Babka and I go way back, starting with my Jewish husband. He loved a good, dry cake. Both Don and his father Frank were of that persuasion. Cake was best when it was dry, crumbly like desert sands and bought at a deli bakery, of course.
The deli in West Palm Beach sold Don’s ultimate babka. We would stand in early bird lineups at 5 p.m. with my in-laws, demoralized to be part of what we jokingly referred to as “the blue rinse hour” for dinner.
My mother-in-law Ethel wasn’t a cake eater. Diabetic, she approached eating with cautious deliberation.
“I like it bland,” she often said.
Needless to say, food didn’t play a pivotal role in the Nausbaum family as it might in many other Jewish households. Celebrations were also kept minimal. Ethel used to mail Don a modest birthday check or a boxed shirt from Target. One year she uncharacteristically asked her adult son what he would like to receive for his birthday and Don didn’t miss a beat.
“I want a babka from your deli, Ma. It’s too good to be true.”
“What? A babka. That’s ridiculous, Don.”
“Ma, I want a babka. I want a babka from your deli. Fed Ex it to me.”
I’m not sure what bothered Ethel more, the price of an overnight courier from West Palm Beach to Toronto or her son’s unbridled decadence. But she caved. He was her only son (and a charmer, to boot).
“How was the babka? Did it arrive? Did you like it?” she asked on his birthday.
“Did I like it?” he scoffed, “Ma, this babka is unfriggin’ believable. I’m going to get another slice right now and eat it while we talk long distance.”
“Don’t. I can’t stand listening to you eat and talk at the same time.”
“But it’s my birthday!”
Don chuckled, his mouth crammed full of babka. The crumbly streusel topping sprinkled all over his goatee. He’d already given up on a knife and was ripping the cinnamon-scented, cakey interior apart, moaning in appreciation and smacking his lips loudly.
“You like it too much,” Ethel said. She was disgusted. “I’ll never ever Fed Ex you a babka again!”
She kept to her word and Don’s babka delivery landed squarely in my lap. But I was a Canadian goy who knew nothing about babka baking. Sure, I had done a little food research, happily trailing alongside Don to Jewish delis in Florida, Long Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan but not once had I set eyes on a Toronto babka until Don brought home a specimen from the Harbord Bakery.
He ate one slice, winced, then threw the remainder out.
“It’s up to you, Mado,” he sighed.
Earlier in our marriage, I’d attempted chicken liver spread and was defeated. Before that, it was the world’s oily-est latkes. Now I had to bake some dry, tasteless coffee cake? I turned to one of the first cookbooks dedicated to Jewish baking and made a listless facsimile.
“Inedible” said Don after the first bite.
So babka became a family joke. A reverie about Ethel and a guffaw over the Seinfelt segment where Constanza sweats bullets tugging a stolen babka into his apartment window with a rope and pulley.
Then, as beloved things often do, babka came back. Don passed away and left a big piece of babka in his son’s pulsing heart. It helped, too, that Nick’s stepsister Emma is a gourmet sleuth. She found (not a Sahara version) but a sinfully sweet and gooey chocolate babka at Toronto’s Pusateri’s bakery. Somehow she knew that Nick would want that for his birthday. In no time at all, babka was forefront on our mother-son baking list and Rosha Shanna 2020 seemed an apt moment to create Don’s cake.
When Nick and I bake, I always learn something. I start off as Mom Expert and he quietly models a better alternative. Like parchment paper. Babka demands it and I was eager to try cookbook author Mairlyn Smith’s technique: Cut a large swath, run it under water, scrunch it up, wring it dry and fit it into the pan. Yes, this technique moulds around the insides of a loaf pan but Nick’s idea was better – cut vertical and horizontal panels to fit the pans. Not only does it look more professional, but if you allow for a few inches of overhang, you’ve got handles to lift out your cake effortlessly.
A beautiful babka means whirls of marbled dough, twisting and turning before your hungry eyes. To achieve this, challah dough is rolled out into a rectangle and spread with a yummy interior of melted butter, dark chocolate and a LOT of freshly ground cinnamon. You roll it up as tightly as possible, take a deep breath and do the unthinkable: cleanly cut this pliable, warm, puffy roll of dough in half, lengthwise. I was certain a serrated knife would do the trick but no sooner did I execute this cut then it caught, pulled and messed up the chocolate spread’s definition.
Nick used a metal bench scraper and cut it in three clean swoops. Do like Nick does and let this babka become someone you love’s birthday cake, too.
THREE CHOCOLATE CINNAMON BABKAS
A batch baker by trade, I won’t develop a recipe for less than 2 loaves. This one comes with a bonus babka! Not dry at all, these glossy beauties are made moist by a special ending in which you lavishly baste with a sweet, wet syrup as soon as they come out of the oven — an unthinkable flourish to Don and his father Frank. Makes 3 loaves.
2 1/4 cups milk, warmed in microwave (at high, 1 min)
1 TBS instant yeast
5 TBS vegetable oil
4 TBS honey
1 TBS vanilla extract (we used a vanilla bean, sliced it lengthwise and scraped the seeds in)
8 cups/ 2 lbs 6 oz organic unbleached bread flour
.6 oz salt
Put warmed milk, yeast, eggs, oil, honey and vanilla in mixing bowl and blend with whisk attachment until frothy.
Add flour and salt into mixing bowl and knead with dough hook for 8 min. or until the dough pulls away from the bowl and creates a smooth ball. This is a sticky, enriched dough. If it pools around the bottom of the bowl it may need extra tablespoons of flour during the last two minutes of the mix to ensure the dough pulls away from the bowl.
Place in a large plastic, oiled tub or covered bowl and let it rise until doubled at room temp, aprox 2 ½ hrs. (Or simply refrigerate immediately and leave to rise overnight or up to 48 hrs)
4 1/2 ounces (130 grams) dark chocolate, Callebaut, 55%
1/2 cup (120 grams) one stick unsalted butter, cold is fine
Put in a glass bowl and heat in microwave (1 – 1 1/2 min.)
1/2 cup (50 grams) icing sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) ground cinnamon
Add to melted chocolate.
Line loaf pans with parchment, like Nick does.
Divide dough into 3 pieces.
Roll one piece out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches.
Spread one-third of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log.
Cut the log in half lengthwise with a metal bench scraper, like Nick does. Lay one piece over the other, cut sides up, at the mid-line, creating an “X” then gently twist the ends. Gently place the twist into a loaf pan, doubling it over itself if necessary. Repeat 2 more times. Cover all the pans with oiled plastic or a towel. Let rise until doubled, about one hour.
Heat oven to 375°F 30 minutes before the bake. Beat an egg in a small bowl. Baste babkas with egg just before baking. Place loaves in the middle of the oven and bake 30 minutes.
While babkas are baking, make syrup,
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar
Heat in microwave
As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush with syrup. Use it all up, as this creates a glossy, moist finish. Let cool about halfway in pans, then transfer to a cooling rack.