Israel visit reignites passion for Eastern European dessert

by Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

My childhood passion for babka was rekindled on a recent trip to Israel, where every bakery window I passed, including my favorite, Roladin, was filled with rows of stunning sweet breads that made my mouth water with their glistening, syrupy glazes and swirls of deep, dark chocolate. While Twinkies, Little Debbie’s, and chocolate doughnuts might top the list of most children’s favorite treats, my favorite was babka. My parents came to the United States from Poland and many of their friends came from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Germany. That meant there would always be at least one chocolate babka for dessert when we got together for holidays. While no two babkas ever looked or tasted the same, they were all rich, moist, sweet, and chocolaty. Some were baked in bundt pans and some were baked in loaf pans. Some were glazed with apricot jam while others were topped with a crumbly streusel.

If you have ever had great babka you won’t forget it. And you won’t be surprised to learn that others feel the same. Continental Kosher Bakery in Los Angeles has a Babka Club, where, along with a babka delivery every month for a year, you get to don the prized club T-shirt. Television audiences may have first learned about babka from the famous “Seinfeld” Episode 77 (“The Dinner Party”), where Elaine and Jerry, standing in line at the Royal Bakery, get into a heated argument over the merits of chocolate babka versus cinnamon babka.  Frustrated by Elaine’s stubbornness, Jerry finally declares, “Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka.” While I have never been a big fan of the “Seinfeld” show or its creator, Larry David, I confess that the argument in the Royal Bakery perfectly captures my own babka passion.

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So, too, babka is a hot topic on the blogosphere, where food bloggers wrangle over which city can lay claim to the best babka. And, of course, every baker is convinced that her recipe tops all the others. Some years ago, food writer Joan Nathan wrote a column for the New York Times in which she talked to four bakers, with four different recipes. And then there’s the anonymous bread baking blogger from Jerusalem who swears on his blog, “Breadman Talking” (breadmantalking.blogspot.com) that the best recipe for babka is Martha Stewart’s.

The Breadman’s shout out to Stewart is not surprising when one considers that her maiden name was Kostyra and her family came from Poland, which is one of the countries that some historians claim is the native home of the beloved babka. Other food historians argue that this cake originated in the Ukraine, Italy, or Russia.  We do know that “babka” is the diminutive for “baba,” which is Polish, Russian, and Yiddish for grandmother, the family member many of us associate with this treat.

After testing Stewart’s recipe, I wholeheartedly agree with the raves.  But as a child, my favorite babkas were the ones made by my parent’s dear family friends, Ericka Eckstut and the late Alice Prince. And as an avid baker, those two recipes were the ones I was most eager to try. When I recently spoke with Ericka, who now lives with her husband, Donny, just outside of Washington, D.C. in Maryland, she told me that she hadn’t baked babka in many years.  When I asked for her recipe, I was surprised to learn that it was contained in a cookbook that she brought with her from her country of origin, Czechoslovakia.  Until which time the cookbook is translated into English, I can only share with you my fond memories: it was heavenly.

Alice was Hungarian and came from a small city near the Czechoslovakian border. Whenever our families got together for dinner, whether at the Prince home or at my home, Alice would make her chocolate babka.

“I remember the days mom baked babka,” her daughter Cheryl recalled. “She would make two babkas at a time, one for us and one to give away. When she finished baking, the whole house smelled of cinnamon. It was amazing.”

Local friends were not Alice’s only fans. She would frequently ship her babka to friends and family around the country, and most often to her grandson, Michael, in Cincinnati, who developed a love for the cake at a very early age.  Alice’s babka bridged the cinnamon versus chocolate debate by including both ingredients in her cake.  And the streusel that topped the cake, well it doesn’t get much better than this. I asked Cheryl whether any of her siblings’ have made their mother’s babka.

“It calls for yeast, which is too complicated, and it takes too long,” Cheryl said.

After some searching through some boxes in the basement, Cheryl found Alice’s recipe. I promised to simplify the recipe so that my readers and the Prince family could enjoy Alice’s spectacular cake.

Here, then, are two great recipes for babka. For those of you who have never baked with yeast before, babka is an excellent way to begin.  Yeast is very forgiving, and the enriched babka dough is easier to handle than most other yeast doughs. Just be sure that the temperature of any ingredient you add to your dough mixture does not exceed 130 degrees, which may kill the yeast and keep the dough from rising properly.

Both of these cakes can be made by hand or in a heavy-duty mixer, which does a nice job of kneading the dough. Avoid the tendency to add more flour than is called for, even though your dough may still be a little tacky.  Once the dough has gone through the initial rise, it will become less sticky and more manageable to roll out. Also, both doughs can go through their initial rise overnight in the refrigerator. After the dough has been mixed and kneaded, place it in a lightly oiled jumbo zip-lock plastic bag or, alternately, in a lightly oiled bowl twice as large as the dough.  Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap.  When you are ready to proceed with the recipe the next day, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit in the bag or bowl at room temperature, covered, for 30 minutes before proceeding.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

Chocolate Babka

( Slightly adapted from Martha Stewart Living , May 2000)*

When shaping the babka, twist dough evenly throughout the length of the roll a full 5 to 6 turns. The babka can be prepared up to step 8 and frozen for up to a month before baking. When ready to bake, remove from freezer; let stand at room temperature for about 5 hours, and bake.

