Babka's Disputed, Delicious Origin Story

How one Jewish dessert became so popular (& what we lost along the way).

January 18, 2022
Photo by Ty Mecham

The babka I grew up with was bad. It was dry and crumbly and full of trans fat. It came from a grocery store in the same suburban strip mall as my orthodontist Dr. Diamond's office and, in our household, counted only my parents as fans. I never would've dreamt of sharing a photo of it—all stale and nubby next to the bagels on the top shelf our fridge—on Instagram.

Today's babkas, however, are runway models and pageview guarantors. They're one part buttery dough, one part chocolate chunks, and one part air. They're twisted, striated, and marbled; streusel-topped, syrup-soaked, and ice cream sandwich'd. They're plastered all over the Internet, the starlets of Smitten Kitchen (2007 and 2014), Bon Appétit (2016), Food and Wine (2016), The New York Times (2016), and our very own Food52 (also 2016).

Why aren’t there more creative takes on babka?
A real question in 2011

And they're cool. They're hip. They turn bakeries into destinations. Of the five Grub Street listed in their "Absolute Best Babka in New York" feature in May, only one is an old-school Jewish bakery; the other four are media darlings of the New York food world, very different from places like the now-defunct Lichtman's, the Upper West Side bakery founded by Hungarian emigrants where cookbook writer Rose Levy Beranbaum bought babka growing up.

In 2011, Katherine Martinelli, writing for The Forward, asked, "Why aren’t there more creative takes on babka?" Six years later, we have pizza babka, babka ice cream, and babka doughnuts and this question seems like a joke.

How did we get to a place where the last five years have been declared, unofficially, as babka's year? When did babka become so unrecognizably desirable? As Peter Shelsky, the co-owner of Shelsky's of Brooklyn, a delicatessen that nods to the old-school smoked fish and bagel shops of yesteryear, said recently on a panel about Jewish desserts, the babka of his childhood was always a "take it or leave it" sort of confection.

But that babka was a different animal—and, as you'll see, a different recipe—than the babka served at Shelsky's now, or the babka that's been made famous by Breads Bakery in New York City, which Shelsky concedes is even better than his own. And Breads Bakery, though not where our babka story starts, it is where the story climaxes.

"You Can't Beat a Babka"

Before there was Breads Bakery, there was the 1994 Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine famously derided cinnamon babka as "the lesser babka."

In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking, food writer and historian Gil Marks credited the show for propelling babka to national fame, and there seems to be truth—or at least perceived truth—to this: When I asked the Jewish dessert panelists, Shelsky included, why, of all the Jewish desserts in the world, babka has seen the most attention, all four responded—and at once—with one answer: "Seinfeld." Posed the same question, Alice Medrich had the same response: "You are going to laugh... but maybe it has to do with that old Seinfeld episode?"

But over 20 years have passed since the episode aired and, as you'll have noticed from the dates of the recipes listed above, babka's ubiquity has been a recent phenomenon, with many recipes published in the past year alone. Rose Levy Beranbaum, who developed a babka for her 2014 book The Baking Bible (and is coming out with a twisted version in her next), told me that even over the past two years, babka has become "omnipresent."

The babka that is everywhere, however, is far from the babka of my Eastern European ancestors. Jewish babka as we know it originated, as Gil Marks writes, in the early 1800s, when housewives would spread extra challah dough with jam or cinnamon, roll it up, and bake it alongside the bread. “Unlike the butter-rich, non-Jewish babka, Jewish versions were usually kept parve by using oil,” which meant they were “firmer and slightly drier than brioche." What they lacked in richness they made up for “with the delightful swirls,” and the inclusion of chocolate was a mid-twentieth century American Jewish invention.

To see babka referred to as lacking in richness in the context of the specimens that drip chocolate and butter all over the internet is almost comical.

But the use of butter rather than oil was a decision that members of The Babka Renaissance (an expression I just made up) had to take seriously. Evan Bloom, who owns Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco, knew that a butter-based babka would taste different than the loaves he grew up with, which were dairy-free, made with palm oil, and stored in his grandma's freezer. Their babka, which has been available at Wise Sons since it opened as a pop-up restaurant in 2011 ("we pre-date this whole babka trend," he told me), is more similar to brioche—and made with plenty of butter.

