Ilana Spitz Epstein

For the love of babka

I was 6: while the adults spoke in foreign tongues of the old days, I clutched my cake, and took small bites of goodness that it took me years to learn to recreate myself
Top row: My cousins Anat and Dana, my brother Boaz, me, my sister-law Chaya, my brothers Kalman and Bentzi. Bottom row my grandparents and my sister-in-law Tamara.
Top row: My cousins Anat and Dana, my brother Boaz, me, my sister-law Chaya, my brothers Kalman and Bentzi. Bottom row my grandparents and my sister-in-law Tamara.

Babka: Cloyingly sweet, meltingly delicious or dry and unpalatable, I have eaten all kinds. I’m so conflicted about babka — I’m not even sure where to start!

Why did I make babka today with Ta’am?

Walnut Babka

What exactly is a babka? And can it be anything but chocolate-flavoured?Ilana flexes her pastry chef skills to make a yeast cake full of flavour and connect with its Eastern European roots. No chocolate and no margarine here: Grab a cup of coffee, this is gonna take a while AND it's worth it!Recipe is below, finished cake is throughout the video, enjoy!—-Walnut Babka:Makes 1 babka loafBrioche Babka Dough:80g (⅓ cup) whole milk7g (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast125g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour155g (1 ¼ cup) flour3 eggs, lightly beaten1 tablespoon granulated sugar1 teaspoon salt 170g (¾ cup) unsalted butter, softened Walnut Filling:200g (2 cups) whole walnuts150g (1 ½ cups) caster (superfine) sugar2 teaspoons finely ground coffee powder 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon½ teaspoon kosher salt3 egg whites2 tablespoons Slivovitz (plum brandy), or brandy or orange juiceEgg wash:1 egg yolk1 tablespoon water For brioche babka dough:Warm the milk to 40-45℃ (105-115℉).Place the warmed milk along with the yeast and a pinch on sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer that has been fitted with the paddle attachment. Let stand for 5 minutes until the yeast has dissolved and the mixture starts to look foamy. Add to the mixer bowl the first 125g (1 cup) flour, the eggs, sugar, and salt, mix on low speed until combined. Gradually stir in the reaming 155g (1 ¼ cup) flour, mix on low speed for 5 minutes, cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 20 minutes. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and with the mixer on medium-low speed mix the dough for 7-10 minutes, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl and attaches itself mainly to the hook. With the mixer still on medium-low, mix in the butter 1 tablespoon at a time, waiting until each piece is nearly incorporated before adding the next. Repeat until all the butter has been incorporated. Place the dough in a large buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap let rise in a warm place until doubled in size about 1 ½ hour. Refrigerate for a minimum of 8 hours but not more than 24.For Filling:In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, blitz the walnuts until they are very finely chopped, be sure to use the puls motion rather than just letting it go on auto, as you are after finely chopped walnuts and not walnut butter. Place walnuts in a large bowl, add sugar, coffee powder, cinnamon, and salt mix well. Beat the egg whites until they just start to turn white and foamy, and them along with the slivovitz (brandy or orange juice) to the mixture. Mix well and set aside. The mixture can be made 3 days ahead and stored in the fridge until ready to use.To assemble and bake:Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface knead a couple of times until the dough comes together and divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time roll out the dough using a floured rolling pin into an approximately 27×33 cm (13×11 inch) rectangle, you may need to keep on dusting with flour as you go. Spread half the walnut mixture over the dough and spread evenly leaving a 1cm (½ inch) border. With the long end closest to you, roll up the dough into a cylinder. Roll the dough onto a piece of baking paper. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Roll the second cylinder onto the same piece of baking paper, so that the two cylinders are lying side by side. Twist the two cylinders together on the baking paper, and use the baking paper to lift the twisted babka into a 23x13x7 cm (9×5 ½ x 3 inches)(2 pounds) loaf tin. Cover the babka with a clean tea towel and let rise until puffy and increased in volume about 60-90 minutes. Heat oven to 180℃ (350℉) bake the babka until golden brown 50-55 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, remove from the pan and cool on wire rack.

Posted by Ta'amim on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Not just because I wanted to perfect the Ta’am recipe for our future cookbook, but because I wanted to respond to a recent article by Leah Koenig in Tablet Magazine about the cake; the roles of memory and history; and that there has always been a great-tasting babka. At least for me.

But let’s start with my love of yeast cake. The love was engendered very early on. As a six-year-old, I accompanied my Hungarian grandparents on an outing to Brooklyn. They lived in Israel but were on one of their extended visits with us in New York.

My grandparents didn’t drive so on a freezing cold morning in January we took the bus and then a number of trains from Queens into Manhattan. We had to switch trains again to get to our final destination: Boro Park; a neighborhood in Brooklyn that has a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population.

My Saba promised that at the end of the journey he would show me the best treats in the world. I needed an incentive to spend three hours on public transport, and the incentive was cake.

