Meet chocolate babka
The American descendant of an Eastern European pastry that’s kin to Italian panettone and French baba au rhum, babka is a dense loaf interlaid with chocolate and typically topped with streusel. Part of the cake’s appeal is its appearance: In cross-section, the chocolate swirls and slow-rise dough form a tree ring pattern of sugar and salt. Babka is dry enough to pass as breakfast, light enough to qualify as a snack and sweet enough to serve for dessert.
Learn its backstory
Like most vernacular treats, chocolate babka came from modest beginnings: Centuries ago, Jewish women in Poland and Ukraine got in the habit of turning extra challah dough into a Shabbat dessert by spreading it with honey or jam, cinnamon and raisins.
According to Gil Marks, author of the "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food," the cake’s name was derived from a Slavic term for grandmother, although food scholars disagree on why it was considered applicable. It may have been a reference to the pans in which early babkas were baked, since they were fluted like an older woman’s skirt. Or maybe grandmas made the best babkas.
In any case, babka traveled to the U.S. with Eastern European immigrants, and became a mainstay of Jewish bakeries, albeit sweetened with chocolate instead of honey or jam. Other versions featured cheese, almond paste, poppy seed or cinnamon. (That cinnamon-only style was famously derided in a "Seinfeld" episode as “a lesser babka.”)
Beyond big cities, though, few pastry fans knew much about babka until recently. The Jewish Chronicle credits New York City’s Breads Bakery with jump-starting the current renaissance by creating a chocolate-hazelnut babka so exceptional that the bakery sells thousands of loaves a day during the Jewish holidays. But many chefs have lately been drawn to the structure and history of babka, a fact that helped the dessert get its picture on the front cover of Food & Wine earlier this year.
And order it here
Edmund’s Oast, 1081 Morrison Drive, edmundsoast.com, 843-727-1145 (Chocolate hazelnut babka, $6) Please note: The babka is only served by the slice on Sundays. It is not available for by-the-loaf orders.