Babka, Trans-Atlantic Jewish Delight

Babka 2.jpg

Photo by Ryan Stiner

With all the bad weather and rough national news this year it seems like a good time to bring back something really rich and tasty. And because babka is absolutely one of the tastiest traditional ways that Jewish bakers have found to put chocolate into old-style Eastern European preparations, it's always worth revisiting. You might be used to babka this way, but in the much-disputed history of babka, chocolate raises an interesting debate. If babka is from distant generations of Eastern European Jews, why does it contain chocolate?

I know this may sound a bit strange but when you think about it there aren't a whole lot of Jewish foods that start with chocolate. In centuries past, most Eastern European Jews were pretty poor, and chocolate was a rather costly ingredient. Sweets in the shtetl were generally things like cookies or simple cakes. Oranges were a luxury, chocolate barely seen, let alone tasted. Remember that, historically, even where people had access to it, chocolate for anything other than drinking was rarity. It's only at the end of the 19th century that it started to be eaten as a confection and, for the most part, it was wealthier folks who were doing the eating.

One theory says Babka is indigenous to the Ukraine, part of an ancient fertility symbol.

The story of chocolate and the Jewish community is a bit different in the Mediterranean. There, Jews and chocolate went together like bagels and cream cheese.

When many in the Jewish community fled the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th-century they took chocolate making with them. In the town of Bayonne--just on the French side of the Pyrenees--Jewish chocolatiers were more the norm than not! And many others--possibly even the folks who make the marvelous old-style Bonajuto chocolate we get from Sicily--still trace their roots to the Sephardic Jewish community.

This might seem to make the Mediterranean a natural home for babka, but babka's base--where it is most consumed and associated with the culture--is in Belarus, the Baltics, Ukraine, and Russia. Its actual history is most certainly uncertain: Did it start in the Mediterranean, where Jewish chocalatiers could have invented it, or in Eastern Europe, where it was most popular?

One theory says Babka is indigenous to the Ukraine, where it was part of an ancient fertility symbol used in the matriarchal system once in place in the region. Historian and food writer Lesley Chamberlain believes that babka came up from Italy, brought by Queen Bona Sforza of Poland in the 16th century and developed into a Russified version of the typical Italian pannetone.

In either case, the old forms of the babka were likely much larger, somewhere from the size of a modern day pannetone on up to some a few feet high. The original name was likely "baba," meaning grandmother.

One theory says that with the "modern era's" smaller sizes the name shifted to the diminutive, "babka," meaning "little grandmother." Some others say the tall shape they were made in resembles a grandmother's pleated skirts.

As much as many folks today both swear by it and swoon for it, chocolate babka seems to have been a mid-century American Jewish invention. A very good one, mind you. But I doubt my great-grandparents would ever have conceived of it.

People ask me all the time where we got the name Zingerman's and, as you might likely already know, we just made it up. So, good theories aside, who knows where all this other stuff came from?

Today, babka is a sweet loaf, akin to a light textured coffee cake, or a bit denser piece of panettone. It starts with a rich, slow-rise dough made with lots of butter, real vanilla, fresh egg yolks, orange and lemon zest, sugar and sea salt. The dough is rolled around an almond frangipane (made from almonds, almond flour, more vanilla, butter, sugar and eggs), then brushed with dark chocolate and sprinkled with rum-soaked Red Flame raisins, sultanas, and a really splendid cinnamon sugar. It's finished off with that nice, buttery-crumbly, comforting (to me at least) streusel topping.

More traditional versions were probably focused on sweetening with honey or sugar, and then a variety of the sorts of dried or candied fruits that go into Kulich or any other sweet bread. Chocolate, as I've been saying, likely came much later. We add dark chocolate on top and also rolled into the middle as well.

If you're eating alone, try warming a single slice in the oven for a few minutes, then enjoy it with a cup of strong coffee.

(Maybe we should make one with the coarse, unconched chocolate from Oaxaca in honor of the Mexican Jewish community.)