How to Make the Perfect Babka: A Recipe

Are babkas really the new bagel? One thing is for sure: This classic Jewish cake is going mainstream.

The finished babka cake.
The finished babka cake. Vered Guttman

Bon Appetit magazine declared last month that babka is the new bagel, meaning it is finely making its way to the masses. We can only rejoice, and maybe thank Uri Scheft of Breads bakery in New York, for making this beloved cake even better, and therefore more popular.

Jewish-American babka has Polish roots - babka meaning small grandmother - although the non-Jewish babka is a simple, tall yeast cake that’s baked in a kugelhopf pan without any filling. The Jewish babka is a twisted filled yeast dough made with a simple, relatively lean dough.

In Israel, yeast strudels became popular thanks to Hungarian bakeries and cafes, which offered traditional versions of poppyseed or cinnamon and raisins filled rolls. Those cakes, which have their roots in Austro-Hungarian tradition, as well as Russian, Polish and other Eastern European countries, became so popular that you can still find them in every supermarket, as well as in coffee shops and bakeries all over the country.

But this delectable yeast pastry’s appeal did not stop there. In recent years, a version of the German hefekranz, a braided cake baked in a round shape (kranz means a wreath), or simply kranz, made its way to the shelves of Israeli bakeries. In the Israeli version, the only thing left from the original German braided cake is the braiding. But the term “kranz” became synonymous with a braided cake of laminated yeast dough, filled with a variety of fillings. 

Laminated dough is a very rich yeast dough that basically combines the techniques of yeast dough and puff pastry. It is very time consuming since beyond making the yeast dough, you need to add a few steps of folding the dough with cold butter. These days, any braided yeast cake in Israel claims the name kranz, but the real ones are undeniably rich, very tasty and stay fresh for longer thanks to all that butter.  

To make things simpler for the home baker, chefs came up with recipes for butter-rich yeast dough that does not require all the folding. It is not as flaky and light as the original laminated dough, but it is still very rich and in that sense very different from the American babka. (And, some would argue, superior.) 

A few rules before you start:
Make the effort and buy SAF instant yeast online; it’s more reliable than the store-bought active dry yeast. However, if you can’t, use about 30% more active dry yeast in the recipe (quantities in the recipe below).

This babka recipe is very rich, meaning it contains more butter than the average babka recipe. This makes it much tastier but it is also harder for the yeast to rise properly. Add butter last to the dough, as instructed below, and you’ll be fine.

The best way for yeast dough to develop its flavor is by letting it rise overnight in the fridge. If you’re in a hurry, just let it rise at room temperature for a couple of hours; it’s still going to be fine.

Do not over bake the babka. To get a moist babka, it needs to be baked just until almost firm, but when the center still feels a little too runny. It will stabilize a bit more outside the oven.

Chocolate and halva babka

Halva is available at some chain supermarkets (usually in the Jewish section), Middle Eastern stores and kosher markets.

Yields two 9”x5” babkas or one round 9” babka

Ingredients:

For the dough:
1 lb. (440 grams) all purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
1 tablespoons instant yeast (or 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon active dry yeast)
1/2 cup sugar plus more for the pan
2 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
2/3 cups warm milk
12 tablespoons soft butter plus more for greasing 
Grated zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt

For chocolate-halva filling:
16 tablespoons soft butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
Pinch salt
6 oz. (170 grams) halva, crumbled
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

For brushing:
1 egg, beaten

Directions:

1.    To make the dough, use a stand mixer with the dough hook. Put flour and yeast in the mixer’s bowl and mix with a fork. Add sugar, then turn mixer on medium-low speed and mix for a minute. Add eggs and milk and continue to mix for about 2 minutes, until well incorporated. Stop the mixer as needed to scrape the flour from the sides using a spatula, and continue to mix. Add butter, a tablespoon at a time, then add lemon zest and salt. Turn speed to medium and mix for 8 minutes. Stop the mixer to scrape the sides as needed. The dough will be very soft, but don’t be tempted to add more flour.

2.    Remove bowl from stand mixer. Using a spatula, transfer dough into a lightly floured large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature, preferably in a warm space (near the oven, for example) until dough is almost double in volume, about 2 hours.

3.    Check the dough: On a hot day it may be too soft at this point, and therefore hard to work with. Put it in the fridge for 30 minutes before rolling.
4.    In the meantime, make the filling. In a large bowl, mix butter, sugar, cocoa powder and salt. Set aside. 

5.    Butter two 9” x 5” loaf pans or one 9” cake pan and sprinkle sugar at the bottom. 

6.    Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin. 

7.    If you’re making two loaf-size babkas, divide dough into 2 (the dough weighs about 2 pounds, so divide it into two 1-pound portions). Sprinkle dough with a little flour and roll into an approximately 10-inch by 15-inch rectangle. Spread half the cocoa filling all over using an icing spatula, then sprinkle with half the halva and half the chocolate chips. Roll up dough jelly-roll style, starting with the short side. Gently cut the log in half lengthwise, leaving the top connected. Twist both sides over each other, making sure the cut side is on top and carefully transfer into the loaf pan. Repeat with the rest of the dough. (See photos.)

8.    If you’re making one round babka, roll the dough in one piece into a 20” x 15” rectangle. Spread the cocoa filling, sprinkle with halva and chocolate chips and roll up into a long log, starting from the long side. Gently cut log into 7 short logs (about 3 inches each) and transfer them, cut side up, into a 9” round spring form. (See photos.)

9.    Cover with towel and leave to rise in a warm place in your kitchen for about 1 hour.

10.     Heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Brush babkas with beaten egg. Bake babka loafs for 45-50 minutes, and round babka cake for 50-60 minutes, until golden brown on top. It’s important not to overbake the babkas, as they will dry on the inside. Touch the surface in the center of the babka to make sure it’s almost stable, but not completely firm. Remove to a cooling rack and let cool for 30 minutes (if you can) before serving. 

Alternative babka fillings for the dough recipe above:

Chocolate filling:
Melt 8 tablespoons (4 oz.) butter and 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate with a pinch of salt. Spread over dough. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

Cinnamon and hazelnuts:
Mix 14 tablespoons butter with 4 tablespoons cinnamon and 1 cup sugar. Spread over dough. sprinkle with 1/2 cup golden raisins and 1/2 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts.