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Babka—But Speedier!

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These days, everyone and their grandma is obsessed with babka. Honestly, it’s hard not to be. The buttery loaf cake, which typically comes swirled with chocolate or cinnamon, is a highlight of the Eastern European Jewish dessert cannon. And thanks to a slew of bakers and restaurants that have introduced innovative fillings and started incorporating babka into French toast, bread pudding, and ice cream sandwiches, the dessert is currently enjoying a delicious renaissance.

Chocolate-Poppy Seed Kokosh
Chocolate-Poppy Seed Kokosh

But as wonderful as babka is, devotees to the old school Jewish bakery swear by a lesser-known baked good: kokosh. Like babka, kokosh comes twisted with layers of chocolate. The two look similar enough that kokosh is often informally described as the Hungarian take on babka—a squat and homely, though no less tasty, cousin to the majestic Polish-Jewish cake.

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In reality, the two baked goods are not directly related. Kokosh’s actual predecessor is makosh, a Central European rolled pastry filled with poppy seeds. (Mák means poppy seed in Hungarian.) The chocolate version, which evolved later, was named kokosh after the Hungarian word for chocolate, kakaó.

Who needs babka?
Who needs babka? Photo by James Ransom

Compared to most yeasted baked goods, including babka, kokosh is noticeably flat. Bakeries sometimes package it with the name chocolate “strip"—indeed, its extended shape does evoke a long stretch of highway. According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, “Hungarians tended to roll out the dough very thin and not allow it to rise, instead rushing it directly into the oven; the resulting pastry had very thin cake layers, alternating with thin layers of filling, akin to the layers in a yeast strudel.”

Despite its shape, though, kokosh manages to pack in a universe of chocolatey swirls. Meanwhile, the absence of a rise time is a boon for the home cook who wants dessert without the wait.

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Zoom in.
Zoom in. Photo by James Ransom

My personal take on kokosh is something of a hybrid. I love the flavors of chocolate and poppy seed separately, I enjoy them even more together. So I combine them into a single filling, grinding the blue-black seeds into a nutty powder and simmering them with cocoa, milk, and sugar to form a thick, spreadable paste. A hint of coffee and orange deepens and rounds out the flavor. A slice of warm kokosh may not hold the same star power as babka, but it will never let you down.

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Chocolate-Poppy Seed Kokosh

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Makes 2 loaves

For the filling:

  • 3/4 cup poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee powder
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice

For the dough:

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active yeast (1/4-oz packet)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup warm water (110° F)
  • 3 cups all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 3 eggs, divided
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature