Babka's disputed, delicious origin story

How one Jewish dessert became so popular (and what we lost along the way)

Published March 2, 2022 6:30PM (EST)

 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

The babka I grew up with was bad. It was dry and crumbly and full of trans fat. It came from a grocery store in the same suburban strip mall as my orthodontist Dr. Diamond's office and, in our household, counted only my parents as fans. I never would've dreamt of sharing a photo of it — all stale and nubby next to the bagels on the top shelf our fridge — on Instagram.

Today's babkas, however, are runway models and pageview guarantors. They're one part buttery dough, one part chocolate chunks, and one part air. They're twisted, striated, and marbled; streusel-topped, syrup-soaked, and ice cream sandwich'd. They're plastered all over the Internet, the starlets of Smitten Kitchen (2007 and 2014), Bon Appétit (2016), Food and Wine (2016), The New York Times (2016), and our very own Food52 (also 2016).

And they're cool. They're hip. They turn bakeries into destinations. Of the five Grub Street listed in their "Absolute Best Babka in New York" feature in May, only one is an old-school Jewish bakery; the other four are media darlings of the New York food world, very different from places like the now-defunct Lichtman's, the Upper West Side bakery founded by Hungarian emigrants where cookbook writer Rose Levy Beranbaum bought babka growing up.

In 2011, Katherine Martinelli, writing for The Forward, asked, "Why aren't there more creative takes on babka?" Six years later, we have pizza babka, babka ice cream, and babka doughnuts and this question seems like a joke.

How did we get to a place where the last five years have been declared, unofficially, as babka's year? When did babka become so unrecognizably desirable? As Peter Shelsky, the co-owner of Shelsky's of Brooklyn, a delicatessen that nods to the old-school smoked fish and bagel shops of yesteryear, said recently on a panel about Jewish desserts, the babka of his childhood was always a "take it or leave it" sort of confection.

But that babka was a different animal — and, as you'll see, a different recipe — than the babka served at Shelsky's now, or the babka that's been made famous by Breads Bakery in New York City, which Shelsky concedes is even better than his own. And Breads Bakery, though not where our babka story starts, it is where the story climaxes.

"You can't beat a babka"

Before there was Breads Bakery, there was the 1994 Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine famously derided cinnamon babka as "the lesser babka."

In "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking," food writer and historian Gil Marks credited the show for propelling babka to national fame, and there seems to be truth — or at least perceived truth — to this: When I asked the Jewish dessert panelists, Shelsky included, why, of all the Jewish desserts in the world, babka has seen the most attention, all four responded — and at once — with one answer: "Seinfeld." Posed the same question, Alice Medrich had the same response: "You are going to laugh . . . but maybe it has to do with that old Seinfeld episode?"

But over 20 years have passed since the episode aired and, as you'll have noticed from the dates of the recipes listed above, babka's ubiquity has been a recent phenomenon, with many recipes published in the past year alone. Rose Levy Beranbaum, who developed a babka for her 2014 book "The Baking Bible" (and is coming out with a twisted version in her next), told me that even over the past two years, babka has become "omnipresent."

The babka that is everywhere, however, is far from the babka of my Eastern European ancestors. Jewish babka as we know it originated, as Gil Marks writes, in the early 1800s, when housewives would spread extra challah dough with jam or cinnamon, roll it up, and bake it alongside the bread. "Unlike the butter-rich, non-Jewish babka, Jewish versions were usually kept parve by using oil," which meant they were "firmer and slightly drier than brioche." What they lacked in richness they made up for "with the delightful swirls," and the inclusion of chocolate was a mid-twentieth century American Jewish invention.

To see babka referred to as lacking in richness in the context of the specimens that drip chocolate and butter all over the internet is almost comical.

But the use of butter rather than oil was a decision that members of The Babka Renaissance (an expression I just made up) had to take seriously. Evan Bloom, who owns Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco, knew that a butter-based babka would taste different than the loaves he grew up with, which were dairy-free, made with palm oil, and stored in his grandma's freezer. Their babka, which has been available at Wise Sons since it opened as a pop-up restaurant in 2011 ("we pre-date this whole babka trend," he told me), is more similar to brioche — and made with plenty of butter.

