and I am delighted to share the results. The accompanying babka recipe is the outcome of attempts that took more than 10 pounds of unsalted butter to produce. I’m sure it could still be even more exact, but it’s pretty darned close to Cheskie’s. (If you want yours to be pareve, by the way, you’ll have to use oil or shortening.)
Mine is not pareve or non-dairy; original babkas most likely were butter-based as well. It has a few components: a sugar syrup, streusel crumbs and either a cinnamon or chocolate schmear. Overall, though, the recipe’s easy, and less time-consuming to make than a bready babka because of that “no rise.” I’m thinking that the dough, rolled out so thin, would be a perfect vehicle for almond paste or my leftover hamantaschen fillings. But that’s another story.