Long before Seinfeld helped babka achieve popularity among non-Jewish viewers, the traditional dessert was a staple in many Jewish households. Here’s everything you ever need to know about the sweet treat:
What Is Babka?
Babka is a sweet dessert with Jewish roots. Somewhere between bread and cake, its name comes from “babcia,” a Slavic term of endearment for “grandmother.”
“This name was derived because the cake’s tall, stout, fluted sides, formed in a traditional Polish pan, were reminiscent of an old woman’s skirt, and/or because grandmothers were the primary bakers of this treat,” wrote food historian Gil Marks in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking.
Babka should be firm, rich, and slightly dry. When you cut into a babka, the inside should appear delightfully marbled.
Common babka fillings are chocolate, cinnamon, and fruits. The dessert is often topped with sugar syrup and streusel.
The dessert, which has Eastern European origins, is likely the result of too much challah. When resourceful Jewish grandmothers had too much challah dough on Shabbat, they would braid the fruit and nut-filled scraps and bake an early version of babka.
Over time, the dish evolved into the much sweeter dessert we’re now familiar with.
Chocolate, one of the most popular babka fillings today, actually didn’t enter the equation until Jewish immigrants arrived in New York at the turn of the 20th-century. The ingredient was much easier and cheaper to come by in the U.S., so bakers began adding finely chopped chocolate to their traditional recipes.
Babka has been slowly growing in mainstream popularity since the ‘90s, when an episode of Seinfeld focused on the traditional treat.
In “The Dinner Party,” Elaine and Jerry are tasked with buying a chocolate babka to bring to a friend’s get together. Hilarity ensues.
“You can’t beat a babka,” Elaine famously said.
How to Make Babka
Old-fashioned babka is baked in a loaf pan, but is often braided and wreath-shaped (some people call this krantz).
The secret to making good babka isn’t perfecting the shape, though—it’s making sure there are lots of sugary twists and turns.
Ready to try your hand at making a babka at home? We’ve got plenty of fun recipes to get you started.
Note: Traditional babka recipes call for oil instead of butter to keep the dessert pareve (a Jewish term that describes food made without animal or dairy ingredients). It’s somewhat difficult to find a modern recipe that doesn’t include butter or milk, but it’s doable—here’s one from The Taste of Kosher.