Encapsulating all that’s most seductive about Eastern European and Jewish baking, the Babka (or Baba) is a sweetened bread or cake made from rich dough, baked in a tall cylindrical mould. It’s origins are mysterious but Savella Stechishin, the Ukrainian-Canadian home economist and writer speculates that ‘the baba-bread may have originated in prehistoric times when a matriarchal system existed in the Ukraine. Apparently, priestesses performed various religious rituals some of which may have been connected with fertility (of the soil), hence a special type of ritual bread, the baba bread, may have been a feature of the ritual.’ (1979)
The name Babka comes from the Polish for grandmother or old woman (Baba in Russia or Ukraine means the same) and probably refers to the pastry’s shape – statuesque, with its fluted indentations from the mould resembling a peasant skirt. It seems that a cylinder was the ideal shape since the dough was not allowed to rise over the top of the mould (Imperial Russian copper moulds as high as 40cm have been recorded).
The Jewish babka is made from a doubled and twisted length of yeast dough containing cinnamon and/or chocolate and is typically baked in a rectangular loaf pan. It is often topped with streusel.
In the 21st century, babka has strayed far beyond its Eastern European roots: it appears all over the world from Russia to America, via Western Europe and the UK, in a variety of different forms including a version made with potato, as a kind of fried spaghetti cake made with eggs, salt, pepper and thinly sliced onion and in the UK where it is almost invariably associated with rum. As you’d expect, there are many myths attached to its construction. In Italy, for instance, ‘Precious pastry cooks declared it needed to rest on an eiderdown before it went in the oven, after which baking took place in an atmosphere of maternity. Men were forbidden to enter the kitchen and no one was allowed to speak above a whisper.’
Nowadays, you can produce a Babka in a short tin mould, without an eiderdown and men may enter and leave the kitchen with impunity. The recipe below comes from Jen Reviews (jenreviews.com), the online authority on everything to do with food, fitness and home
Chocolate Babka with Mixed Nuts
- 250ml milk
- ½ cube (42g) of fresh yeast or 14g of dry yeast
- 130g white granulated sugar
- 500g all-purpose flour
- 1 medium egg
- pinch of salt
- 80g butter softened and cubed
- 1 egg for brushing
Chocolate Nut Filling
- 100g dark chocolate*
- 40g butter
- 2 tablespoons white granulated sugar
- 100g toasted mixed nuts**
Heat the milk and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a small saucepan until warm. Remove from heat and crumble in the yeast. Let it sit for 10 minutes and then stir until the yeast is completely dissolved. In a large bowl, add the flour, egg, salt, cubed butter and yeast mixture and knead until you have a homogeneous dough. (Or use a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.) If the dough is too sticky to touch, add a little more flour.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and let the dough rise for 1 hour at room temperature.***
In the meantime, prepare the filling by chopping up the chocolate into small pieces. Melt the butter and sugar in a small saucepan and remove from heat. Add in the chocolate and stir until smooth. Chill in the fridge until the dough is ready.
Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it to remove the air. Preheat your oven to 180C (350F) and grease a rectangular bread pan. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a rectangle about 30cm x 50cm (11.8 x 19.6 inches). Spread the chocolate filling evenly onto the dough and sprinkle with the toasted mixed nuts. Carefully roll it up lengthwise. Cut the dough lengthwise into two even pieces and braid them together with the cut facing upwards. Tuck the ends underneath.
Carefully place into the bread pan and cover with a kitchen towel. Let it rise for 30 minutes.
Brush with an egg and bake in the pre-heated oven for 50 minutes. If the top starts to become too dark, cover it with aluminum foil. When the Babka is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool. Tip out of the bread pan and slice into large pieces and serve
* Use high quality dark chocolate or couverture for the filling. Do not be tempted to use chocolate chips, it will not taste the same
**Such as hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts or pecans.
***Or chill overnight in the fridge and continue the next day.
Store the babka at room temperature for up to 2 days. Or freeze it for up to 3 months, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil
For a step-by-step guide to making this recipe visit jenreviews.com/babka/
Picture credit: Jen Reviews