Which brings us back to Breads Bakery, founded, uncoincidentally, in 2013, right before we reached peak babka. The panelists at the Jewish dessert discussion estimated that this particular version is so irresistible and list-topping because each loaf includes two sticks of butter. While this estimate is inaccurate (there is one stick of butter per three loaves), it expresses the great compositional differences between Breads' creation and the parve door-stoppers of our forebears.

The viral moment

When Breads opened in 2013, they were selling the now-famous babka, with its three signature moves — a laminated, croissant-like dough; a Nutella and chocolate chunk filling; and a sugar syrup coating (watch the process here) — within a few weeks.

It did not fly off the shelves.

"But then an amazing thing happened," Breads owner Gadi Peleg recalled. "Through Danielle's efforts and her ability to promote us like no one else, we were able to get [the babka] into the hands of some influencers," he told me, referring to Danielle Zaria Praport of Zaria Public Relations.

"We went with boxes full of baked goods to various important food influencers in New York and let them try some of our stuff" (Food52 included — example below).Eventually, their "stuff" ended up in the hands of someone at New York Magazine, who deemed it the best babka in the city that same debut year.

"The rest," Peleg said, "was history." After the New York Magazine feature, Breads went from selling a few dozen babka a day to hundreds, sometimes thousands, Uri Scheft, a partner at Breads Bakery and the owner of Lehamim bakeries in Israel, wrote to me. Peleg started to panic that there wasn't enough Nutella on the island of Manhattan to support babka production.

"From that moment on, you can really track all of those articles that have come out and all of the various things that have been inspired by that," Peleg said. "To the extent that a dessert can go viral, that's the moment it really started going viral."

It helped, of course, that the age of Instagram has given visually-striking, nearly unbelievable food — from rainbow bagels to smoothie bowls to outrageous milkshakes — more traction than ever. And, as Wise Sons' bloom hypothesized, the resurgence in interest surrounding home-baking and bread-baking, specifically, has urged more people into the kitchen (and then onto social networks to share their creations).

Have you made a beautiful babka yet?

The disputed origin story

It remains to be determined who exactly at Breads (and beyond) can be credited with the internet-winning babka. And it's probable that, like many of the world's wonders, its conception was born of collaboration.

In the headnote for "The Famous Chocolate Babka" in his cookbook "Breaking Breads," Scheft explains the addition of Nutella to the babka filling was his attempt to tap into the "taste memory" of the chocolate-spread sandwiches that he, like many children in Israel, used to eat at lunchtime. He'd been baking the cake at Lehamim bakery in Tel Aviv for 16 years before Breads opened, at which point, he told me, "it was natural to prepare it in New York, too."

"I first called this chocolate krantz cake," he writes in the headnote, "but in all honesty, that name didn't effectively communicate the deep, ephemeral pleasure of biting into the wonderfully rich and deeply chocolaty pastry. We decided to call it chocolate babka instead."

Peleg tells a slightly different story: The bakers presented him with a "loaf-looking thing, which they referred to as a chocolate krantz cake" that reminded Peleg of the babka he grew up with.

"It was decent," he said, but reminiscent something a grandmother would buy from a bakery. "I looked at it and thought, 'How can we make it look more appealing to a young, hip American crowd? What can we do to make this product more appealing to an American palate?' I thought of my own childhood in New York and I felt like Nutella was something that I remembered fondly." The bakers swapped Israeli chocolate spread for Nutella and, as Peleg remembers, "The minute I tasted it, I knew we were on to something."

And then there's food writer Gabriella Gershenson, who, at that same dessert panel, claimed the earliest credit for the state of babka in 2017. "I met Uri, who's the owner-baker of Breads in Tel Aviv [editor's note: this is the separate business called Lehamim] right before they opened in New York, and I was like, 'New Yorkers are going to go crazy because everyone loves chocolate babka and nobody has really quite hit the sweet spot in New York with like a high-quality bakery chocolate babka,' and lo' and behold, it completely caught-fire."

