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It’s impossible to count all the different types of breads made in this world. There are simply too many. It’s even more impossible to count all the different iterations within one bread. Everyone makes their baguettes, naans, challah, or tortillas slightly differently. And the same applies to babka with opinions on what is a ‘real’ babka differing based on where you’re from, what your (grand)parents made, etc.
This was all greatly illustrated after a Great British Bake Off episode where the bakers had to make babka. A discussion broke loose on whether the judges had ever tasted a proper babka. Discussions evolved into what really makes a good babka and what a ‘real’ babka is made of. After scrolling through countless babka recipes online, we learned that, as with most breads (or foods for that matter) there are countless interpretations. Some more ‘traditional’ others variations that people have come up with over the years, using their own influences and backgrounds.
That said, to make a babka work, you can’t just make anything, so we decided to dig into the ‘science’ of a babka, focusing on its fillings.
What is a babka?
Babka has its roots in Jewish East-European traditions. There, it might have started out as a way to use challah dough leftovers. Or it could have been a ‘fancier’ version of their regular bread, by incorporating other ingredients as a filling.
Most likely, it started out by using challah bread. Challah plays a very important role in Jewish eating traditions and is typically eaten on ceremonial occasions. Classic challah does not contain dairy products (e.g. milk or butter), making it parve (neither containing dairy, nor meat, important to know when eating Kosher).
Nowadays, babka is an enriched bread, with delicious fillings (e.g. chocolate, or cinnamon), that’s been braided in a specific way to showcase both the bread and the fillings. Whereas there definitely are dairy-free versions of babka, a good number of them contain dairy.
How to make babka
Babka starts out as any enriched bread. You make a dough with flour, water, yeast, sugar, eggs, milk and butter (the exact ingredients vary per recipe, see below for a suggestion). After kneading the dough it is left to proof to let the yeast do its work. The yeast creates air bubbles within the bread causing it to expand.
Once the bread has proofed sufficiently it is rolled into a large flat rectangle. On this rectangle, you spread out the filling of your choice. You want a filling that doesn’t interact too much with the dough (it should remain light and fluffy) and adds a good amount of flavor. After adding this filling, the dough is rolled back up and then the ‘magic’ happens.
You cut the strand of roll along the middle, alongside its length, creating a lot cut and opening up the filling within the dough. These two strands are then braided/twisted among themselves exposing the filling. This is what gives it the characteristic appearance.
How to ‘design’ your own filling
Whereas there are plenty of different recipes for the dough, it’s the filling where you can really get creative. In coming up with a suitable filling, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Keep the water content low
First of all, the filling should not interact with the dough too much. If the filling interacts a lot with the dough it might impact the texture of the whole bread. For instance, if the filling is very moist, the additional water might go into the dough, making it too soggy and wet for proper baking.
Generally, fillings with very little moisture work well or those where the water is ‘bound’ by other ingredients (e.g. in a chocolate ganache).
Most babkas will contain very low moisture fillings, but the pizza babka goes the other route. It actually contains tomato sauce as a filling. However, also with this more moist variety you have to watch your moisture levels. Make sure the tomato sauce is quite thick so it doesn’t moisten up the dough too much!
Generally, a filling with plenty of fat is a good choice. Not only does the fat not interact with the dough, it always helps to prevent the individual layers of dough from sticking to one another, helping it to stay light and airy.
It’s why nuts are such a good choice. Nuts contain a good amount of fat as well as protein and will form a great layer in between the dough. No need to grind the nuts down completely, some bits and pieces throughout help give the bread some surprising crunch.
Use granulated sugar
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Want to crunch a little extra crunch in your babka? Make sure you use sugar with quite a large particle size. So don’t use icing sugar, with its very fine crystals, but use granulated (often just your ‘regular’) sugar. Icing sugar will actually dissolve in some of the moisture of your bread, making it become part of the dough slightly. Sugar with a bigger particle size though won’t and helps create that slight crunch texture within or on top of your bread.
Make it taste good
A good babka can be eaten just so, without any other additions or toppings. View the filling as your topping and make sure it tastes good. Add spices such as cinnamon or cardamom (be inspired by kardemummabullar).
Bunsen Burner Bakery, Pizza babka, March-27, 2019, link
King Arthur Baking, Classic Challah, link
My Jewish Learning (the Nosher), What is babka?, Feb-17, 2016, link
Tamar Marvin, Chocolate Babka (parve and dairy versions), Jan-28, 2021, link
Ari Weinzweig, Babka, Trans-Atlantic Jewish Delight, The Atlantic, April 30, 2009, link