This past Friday I asked a trusted friend and advisor what I should make and write about in my blog this week.
“Babka,” came the answer, “Chocolate Babka. CHOCOLATE RASPBERRY BABKA,” the tone of voice making it clear that this was resolutely not a suggestion, but an assignment to be fulfilled in return for a favor recently delivered.
Now, aside from the fact that I have never actually baked a babka, I found this a really good – uh, suggestion. It’s been a while since I baked something that relied totally on my taste memories of years gone by. For most people I assume taste memory has nothing to do with it; for them, Chocolate Babka invokes the well-known “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry and Elaine get to the bakery too late and have to settle for a Cinnamon Babka – clearly (to their thinking) a lesser babka. To make matters worse, their babka has a hair in it. (This is also the episode where Jerry explains the profundity of the Black and White Cookie.)
In the past I have written about my obsession with food as it is portrayed on screen, but as you never actually see a babka in the “Seinfeld” episode, there is nothing for me to emulate. Anyway, I am not setting out to make a lesser babka, and certainly not a hairy one.
Here’s a game: in three words or less, describe babka for the uninitiated. I’m going to say “coffee cake on steroids.” I know: that was four words. A more complete description is a dense, sweet, filled, yeast cake. The traditional Jewish New York babka is made by filling and twisting or braiding the yeast dough. I see them all around the city in the shape of a loaf, but the babka of my youth was tall and round, notable for its hard, toasty, crunchy crust, its gooey filling, and its ample hat of crackling streusel. The tall, round cakes I remember must owe their shape to the traditional Russian – Polish version. The name Babka may come from “Baba” which translates as “Grandmother.” The theory is that the twisted, braided dough creates a design on the outside of the cake that looks like the pleats of a Grandma’s skirt. A version of this was made in the run up to Easter, so my timing is apt.
History lesson completed, I stepped out of the “Way-Back Machine” on a mission to build a better babka. In this case, I’m defining “better” as faster and maybe easier, because the traditional babka recipe I found is a bit of a lengthy project. As it turns out, no matter how you slice it (pardon the pun) making a babka is project baking, something best done when time is not an issue. The good news is that I have organized it into some easy steps. It still takes a little while, but none of the tasks are particularly difficult.
A babka recipe is really three recipes: the first, for the yeast dough, has the requisite rising time. The second and third recipes, for the filling and the streusel topping, are quick and simple, but contain a lot of moving parts.
This begs the question, “Why bother?” I have a couple of answers based specifically on my experiences baking babka this past weekend. The first answer is: because last Saturday night we New Yorkers experienced a howling, window-shaking rainstorm. In short, the perfect night for project baking, as I’m a terrible Scrabble player, so I stay stashed safely in the kitchen. The second answer is: I defy you to top the taste of babka straight from the oven, still marginally too hot to eat. My third answer (extra-credit) is: the aroma of baking babka will make you wish for more house-bound weather. Chocolate plus raspberry plus yeast. You do the math.
I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but I’ll pause in the coffee aisle of the supermarket just to smell the beans. Baking is the same experience; sometimes the aromas coming from the oven are worth the price of admission.
It would be fun to tell you that I got the recipe from my sainted great-grandmother, a legendary baker. But the truth is that the yeast dough recipe came from the back of a box of pearl sugar that has been sitting on my shelf longer than I can remember. It’s one of those recipes that gets a frequent look with the thought, “Someday…” The streusel is from my Butter Flour Eggs Crumb Cake recipe. The filling? I winged it. Oddly enough, I think the filling came out the best of the three.
I also added a small touch. Literally. Instead of baking one big babka, I baked two baby babkas. One for the previously mentioned friend and advisor, and one for me. A happy arrangement.
While I prefer the babka fresh from the oven, there is something gratifying about carefully toasted slices of day (or two) old babka with a dab of butter or cream cheese. (Don’t heat slices of babka in a toaster. The filling will drizzle out and make a mess. Use your oven and a cookie sheet.) The bonus here is that even reheated babka fills the kitchen with the same great baking smells.
Hair is optional.
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