Let's Eat

The hot new loaf courtesy of Bubbe

Why a traditional Yiddish dessert is taking the baking world by storm


A cake which has a rich history and a vibrant future. Babka is taking over the baking world, one glorious slice at a time.

In the spotless kitchen behind the Breads Bakery cafe in New York's Union Square, two chefs are spreading out a large sheet of croissant dough, before covering it in a thick layer of Nutella and dark chocolate chips. Within seconds, it's rolled into a tight spiral, cut deftly in half, and twisted together to form the distinctive babka loaves. "The key to the babka's success", says the bakery's Israeli co-owner Gadi Peleg, "is that combination of flavours, which remind people of their childhood. It's that combination which has really put us on the map."

The babka has a long and rich history in Jewish tradition, although its origins are a matter of dispute: according to Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it was first made in Poland and Ukraine, possibly from leftover challah dough spread with spices and dried fruit and nuts. The dough, of course, would have been made with oil rather than butter, to make sure it was parev. Adding chocolate was probably an Italian twist - although the chocolate swirled babka became truly popular in American Jewish bakeries in the 1950s. More than half a century later, it's taken on a life of its own - from the old traditional bakeries to the more modern interpretations.

Green's Bakery, in the heart of the most Hassidic area of Brooklyn's Williamsburg, has been baking babkas for decades, long before the current social media fuelled hype. It began life in a basement below the family's restaurant - cinnamon and chocolate swirled loaves made to the same recipe the original Mrs Green made back in pre war Hungary. Everything here is kosher -- in the kitchen space behind the warehouse piled with boxes ready for shipping, a young man is checking every egg yolk - and the ovens are working double time. Thanks to the babka's renaissance, they're now baking up to four thousand loaves a day for their own label as well as some of the country's leading specialist food stores.

"We are more traditional", says company vice president Martin Werzberger. "We use quality ingredients, and that's what keeps us on top." When they started out, almost all their customers were Jewish. Now they ship across the United States and beyond - even to Israel. "People write about it, then everyone wants to try it."

Lower East Side appetising store Russ and Daughters – purveyors of the finest smoked whitefish, bagels and lox – has been around for more than a century. When they opened their first café two years ago, babka was proudly on the menu. Not just any babka, though – these were made even more indulgent as French Toast, grilled to a golden crisp, the chocolate oozily melting in the centre. Lately they've come up with an irresistible evening treat – round slices of babka sandwiching a scoop of ice cream.

Breads Bakery can perhaps take much of the credit for the current babka boom, thanks to an article in the influential New York Magazine's Best of New York edition, shortly after they opened. Within days, queues were forming out of the door for the chocolate Nutella babka, and they've barely diminished since. It's a tribute to the meticulous craft that goes into each one: sold only by the loaf, never by the slice. There's a cinnamon raisin version on offer too, and the occasional seasonal flavour – apple, for Rosh Hashana, pumpkin for Thanksgiving – even cheesecake, a marriage of two Jewish favourites. "Everyone is doing different things, and we welcome that. Babkas have been around for hundreds of years but we have helped to make it cool and relevent again", says Peleg.

It's not just New York which is enjoying a babka moment. At the Good Egg in north London's Stoke Newington, head pastry chef Oded Mizrachi has been baking babkas since the restaurant first opened last summer: "There's a whole new generation of chefs and bakers reinventing all their old family recipes and classics", he says.

Another new North London bakery, Margot, has begun turning out sourdough babkas: owner Michelle Eskeri says they always sell out. "Every time I make it, people go mad for it – they come in and ask whether we have it. It takes me three days to make, so I have to plan well in advance".

At Honey and Co, the restaurant of Israeli chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, a large slice of the popular chocolate hazelnut Krantz Cake is just as at home on the breakfast menu as it is with an afternoon coffee, or an indulgent evening dessert. And over in Rochester, Kent, French patissier Bruno Breillet has been going the extra mile. He turns his brioche dough even fluffier with "lots of butter" and a water-based roux known as tangzhong. "I always add a crunchy streusel on top", he says, "with plenty of cinnamon". Not many people in the Medway know what a babka is: "But as soon as they try it, they are converted!"

Says Anne Shooter, author of Jewish baking book Sesame and Spice: "Babka has enjoyed a revival in New York and a surge of popularity in the UK partly as we are seeing a general resurgence of traditional Jewish foods - and partly because of the ongoing trend for Israeli food. My chocolate-orange babka (on facing page) was certainly inspired by the fabulous, artisanal bakeries in Israel where they make incredible versions filled with everything from halva to white chocolate, dates, honey, cranberries and more, as well as savoury versions with fillings like sundried tomatoes and cheese."

From Brooklyn in New York to Medway in Kent, a centuries old Jewish tradition is constantly being reborn. "Once people get to hear about it, they want it more and more. They take it to parties, they ask for it at their local gourmet store. It's a delicious cake which just happens to be kosher", says Green's Bakery's Werzberger.

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