The Babka Identity

Testing kid nostalgia by trying to re-create a beloved cake.

The Bazelon babka

A few years ago, when my kids were small and we lived in New Haven, Conn., we had a beloved Friday afternoon routine. We went shopping at a grocery store called Edge of the Woods, which has a bakery. We had a standing order for challah and chocolate babka, and Eli and Simon, then preschool and toddler age, got adept at picking it up themselves. Eli could just reach the bell on the counter. Simon could just say the word babka. When we got home, they got a piece for dessert and also clamored for babka at breakfast the next morning.

After we moved to Washington, D.C., I mourned this Friday ritual. I couldn’t find a good bakery near our house—or anywhere else in the vicinity, really. Finally, I gave up and started making my own challah. (This sounds more impressive than it is; challah always rises because there’s sugar in it.) But I couldn’t replace the babka. When friends visited from New Haven, the kids always asked for a special delivery. And then one of us, I forget who, wondered aloud if we could get the recipe.

Eli and Simon seized on the idea. For months, they periodically reminded me to call the bakery. In many ways, they’d settled into their new Washington lives. After all, they were only 5 and 2 when we moved. But here they were expressing kid nostalgia. I liked the idea that they missed the same thing I did. And I wanted to test it: If I could re-create the cherished chocolate babka, would it ever be just as good? Or does nostalgia, for kids as well as adults, inherently mean preferring the past?

After several calls to Edge of the Woods, I emerged from delicate negotiations with the chief baker and owner without the recipe but with its history: The babka recipe came from an old Jewish baker named Louis Gitlitz (the spelling is a guess, but scroll down here for another apparent fan), and they’d been making it at Edge for almost 20 years. My next line of attack was to order Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, a cooking bible for my tribe. From it I learned that a “babka is a high cake, but ’babka’ is also a word for grandmother in Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.” Now I was really hooked.

But the babka in the book, like all the other ones I found online and in the store, looked different than the one I wanted to make. The other babkas were thick and chewy and dense, and baked in Bundt or loaf pans. Some of them had nuts or jam along with chocolate—not acceptable if you are Eli and Simon. Our New Haven babka was light and airy, consisting only of dough and chocolate and a yummy sugar-butter-flour topping, which, I learned from Nathan’s book, is called streusel. Also, it was made in a low, aluminum pan.

What to do? My husband, Paul, figured out the answer: We’d conduct not only a nostalgia test but also a science experiment. Edge of the Woods agreed to send a babka to us by overnight delivery, to arrive the following weekend. This seemed like the moment to enlist professional help. Joan Nathan is a friend of my grandmother, though she’s of a younger generation (and an old friend of the mother of one of my oldest friends, just so you appreciate the full web), and though she’d never met us, she invited Eli and Simon and me to bring over our babka for breakfast, with a kind and much appreciated, “I’ll make coffee!”

The babka, when it arrived and was served with due ceremony at Joan’s kitchen table, was oddly missing its streusel. The children felt the absence, but I decided this was a good thing, because it gave me an edge going into the babka bake-off. Joan and I looked at the recipe in her cookbook (there’s another one in her recent New York Times piece on babka, but it’s more sophisticated and contains almond paste and apricot preserve or rum-soaked raisins, hence unsuitable for my children). We decided that I should simplify her recipe a bit, and she encouraged me to buy some good bittersweet chocolate. And then, winning my heart completely, she said that she liked my kids and that if I made the dough ahead of time at home (it’s supposed to refrigerate overnight), I could come back and she’d show me how to put the babka together, in the lower pie shape the kids preferred.

I’ve never baked with a professional cookbook writer before, and I worried that my dough looked raggedy and would be hard to work with. But when I reappeared at Joan’s house, I was relieved to discover that she also melts butter by putting it in the microwave. Also, babka construction proved to be easier than I thought. I’ve never made pastry or a yeast cake like this one, and I thought I would have to melt the chocolate ahead of time, which would make it hard to handle, but instead the recipe called for grating, and voilà, a little shake-shake over the rolled-out dough and I was all set. We experimented with different shapes and ended up with what Joan’s assistant, Sandra DiCapua, dubbed “pizza babka,” because we cut it into six segments before baking. Here is Joan’s recipe. I modified it by taking the jam and the almonds out of the filling.

Now for the tasters. I brought the babka home, let it rise a bit as instructed, and put it in the oven. While it was baking, I confessed to Eli that I felt nervous. Since he and Simon liked the old babka so much, my babka, I feared, would inevitably be the lesser babka. (Yes, I sound just like Seinfeld’s Elaine.) “You think the old one can’t be improved on, I know,” I said. Eli looked nonplussed. “You can improve on it, Mom,” he said. “You can.”

And there you have it: the nostalgia test, aced. As for the science experiment, that went well, too. The kids gobbled up the babka. Simon pronounced it MUCH MUCH better than the other babka (he talks in capital letters), though I think the missing streusel was a confounding variable. Eli declared my babka “not as good,” then “good,” by the next morning “better,” and finally, when asked to square all these reviews, “Different. But still good.” He’s right. I promised to make it again.

Watch Slate V’s new series “House Calls With Dr. Syd”