Note: When twisting of the dough, it is normal for some of the filling to fall off. Once dough has had its final twist, gather the lost filling and tuck it between the strands of the formed dough once in the pan.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups warm milk, 110 degrees

2 (1/4 ounce each) packages active dry yeast

1 3/4 cups plus a pinch of sugar

3 whole large eggs, room temperature

2 large egg yolks, room temperature

6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring counter

1 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, room temperature, plus more for bowl and loaf pans

2 1/4 pounds semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped (this can be done in the food processor by pulsing machine.)

2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Streusel Topping:

Makes 3 3/4 cups (More than enough with some leftover.  The leftovers can be frozen for use on other baked goods.)

1 2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Directions:

Pour warm milk into a medium bowl. Sprinkle yeast and pinch of sugar over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together 3/4- cup sugar, 2 eggs, and egg yolks. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.

 In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Change to the dough hook. Add 2 sticks butter, and beat until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, and form a smooth soft dough that’s slightly sticky when squeezed, about 10 minutes.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few turns until smooth. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, and turning to coat all sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until almost doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Place chocolate, remaining cup sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Using two knives, pastry cutter, or the tips of your fingers, cut in remaining 1 1/2 sticks butter until well combined; set filling aside.

Generously butter three 9-by-5-by-2 3/4-inch loaf pans; line them with a strip of parchment paper that covers the bottom and extends over both of the ends of the pan. For egg wash, beat remaining egg with 1- tablespoon cream and set egg aside. Turn dough our onto a lightly floured counter and cut into 3 equal pieces. Cover two of the pieces with plastic wrap. Roll out remaining piece on a well-floured counter into a 16-inch square, 1/8 inch thick.

Brush edges of dough with reserved egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of the reserved chocolate filling evenly over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border all around. Refresh egg wash if needed. Roll dough up tightly like a jellyroll. Pinch ends together to seal. Gently twist roll 5 or 6 turns. Flatten slightly on counter and brush top of roll with egg wash. Crumble 2 tablespoons filling over the left half of the roll, being careful not to let mixture slide off. Fold right half of the roll over onto the coated left half. Pinch and fold ends under to seal. Twist the roll 2 turns, and place into prepared pan, pushing down lightly on dough to evenly fill pan. Repeat with the remaining 2 pieces of dough and remaining filling.

Make Streusel Topping In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, and butter. Using a fork, pastry blender, or the tips of your fingers, stir mixture until fully combined with clumps ranging in size from crumbs to 1 inch.

Heat oven to 350 degrees and set oven rack in the center. Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of streusel topping over each loaf. Loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove plastic wrap and bake loaves, rotating halfway through, until golden, 45-55 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue to bake babkas  until they are deep golden, 5-20 minutes more. Let babkas cool in the pans on a cooling rack for 5 minutes and then turn out of the pans to cool completely on a wire rack. Babkas freeze well for up to 1 month.

Makes 3 very rich loaves.

Alice Prince’s Chocolate-Cinnamon Babka

Dough:

1 – 5 or 6 oz can evaporated milk

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoons salt

4 large egg yolks

1/2 cup butter or margarine, at room temperature

4 1/2 cups sifted flour (Sift flour before measuring and then lightly spoon it into the measuring cup.)

2 pkgs. active dry yeast, or 5 teaspoons

1/2 cup warm water, about 110 degrees

Pinch of sugar

1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon Crumb Topping:

1/2 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup chocolate chips (smaller ones work better)

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, at room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Directions:

Reserve 1/4 cup milk. Add enough water to remaining milk to measure 1/2 cup; combine with sugar, salt, and egg yolks in a large bowl of an electric mixer and beat well. Add softened margarine and 2 cups flour; beat until smooth.

Combine warm water, pinch of sugar, and yeast in a small bowl; stir until dissolved. Let sit at room temperature until foamy, 5-10 minutes. Add this yeast mixture and 1 more cup of flour to mixture in large bowl; beat together at medium speed for 3 minutes. On low speed, gradually blend in remaining 1 1/2 cups of flour until thoroughly combined. Remove bowl from mixer and transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl twice the size of the dough. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.  (Alternatively, dough can rise overnight in the refrigerator. The next day remove bowl from refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding with recipe.)

Heat reserved 1/4 cup of milk in a small saucepan just to a boil; remove from heat, add chocolate pieces and cinnamon; stirring until mixture is smooth. Set aside at room temperature to cool.

Lightly oil a 10-inch tube pan or bundt pan and dust it lightly with flour.

Mix all crumb topping ingredients together with a fork until blended. Set aside.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured counter. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a 10″ by 15″ rectangle. Spread dough with cooled chocolate mixture, leaving 1/2 -inch border on longest edge closest to you. Beginning on long end farthest away from you, roll up like a jellyroll. Pinch long seam together with your fingers. Place roll, seam side down, in prepared 10-inch tube pan and press the ends together to seal. If necessary, stretch to fit pan. Sprinkle with crumb topping. Cover pan with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove plastic wrap and bake babka for about 35-45 minutes, or until lightly browned and hollow sounding when tapped with your fingers.

Gently turn cake out of pan onto a plate and immediately back over onto a cooling rack, streusel side up, to cool.

Makes one large cake.