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
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).
- 575g flour
- 70g sugar
- 1 tsp yeast
- 220 ml milk (or water, feel free to use plant based versions, we've used oat milk very successfully)
- 170g butter
- 2 eggs
- Each filling below makes enough for the two loaves. But, you can easily mix and match! Just take whichever percentage of the recipe you want to fill part of the dough.
Filling 1 - Chocolate (a little drier)
- 300g dark chocolate
- 200g pistachio nuts (or any nut you like)
- 40g sugar (let the quantity depend on how bitter your chocolate is, add more or less as desired)
- 70-140g oat milk (or other milk type, exact quantity will depend on your chocolate)
Filling 2 - Cinnamon (cinnamony, slightly sweet and soft)
- 150g butter
- 270g sugar
- 2 tbsp cinnamon powder
Filling 3 - Hazelnut (surprisingly soft and delicious)
- 330g hazelnuts (or your preferred nut type)
- 150g sugar
- 90g oil
- Melt the butter. Ensure the butter doesn't become too hot, just hot enough to melt. If it has become very hot, add the milk to it to help it cool down before adding to the rest of the mix to prevent cooking the eggs.
- Add all ingredients to a bowl and mix using a stand mixer for 5-10 minutes until you've got a smooth soft dough. You can of course knead by hand also, it will be sticky and oily at the start.
- Cover your bowl with a plate or other moisture tight barrier (you can use plastic, but using something reusable is more sustainable). Leave to proof for at least 45 minutes, though it may take up to 2 hours depending on your conditions.
- In the meantime, prepare your chosen fillings, see below.
- Once the dough has raised considerably, probably doubled in size, split it in two.
- Roll out your dough into a rectangle with a thickness of about 0,5cm (0.2 inches). Feel free to vary here, if you want a lot of filling roll it slightly thinner, if you want enough fluffy dough, roll slightly thicker, you can't really go wrong here.
- Take you filling. If you've made a full portion use half of it to cover the complete rectangle with a thin layer of filling. Where necessary thin the fillings with a little milk or oil to help spreading.
- Roll the rectangle along its shortest side.
- Use a bench knife and carefully cut the roll of dough in half, lengthwise. You should now be exposing the inner layers of the roll. Make sure to leave a small part at the top attached to help with rolling.
- Braid the two strands into a compact bread.
- Take a rectangular bread or cake tin (these breads work best in narrower cake pans, bread pans might be a little large) and cover with some parchment paper.
- Lift the dough inside the cake tin. Cover with a lid, garbage bag or other moisture barrier, keeping in mind that the dough will increase in size.
- Leave to proof for 45 min - 2 hours until it's considerably increased in size and snuggly fits the container (though the snug fit will depend on your tin size).
- Remove the cover and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C/350F for 40-50 minutes. A tester should come out clean.
- Cool and enjoy!
Filling 1 - Chocolate
- Melt your chocolate, either using a microwave (make sure to start with short bursts, especially if your chocolate is not chopped finely) or au-bain-marie.
- Optional: Toast your nuts in the preheated oven for a few minutes until a light brown.
- Using a small food processor, chop up your nuts into small pieces.
- Stir the molten chocolate and nuts together. Taste. If it's too bitter for your taste add sugar.
- Add in the milk. If the mix hardens too much while doing so, reheat slightly so the chocolate melts again. Only use a very short reheat. You want to add enough milk for the mixture to become spreadable without flowing by itself.
Filling 2 - Cinnamon
- Melt the butter and don't heat for longer than necessary.
- Stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Adjust cinnamon to taste and it's ready to use!
Filling 3 - Hazelnut
- Optional: Toast the nuts in the preheated oven for a few minutes until a light brown.
- Using a small food processor, chop the hazelnuts until they've become almost like a flour and possibly even start to leak some oil.
- Blend the processed nuts with sugar and oil. Add more oil if the mixture remains very thick, but be careful, adding too much might make it leak out.
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