Which brings us back to Breads Bakery, founded, uncoincidentally, in 2013, right before we reached peak babka. The panelists at the Jewish dessert discussion estimated that this particular version is so irresistible and list-topping because each loaf includes two sticks of butter. While this estimate is inaccurate (there is one stick of butter per three loaves), it expresses the great compositional differences between Breads' creation and the parve door-stoppers of our forebears.

The Viral Moment

When Breads opened in 2013, they were selling the now-famous babka, with its three signature moves—a laminated, croissant-like dough; a Nutella and chocolate chunk filling; and a sugar syrup coating (watch the process here)—within a few weeks.

It did not fly off the shelves.

"But then an amazing thing happened,” Breads owner Gadi Peleg recalled. “Through Danielle’s efforts and her ability to promote us like no one else, we were able to get [the babka] into the hands of some influencers," he told me, referring to Danielle Zaria Praport of Zaria Public Relations.

"We went with boxes full of baked goods to various important food influencers in New York and let them try some of our stuff” (Food52 included—example below).Eventually, their "stuff" ended up in the hands of someone at New York Magazine, who deemed it the best babka in the city that same debut year.

“The rest,” Peleg said, “was history.” After the New York Magazine feature, Breads went from selling a few dozen babka a day to hundreds, sometimes thousands, Uri Scheft, a partner at Breads Bakery and the owner of Lehamim bakeries in Israel, wrote to me. Peleg started to panic that there wasn’t enough Nutella on the island of Manhattan to support babka production.

To the extent that a dessert can go viral, that’s the moment it really started going viral
Gadi Peleg, Co-Owner of Breads Bakery

“From that moment on, you can really track all of those articles that have come out and all of the various things that have been inspired by that,” Peleg said. “To the extent that a dessert can go viral, that’s the moment it really started going viral.”

It helped, of course, that the age of Instagram has given visually-striking, nearly unbelievable food—from rainbow bagels to smoothie bowls to outrageous milkshakes—more traction than ever. And, as Wise Sons' bloom hypothesized, the resurgence in interest surrounding home-baking and bread-baking, specifically, has urged more people into the kitchen (and then onto social networks to share their creations).

Have you made a beautiful babka yet?

The Disputed Origin Story

It remains to be determined who exactly at Breads (and beyond) can be credited with the internet-winning babka. And it’s probable that, like many of the world’s wonders, its conception was born of collaboration.

In the headnote for “The Famous Chocolate Babka” in his cookbook Breaking Breads, Scheft explains the addition of Nutella to the babka filling was his attempt to tap into the “taste memory” of the chocolate-spread sandwiches that he, like many children in Israel, used to eat at lunchtime. He'd been baking the cake at Lehamim bakery in Tel Aviv for 16 years before Breads opened, at which point, he told me, "it was natural to prepare it in New York, too."

"I first called this chocolate krantz cake," he writes in the headnote, "but in all honesty, that name didn't effectively communicate the deep, ephemeral pleasure of biting into the wonderfully rich and deeply chocolaty pastry. We decided to call it chocolate babka instead."

Peleg tells a slightly different story: The bakers presented him with a "loaf-looking thing, which they referred to as a chocolate krantz cake" that reminded Peleg of the babka he grew up with.

"It was decent," he said, but reminiscent something a grandmother would buy from a bakery. "I looked at it and thought, 'How can we make it look more appealing to a young, hip American crowd? What can we do to make this product more appealing to an American palate?' I thought of my own childhood in New York and I felt like Nutella was something that I remembered fondly." The bakers swapped Israeli chocolate spread for Nutella and, as Peleg remembers, "The minute I tasted it, I knew we were on to something."

The hidden mystery of the Breads Bakery babka is that they don’t know what babka is in Israel.
Gabriella Gershenson

And then there’s food writer Gabriella Gershenson, who, at that same dessert panel, claimed the earliest credit for the state of babka in 2017. "I met Uri, who’s the owner-baker of Breads in Tel Aviv [editor's note: this is the separate business called Lehamim] right before they opened in New York, and I was like, ‘New Yorkers are going to go crazy because everyone loves chocolate babka and nobody has really quite hit the sweet spot in New York with like a high-quality bakery chocolate babka,’ and lo’ and behold, it completely caught-fire.”