Still freezing, we walked into a Hungarian bakery. My Saba and Savta, who spoke to me only in Hebrew, switched automatically into Hungarian and for the rest of the visit I was separated from those around me, as they spoke a mixture of Yiddish, Hungarian and Czech. But far from feeling isolated because I didn’t understand a word spoken around me, I was elated because I was given a massive plate of yeast cakes. There was every variety of yeast cake: kokosh and mokosh, kipfel and kuchen and babka. I was ushered along with the adults to the apartment above the bakery. While the adults spoke in foreign tongues of the good old days, I clutched my plate of cake and proceeded to taste each piece; taking small bites and setting aside the ones I liked best to eat at the end.

My grandparents spoke long into the afternoon. I guess they spoke about their lives before the War. I guess they also spoke about the War itself, as almost everyone cried at some point – openly wiping away tears – and from what I could understand, they spoke of all they had lost; and all the while, they sipped their tea and ate cake. As the sun started to set, I turned around and asked about the name of the cake I was saving for last. I was told that it was a Polish cake called babka. The baker went on to explain to me in broken English that it wasn’t as good as the Hungarian cakes, but customers liked it so he made it; but then he winked and told me he made it with a Hungarian twist. What that twist was, I still have no idea. All I know is that I was hooked.

I was 13 the day my mother walked out of the kitchen and claimed that she never felt the need to bake again. This was now my time. My delusions of turning our modest kitchen into a French Patisserie were now possible, but sadly not probable. I started small, baking cake mixes from red boxes, following recipes step by step from cookbooks my mother had forgotten she owned, replacing butter with margarine in every recipe and, more often than not, being disappointed in the results.

The next time my grandparents came to visit from Israel, I asked my grandmother about babka. Once more I was told that, as Hungarians, babka wasn’t our cake. But if I wanted, she would show me how the Polish make babka. She took leftover challah dough and rolled it out thin, brushed it with oil and covered the surface with cinnamon and sugar. She then rolled it up jelly-roll style, popped it into a loaf tin and into the oven it went. The result was dry and disappointing, and my grandmother smiled in a sinister “don’t-you-know-that-Hungarians-are-better-than-everyone-else-I-told-you-so” fashion.

My grandmother wasn’t wrong about the babka, but probably about the Hungarians.

Babka is a yeast cake that hails from Poland and Ukraine. In Jewish kitchens, it started out as a way to use up leftover challah dough. Filled with sugar, nuts, and raisins, it was a go-to snack on Shabbat, whereas the non-Jewish version was plain and left unfilled, but getting much of its flavor from butter.

Jewish housewives had a dilemma: bake a cake that could be cooked and eaten after a meat meal, or spend time and money creating a dairy treat.

Some did make a dairy version, but most didn’t. Unsurprisingly, the babkas that started appearing in kosher bakeries in Israel and America in the 1950s were dry and relied entirely on the filling for flavor. Bakers realized that the cake, as opposed to the filling, was dry and sometimes flavorless, so they added a streusel topping. But this did little to alleviate the dryness of the cake. So ingenious bakers created sugar syrups that were slathered on the babka on the way into the oven and again once it came out.

But this just didn’t explain how the babka I tasted at the age of 6 was so good. Was I mistaken? Was nostalgia playing tricks on me? My grandparents’ tears and the warmth of the apartment while it snowed outside: was that the flavor I was remembering? It had to be more.

My grandmother, who was in truth my step-grandmother, was nearly 90 when I asked her again about the babka in the Boro Park bakery. What was the Hungarian secret the baker spoke about? She laughed. It wasn’t Hungarian and it wasn’t a secret, even though she felt certain that Hungarians made the best bakers. The non-secret was that the babka I was eating wasn’t from the bakery but rather it was the baker’s wife who had made the cake in her home oven. Rather than oil or margarine, she had used butter. What I fell in love with was a buttery cake. The elusive flavor and mouthfeel I craved wasn’t the sweet filling; it was the tender crumb of the cake.

I know that keeping a kosher kitchen has its challenges and limitations but after that conversation with my grandmother and the epiphany of the butter, I decided that if a recipe called for butter, that is what I would use. No more replacing butter with margarine. As a family, if we had eaten our meat meal, we would just have to wait to eat our dairy cake.

Today, the cake course in our home is almost a stand-alone meal, reserved for Shabbat breakfast or a late Shabbat afternoon tea.

Or a Sunday, when family and friends come to our table and we sit and sip tea, talk about the old days and eat cake.

About the Author
Ilana Epstein is a dedicated member of the senior rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, partnering with her husband Daniel. As a Educator of Jewish history, culture and tradition, she imparts her knowledge and passion to the community. Ilana studied at Yeshiva University Stern College, where she acquired a strong foundation in her field. She was selected for the inaugural cohort of the prestigious Rabbi Sacks Scholars programme. With a deep appreciation for the beauty of Judaism, Ilana seamlessly connects the significance of small traditions to the grand tapestry of Jewish history, fostering a profound sense of belonging and understanding within the community.
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