“You can’t beat a babka,” sighed Elaine, in the famous episode of Seinfeld. (Scroll down to watch) in which she and Jerry miss out on the last chocolate babka in the bakery and they are forced to settle for a cinnamon babka – a filling they have never heard of (although, fyi, food researchers say that cinnamon is the original filling!)
The babka in question is a sweet bread that originated in Eastern Europe. Its name is derived from the word baba which means grandmother or old woman in Slavic languages or bubbie in Yiddish, which means grandmother. Why grandmother? Of course, there are all kinds of differing opinions: One relays that older women were the central bakers and so the cake was named after them, Another says that the original shape of the cake, which was baked in a tall bundt mold with a hole in the center – was reminiscent of the swirling skirts of the older women.
Ashkenazi Jews used to make the cake for Shabbat and holidays and used the leftover dough from making challah. They swirled the dough with a sweet filling – jam or cinnamon, and later, also chocolate. Over the years, the round cake took on other shapes as well (for example, the elongated, rectangular strip known in Israel as krantz, named after a German pastry – but that’s a story for another entry).
In the middle of the 20th century, babka became popular in Jewish bakeries in New York, and, as a pop culture reference (the aforementioned Seinfeld episode). It gained recognition and also plenty of variations, including a berry babka and even a salty babka filled with bacon. In 2016, Israeli baker Uri Scheft made headlines with his version, based on a rich challah dough and a generous amount of Nutella and Belgian dark-chocolate chips in the filling. It was crowned by New York Magazine as the ‘best babka in New York’ (and has remained a beloved and iconic crowd favorite since, garnering praise from numerous publications – and even Martha Stewart).