“The hidden mystery of the Breads Bakery babka," Gershenson said, "is that they don’t know what babka is in Israel—it’s called krantz. And krantz is actually a German pastry."

The "babka" that we all love? The chocolate veins and sugary toppings we go crazy for? It isn't even babka at all.

It was there all along...

“It’s not making a resurgence,” Amy Emberling, one of the Bakinghouse managing partners at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me,“it’s just making a resurgence among a few of us who are making certain things or looking at certain things. It’s popped up in a certain way, but people have [always] been eating it in between moments of a little celebrity.”

“No one thinks about something for a while, and then a group of people become introduced to something, or come of age, and they say, ‘Oh wow, this is so neat,’ and, well, twenty years ago, a different group of people were saying the same thing," Emberling told me.

Babka, in other words, was not ushered into existence by food media. It was there all along.

Well, twenty years ago, a different group of people were saying the same thing.
Amy Emberling, Zingerman's Bakehouse

But the team at Zingerman's—which stopped baking babka about eight years ago amidst feelings that they were unable to provide customers with the type of dessert they were used to while using butter instead of oil or margarine—has recently started developing a new recipe.

And for Peleg at Breads, babka is not merely a fair-weather trend. He referred to it as "a class of food, almost." But is this class of food—buttery, laminated, decadent, chocolate-filled, unrecognizable as babka—true to the babka's humble roots? Is it still a "Jewish" dessert? Does it pay homage to the original—or does it critique it? (For Alice Medrich, who, up until a few years ago, had never had babka, it's so loaded with chocolate that "the bread part is a mere vehicle: "it's amazing, but that mischief filling doesn't honor my brioche.")

Some people—myself included, and probably my dad, too—will express nostalgia for the dry, dense babka of the past. But, as Peter Shelsky put it, "Why should something stay crappy just because it's been crappy in the past?"

Why should something stay crappy just because it's been crappy in the past?
Peter Shelsky

And if I want a loaf of crappy babka, I'm sure I can walk to the supermarket a mile from my parents' house in Baltimore and there'll be a loaf waiting for me. These days, trans fat-free.

Our Best Babka Recipes

Halvah and Nutella Babka

This sweet and nutty babka recipe has a little bit of everything. For chocolate lovers, there’s deep swirls of nutella. For nut-lovers, they’ll get that in the chocolate-hazelnut spread and crumbled halva (a sweet sesame-based nougat candy that hails from the Middle East).

Babka au Chocolat Brioche

Babka is a labor of love to make and this one requires a bit of planning in advance. If you want to serve it for your holiday celebrations, start by prepping it the day before your festivities. A duo of chocolate (cocoa powder and chopped dark chocolate) join a line-up of cinnamon, brown sugar, and instant espresso powder for a rich filling. Once the babka is made, why not cut it in thick slices and pan-fry it for French toast?

Carrot Cake Babka

“The same flavors and textures of carrot cake are all present in the filling: grated carrots, raisins, and warm spices,” writes recipe developer Posie (Harwood) Brian. Carrot cake lovers will be extra excited to see that the signature cream cheese frosting makes an appearance in the form of a lighter glaze that’s spread over the top of the baked babka.

Black Sesame Tangzhong Babka

Three tablespoons of black sesame seeds are ground to a fine powder and mixed into the buttery dough for the babka. A chocolate-nut filling (you can use any nuts that you please, but might I recommend walnuts, almonds, or pecans?) brings it altogether.

Savory Babka with Gruyère, Mozzarella, and Black Sesame

We didn’t want to overlook anyone who lacks a sweet tooth. This babka turns hard in the savory direction, and no one will be mad about that. “I add scallions, Dijon mustard, and black sesame seeds for extra flavor which makes the bread much more interesting,” writes recipe developer Posie (Harwood) Brian. For even more savoriness, add crumbled bacon. We promise no one will complain.