"The hidden mystery of the Breads Bakery babka," Gershenson said, "is that they don't know what babka is in Israel — it's called krantz. And krantz is actually a German pastry."

The "babka" that we all love? The chocolate veins and sugary toppings we go crazy for? It isn't even babka at all.

It was there all along . . .

"It's not making a resurgence," Amy Emberling, one of the Bakinghouse managing partners at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me,"it's just making a resurgence among a few of us who are making certain things or looking at certain things. It's popped up in a certain way, but people have [always] been eating it in between moments of a little celebrity."

"No one thinks about something for a while, and then a group of people become introduced to something, or come of age, and they say, 'Oh wow, this is so neat,' and, well, twenty years ago, a different group of people were saying the same thing," Emberling told me.

Babka, in other words, was not ushered into existence by food media. It was there all along.

But the team at Zingerman's — which stopped baking babka about eight years ago amidst feelings that they were unable to provide customers with the type of dessert they were used to while using butter instead of oil or margarine — has recently started developing a new recipe.

And for Peleg at Breads, babka is not merely a fair-weather trend. He referred to it as "a class of food, almost." But is this class of food — buttery, laminated, decadent, chocolate-filled, unrecognizable as babka — true to the babka's humble roots? Is it still a "Jewish" dessert? Does it pay homage to the original — or does it critique it? (For Alice Medrich, who, up until a few years ago, had never had babka, it's so loaded with chocolate that "the bread part is a mere vehicle: "it's amazing, but that mischief filling doesn't honor my brioche.")

Some people — myself included, and probably my dad, too — will express nostalgia for the dry, dense babka of the past. But, as Peter Shelsky put it, "Why should something stay crappy just because it's been crappy in the past?"

And if I want a loaf of crappy babka, I'm sure I can walk to the supermarket a mile from my parents' house in Baltimore and there'll be a loaf waiting for me. These days, trans fat-free.

Our best babka recipes

Halvah and Nutella Babka

This sweet and nutty babka recipe has a little bit of everything. For chocolate lovers, there's deep swirls of nutella. For nut-lovers, they'll get that in the chocolate-hazelnut spread and crumbled halva (a sweet sesame-based nougat candy that hails from the Middle East).

Babka Au Chocolat Brioche

Babka is a labor of love to make and this one requires a bit of planning in advance. If you want to serve it for your holiday celebrations, start by prepping it the day before your festivities. A duo of chocolate (cocoa powder and chopped dark chocolate) join a line-up of cinnamon, brown sugar, and instant espresso powder for a rich filling. Once the babka is made, why not cut it in thick slices and pan-fry it for French toast?

Carrot Cake Babka

"The same flavors and textures of carrot cake are all present in the filling: grated carrots, raisins, and warm spices," writes recipe developer Posie (Harwood) Brian. Carrot cake lovers will be extra excited to see that the signature cream cheese frosting makes an appearance in the form of a lighter glaze that's spread over the top of the baked babka.

Black Sesame Tangzhong Babka

Three tablespoons of black sesame seeds are ground to a fine powder and mixed into the buttery dough for the babka. A chocolate-nut filling (you can use any nuts that you please, but might I recommend walnuts, almonds, or pecans?) brings it altogether.

Savory Babka with Gruyère, Mozzarella, and Black Sesame

We didn't want to overlook anyone who lacks a sweet tooth. This babka turns hard in the savory direction, and no one will be mad about that. "I add scallions, Dijon mustard, and black sesame seeds for extra flavor which makes the bread much more interesting," writes recipe developer Posie (Harwood) Brian. For even more savoriness, add crumbled bacon. We promise no one will complain.

By Sarah Jampel

MORE FROM Sarah Jampel

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Babka Chocolate Food Food52 Jewish Food