Over the past eight years, although I have developed over 300 desserts for books, websites and magazines, I keep coming back to my chocolate babka. It is the dessert that launched my career and made people remember me.
Babka means grandmother in Polish, named for the original tall, fluted shape that looked like a Bubbe’s skirt. It originated from Poland and the Ukraine. At first people used their challah dough to make babka, and early versions were filled with cinnamon, jam and raisins. Crumb toppings appeared in the mid-twentieth century. Babka became popular in the 1950s, but reached its pinnacle in 1994 when Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes exclaimed, “You can’t beat a babka.” I agree.
My original babka recipe came from a lovely Iraqi Jew in Long Island named Aliza Cohen, the mother of my high school best friend, Limor Decter. Having grown up with a mother who didn’t bake (except from mixes on Passover), I cherished every sleepover at Limor’s because Aliza would serve me fresh-baked loaves. At my bridal shower 23 years ago, Aliza gave me the recipe, and my babka-baking journey began.
When I started a catering business in Geneva, Switzerland, I sold loaves of babka among the French tarts and pastries. I taught Swiss Jewish women how to bake it at a class in my Geneva apartment. I have taught babka making from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.
Babka has become my most famous dessert. People expect me to gift babka when they invite my family over. I bring it to every shiva and bris. Local entertaining expert Abby Cherner received one for her son Noah’s bris and opted to freeze it rather than share it with her guests. She found it hidden a year later, defrosted it and ate it, saying, “There was no way I was going to waste a perfectly good chocolate babka.” Indeed, it is indestructible.
For eight summers I have been invited back to teach cooking and baking to campers at Camp Ramah New England, largely because the camp director wants babka. One year a few of the boys baking mini babka loaves decided that the more filling, the merrier. The filling tsunamied over the pan sides all over the oven and started a fire. Fearing tearful campers with no babka, I reached into the flames and saved all the babkas. That was when I learned that you can eat babka half-baked, but you need a spoon.
Over the years I have played around with the recipe. The Kosher Baker has the original chocolate loaf recipe, a cinnamon pull-apart babka and babka cupcakes with crumb topping. The Holiday Kosher Baker has a whole wheat babka loaf, babka bites and Tu b’Shvat babka. For Thanksgivukkah last year, I created a cranberry babka for The Washington Post, and last Rosh Hashanah I invented apple pie babka for Whisk magazine. I am just getting started and am even exploring selling my babkas. Stay tuned.
As my baking is slowly moving in a healthier direction using less margarine and sugar and more whole grain flours, I am working on healthier versions of babka, while making sure to retain the characteristic crisp outside and gooey chocolate interior. Maybe the appeal of babka is that it reminds us of ourselves, the Jewish people: we have to be tough to withstand anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, so we maintain a strong, crusty exterior. Once you get past that, we are soft on the inside, full of compassion and empathy for those close to us and for the rest of the world. I am certain that if everyone ate babka, people would be less likely to wage war.
Wishing you a sweet and peaceful new year.