Babka: overrated or worth all the hype? Tell us in the comments below.
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Ruth January 22, 2022
Huh. You chocolate people! I would pick cinnamon babka over chocolate every day of the week. I'm not anti-chocolate. Just prefer cinnamon for this particular baked good.
Jen January 22, 2022
The now closed yet beloved Harbor Bake Shop in Belle Harbor NY rst (116th St Rockaway) had the best Babka evah!
Jen January 22, 2022
Basia January 20, 2022
I am not sure if history of Babka is correct. It was baked in Poland as early as in 15 century for Easter.
Mm January 20, 2022
I love the chocolate babka from Russ and daughters.
Sandra G. January 20, 2022
My favorite is cinnamon babka also made by Bread Bakery. You don’t even mention it in article.
Abigailjoy31 July 18, 2019
I just made my first sourdough chocolate babka yesterday! I’ve been on a sourdough adventure lately, and finally branched out when I saw a YouTube video about this dessert bread called Babka. I was curious about its history, so I googled it and found this article. Thanks for the article! The Seinfeld thing cracked me up!
Yonatan A. May 22, 2019
I live in Israel, and I've never heard the word "babka" before. Like you wrote, here it's called krantz cake and you can find it in almost every bakery. It's only made with chocolate, never cinnamon etc... Also, there's no butter in it, if you don't brush it with egg on top it's actually vegan. I've found this article because I was curious about the name of krantz cake in English, and the whole "babka" thing was pretty shocking. This is the most popular cake in Israel, and every child grew up eating it.
Bobby D. January 2, 2021
Interesting! I was led to this article in an attempt to find the difference between “krantz” and “babka.” I woke up this morning with a desire for krantz like my Mom (and her Mom, of Austrian ancestry) - I grew up in the Midwest - used to make. There was no chocolate in it, but there was a shiny egg white and cinnamon glaze in the interior layers, which were rolled together and then ends placed together and baked in a crescent shape, then topped with white frosting. My in-law asked “babka?” and from this article it appears there was a convergence of recipe experimentations and nomenclature!
Elaine S. December 18, 2018
I am on a quest to find what I consider the best babka. In my first attempt, I made the dough from the recipe from Smitten Kitchen Better Babka. One half of the dough, I filled and formed exactly as instructed in the recipe, The other, I filled and formed with the filling from Mrs. London Babka Almond paste, cake crumbs etc, plus a chocolate layer that contained some confectioners sugar, chocolate chips, cocoa and butter. The one from Londons rose after about 11/2 hour and baked up beautifully. The SK one did not look like it was totally risen after 2.5 hours but I finally baked it and it was significantly less risen than the London one. The baked dough looked like it had been underproofed. I am in a quandry to figure out why this happened. Could the heavy layer of chocolate directly on top of the yeast dough have inhibited the rise? Could it have something to do with the shaping?Russian braid as opposed to just twisting.
Cookie May 8, 2018
At Gjusta in Venice, CA last week, I had a slice of the most amazing cinnamon babka. Absolutely not like any babka I've ever had. Purists would be appalled. It was beyond delicious, Like a cross between the best croissant and brioche. I can't find a recipe for it. It was ethereal.
Ed A. April 29, 2018
Searching high and low, it seems all Babka today is made with PALM OIL. About the world's worst oil, implicated in deforestation as well as loss of animal habitat. Not to mention what it does to your arteries. That said, is there are babka out there worth eating?
Ed A. April 29, 2018
Searching high and low, it seems all Babka today is made with PALM OIL. About the world's worth oil, implicated in deforestation as well as loss of animal habitat. Not to mention what it does to your arteries. That said, is there are babka out there worth eating?
Lori F. March 10, 2017
Current babkas seem more candy'like than the ones I remember from my youth. We lived around Hartford, but NY relatives would visit, always toting a babka, usually cinnamon - I can tell you that we kids were slightly disappointed, as it used to be a dryer, not-too-sweet loaf, and we favored sweeter cookies and such. It was a nosh for adults to enjoy with coffee or tea. Today, they seem designed to cram in the maximum sweet filling. There has got to be a happy medium!
Windischgirl March 5, 2017
Made the apple babka from Uri Scheft's "Breaking Breads." There are some problems with the recipe (glad I bake every week or I'd be in trouble) but the final product was yum! I made three mini-babke and they are so cute...
Sarah J. March 5, 2017
Oh, sounds delicious! What were the problems?
Windischgirl March 6, 2017
First, order of adding ingredients to make the dough...made for a very lumpy dough and needed extra machine kneading to get it smooth. Then after the machine kneading the recipe said to do essentially what are slap-and-folds to build the gluten...but the flour recommended was pastry flour, which is going to naturally have less gluten. I did machine kneading all the way and gluten development was adequate. Making the apple filling: all the other ingredients were by weight (yay!) except the apples (?), and the instructions for cooking the apples said to make a caramel and then cook the apples in the caramel...but room temperature apple chunks caused the hot caramel to clump...until the apples released their juices and eventually melted the caramel. I think an inexperienced baker might give up at that point. Other errors: called for 2 3/4 cups sliced almonds to top 2 standard loaf pans...way too much, as I used 3/4 cup and that was plenty; bake time was stated as 20 minutes but my mini-babke took 40 and standard size took an hour. That said, the filling is delicious although could use more of it, and the bread not too sweet. I will make it again, but it's not a recipe for a newbie.
BethA April 9, 2022
Wow. This is way people give up. Thank you for your perseverance.
Windischgirl March 3, 2017
Now look what you've started! :-)
Corduval February 20, 2017
What's with this argument about cinnamon or chocolate? Obviously, it should have both cinnamon and chocolate ..why not try some Mexican chocolate?
rf February 20, 2017
As a daughter of a Jewish baker who was a daughter of a Jewish baker, I wouldn't give bapkes for this style of babka. I remember Sunday mornings, waking to warm cinnamon babka which we thickly sliced and then topped with freshly stewed blueberries. Never too sweet, never too rich. Only the fresh yeasty bread and simply cooked fruits.
Windischgirl February 20, 2017
About 4-5 Christmases ago, I made some 'Christmas Roses' which I now realize were savory Babke. An enriched yeast dough, left to retard in a cool place overnight, were filled with either a basil pesto or a sun dried tomato spread. Roll up, cut in half, twist each half around its twin, like a traditional Babka. Then the loaf was coiled to form a circular 'rose.' I'll hunt around to see if hubby still has the photos and post on Not Recipes.
Nancy February 20, 2017
I would make these. Yes please add to "not recipes."
Windischgirl February 20, 2017
Nancy, I waded thru photo after photo and couldn't find it on my computer. Bet it's on hubby's, and he won't be home till Friday. Please stay tuned!
Nancy February 26, 2017
Ok, 📻 , staying tuned.
Windischgirl February 28, 2017
If it helps, I used this recipe:
I did make one with a tomato pesto (modified the ingredients a bit) and another one with basil pesto. One vanished during Christmas Eve dinner, and the other disappeared during Christmas brunch. Important to let the dough chill overnight to improve handling (the chill makes dough magically less sticky) and enhance flavor.
Rahel February 20, 2017
But what about Green's Babka sold at Zabars and Fairway since forever? Still the best, and not at all meh.
Nancy February 20, 2017
Rahel - happy to hear that Zabars or Fairway babka are "the best." Didn't mean all babka were meh. Just that I recognized the dried-out old version available jn many places.
Windischgirl February 20, 2017
I was introduced to Babka at a previous job by a Jewish co-worker with NYC roots. Any time she'd take a trip to the city, or her NYC-based son would come to visit, there would be Green's Babka. And there would always be a debate--which is better: cinnamon or chocolate?
Sarah J. February 20, 2017
There's a great 2013 piece on Green's here! It's made without butter (and without partially hydrogenated oil, too—they use palm oil), so it's parve!
Nancy February 19, 2017
Fun story. I, too, remember the dried out meh-tasting babkas (Toronto), nothing like what's being offered now. The rise, expansion, enrichment and (maybe) fall of babka reminds me of those charts that show the historical debut, use, overuse, abandonment of certain words.
Fashion and trends, yes, but does the word or the food survive? And/or is it forever changed?
miranda February 18, 2017
Y'all need to come down to DC and try the chocolate pecan babka at Bread Furst (available only on Thursdays) and then we can talk.