This Braided Jewish Cake Has A Fascinating History

The most treasured kitchen essential for us during the lockdown was the oven. Remember the time, we were new to the pandemic and were wary of ordering in? So we made pizzas, cakes and even bread from scratch. Trends such as ‘Homemade banana breads’, ‘focaccia art’ took over our Instagram feeds and we weren’t complaining. Around the same time, we also witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of Babka, the braided cake.  

What Is Babka?

Said to have its roots in Jewish communities of Ukraine and Poland, Babka, can also pass off as a sweet bread owing to the ingredients used in the making, but its texture is akin to a tea cake. It is made with a yeast-leavened dough that is rolled out and sprinkled with chocolate, cinnamon, dried fruits or cheese. The dough is then rolled up again, braided and baked until brown.  

Babka is actually not as ancient, it was developed somewhere in the early 19th century by the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe as a means to use up the leftover challah dough. Challah is a braided, twisted, Jewish bread made on major Jewish holidays and ceremonial occasions like Shabbath. So the dough that was left would be rolled again with cinnamon and jam and baked. It was placed alongside Challah on festive spreads.  

Babka Then Vs Babka Now

There are several legends associated with the name. ‘Baba’ was an easter cake popular in Polish and Western Ukraine communities, Baba means Grandmother in Polish, and babka is a derivative of the same. Even though the appearance and even the preparation of Babka had not been uniform across, but the name ‘babka’ stuck. In Eastern Europe, this peculiar cross of bread and cake was called babka, because its shape would be similar to a grandmother’s skirt! The braids, knots and different layers of colours, well, we see it.  

Babka travelled far and wide in the 20th century and found a strong foothold in European and American bakeries where it got a more sophisticated treatment. It is said, that chocolate was a 20th-century addition to Babka. When it started out the Jewish bakers weren’t as pally with chocolate, but a century later, chocolate almost became synonymous with babka.  

Over the years, Babka became a mainstay in US bakeries, savoured by both Jewish and Non-Jewish communities alike.  Not just chocolate, these modern Israeli bakeries started experimenting with a host of fillings such as cheese, chicken and zatar to make savoury babkas. Among sweet fillings almond paste and cookie butter made for some non-traditional additions. Not only that, babka also inspired many new dishes like babka ice cream sandwiches and babka french toasts, which are a common feature in several Delis now.