I'm not talking about cinnamon vs. chocolate here, friends. I'm speaking existentially now. It's time for a showdown for the title of Real-Deal Babka.
Contender #1: Israeli Babka Rolls
Allow me to introduce ugat shemarim, which, poor thing, doesn't translate very well: literally, "yeast cake," or, as I'm calling it, an Israeli babka roll. In Israel, a lot gets lumped under this nebulous rubric, any cake made with a yeast dough and swirled with filling, usually chocolate or poppy seed, basically. The homestyle version is rolled up and sliced, revealing a swirl of contents. This was the cake my mom made for special occasions before she had kids, and sporadically thereafter, whenever she'd get a ribbing for how she never makes it anymore.
My mom's recipe is a lightly enriched, pastry-like yeast dough slathered with margarine (because it was the seventies) and sprinkled heartily with a cocoa-sugar mixture and possibly raisins, because people in Israel back then used to consider the raisin/chocolate pairing less than grievous. Back when things were less confusing, I believed that this was the only Jewish babka-like substance in existence. Unfortunately, no one in America seemed to have heard of it.
Contender #2: Babka
The first time I spotted a loaf of Green's babka in an American supermarket, I thought I'd finally found my Israeli babka roll. But it was closed on top, and instead of a glossy, syrup-glazed finish, it usually had...crumbs (a.k.a. streusel) on it. Crumbs! Which belong on a cheesecake, possibly a coffee cake, but definitely not on a babka. (Note to Israel: crumbs also do not belong on brownies. I still love you, though.)
I'm pretty sure "is babka ugat shemarim" was one of the first ten things I Googled when the internet was invented. Just kidding, we only had lynx back then.
Contender #3: Krantz
As it turns out, the kind of cake my grandmother would get from the bakery on Fridays, the one I thought of as "fancy bakery babka roll," is called a krantz cake. I learned this from the burgeoning Israeli food media scene back in the aughts, eagerly clicking on the thing I thought of as the canonical Israeli babka roll and finding recipe after recipe for something called, rather insistently, krantz. Originating in the fine tradition of central European bakery culture, krantz has its rolls cut open before twisting, so that its guts spill elegantly out in a crown of chocolatey threads. The top gets a good glazing with warm jam or glossy sugar syrup when the cake comes out of the oven, to seal in the goodness.
Contender #4: Rugelach (baby babka rolls?)
The genealogical relationship of rugelach to babka is, to my mind, one of life's greater perplexities. We're talking about two separate things here, the former being a pastry or cookie and the latter a cake. Except that they're really similar. Nevertheless, both Israel and the US have a definitive cookie called rugelach that is differentiated from the cake form.
In Israel, rugelach are made from yeasted dough, almost always filled with chocolate, and sealed with, wait for it, syrup. Meanwhile, Stateside, rugelach are more of a pastry made with cream-cheese dough. Like American babkas, American rugelach tend to be filled with either chocolate or cinnamon-sugar, and usually jam. On both sides of the pond, a standard-issue rugelach cookie is crescent-shaped, although each also exhibits the pinwheel variation, favored by home bakers due to it being twelve thousand times less annoying to execute.
We have a winner(s)
So what makes a babka a babka?
Here's the deal, as I parse it: Babka is America's krantz. Krantz has a less heavily enriched base (it's usually parve) and that syrup glaze to seal in the aforementioned chocolate guts. Babka, its American cousin, is twisted usually without any cutting, tends to be on the dairy side of things, and often has streusel.
Anglophones have recently gotten friendly with krantz through the likes of Breads Bakery and Ottolenghi, even if Wikipedia still only has a passing familiarity with it. Technically, I guess these famous versions are fusion babka-krantz mashups using American ingredients and Israeli form. (If I thought I could get away with footnoting this blog, I'd add a nice, juicy footnote right here and now about the distinctions between the babka's Jewish heritage and its various Eastern European antecedents, but I'll restrain myself.)
What about rugelach, though? I'd argue that Israeli rugelach are really cookie krantzes, which kind of makes my head explode. Meanwhile, American rugelach are mini pastry babkas, oftentimes down to the streusel.
I realize this has crossed the line into talmudic, but after all, that's what we're doing here, yes? Oh, you want the takeaway, tachlis point? Basically: We've got four interrelated Jewish pastries—babka, krantz, babka rolls (ugat shemarim), and rugelach (with two significant dialects)—each worthy of love and patchke. Yes, you need to try every one. It's tradition.
My mom's ugat shemarim still perplexes. It's quite similar to kokosh, but that's a Hungarian pastry. (And uy, some kokosh apparently has crumbs on it; not sure I can process that.) Now, it's eminently possible that my mom got her recipe from some neighbor in Rehovot back in the day who was of Hungarian culinary pedigree. But when I texted my mom and aunt a snap of Gil Marks's kokosh recipe, their response was...meh, our cake is just yeast cake. Nothing to do with Hungary.
Maybe my mom's cake is a fluden? That would make sense, given that branch of the family's yekke background. A leading contender for sure. Reisman's, among other kosher bakeries, makes a babka that is a lot like an Israeli babka roll.
Guess we're going to have to add kokosh and fluden to the list and master them all, one chocolate-cinnamony bit at a time. Starting with my mom's ugat shemarim, of course.
How to make a babka roll
First the bad news: You have to knead this dough by hand. I'm sorry, it's true. I tried it in the stand mixer, I tried it in the food processor, but nope. You're going to have to roll up your sleeves, get out your widest mixing bowl, and take out all your frustrations on the poor, blameless dough.
Now, the good news: When you knead it by hand, this dough is an absolute pleasure to work with. It's supple, obliging, non-sticky, doesn't tear, and rolls up effortlessly.
After mixing the dough, you'll set it aside to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. Then you roll it out, spread and sprinkle the fillings over the dough (just like making cinnamon buns or a cake roll, if you've done that), and roll it up burrito-style.
Fillings for babka rolls
My mom's recipe, which she dutifully wrote out for me, includes three different filling options: chocolate, apple, and sweet cheese. I'm including the two parve ones below, and we'll get back to sweet cheese, the dark horse of pastry fillings, later. I know we're leaning heavily towards Team Chocolate (obviously), but I have to put in an affirmative word for apple here. The apple filling is out of this world. It is so, so good, and you should really try it.
This sugya's not over until we deal with the famously rancorous issue of chocolate vs. cinnamon babka that we glossed over way up at the top of the daf. Well, I call teiku. Let's love on all kinds of babka (and friends), shall we?
Looking for more Israeli desserts?
- Israeli coffee cake (parve)
- Israeli apple cake (parve)
- Kadurei shokolad: Israeli chocolate cookie bites (dairy or parve)
Israeli Babka Roll (dairy or parve)
For the dough:
- 1 tsp active dry or instant yeast
- 2 Tbsp warm water - 60 ml
- ¼ cup + 1 tsp granulated sugar, divided
- 2 cups all-purpose flour - 250 g
- 6 Tbsp butter or margarine, softened to room temperature (see note) - 80 g
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk - reserve the white for egg wash
- pinch salt
For chocolate filling:
- 2-3 Tbsp butter or margarine - softened, or berry jam
- ⅓ cup cocoa
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup mini chocolate chips - or 1 chopped chocolate bar, 100 g / 3.5 oz
For apple filling:
- 1 sweet red apple - unpeeled and coarsely grated
- 2-3 Tbsp butter or margarine (see note) - softened, or apricot jam
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp cinnamon
- ¼ cup cake crumbs or bread crumbs
Activate the yeast:
- Dissolve the yeast with 1 tsp sugar in the warm water and set aside for 7-10 minutes, until foamy.
Mix the dough:
- To a large, wide bowl, add the flour, softened butter/margarine, and the rest of the sugar. Pour the yeast mixture over top. Combine, *using your hands*.
- Add the whole egg, egg yolks, and a pinch of salt. Knead well, until the dough forms a ball. It should not stick to your hands; if it does, add a little more flour. If it's too dry, add a little water, just a few drops at a time.
Leave to rise for 1 hour:
- Place in an oiled bowl, cover, and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until roughly doubled in size.
Roll out and fill:
- Whisk together the cocoa and sugar or cinnamon and sugar.
- Spread the top of the dough with softened butter/margarine or jam. Sprinkle ¼ of the cocoa-sugar or cinnamon-sugar over it. Next, if making apple filling, evenly place ¼ of the grated apple over the cinnamon. Sprinkle the nuts/raisins/chocolate chips over top. If making apple, place a final layer of cake or bread crumbs on top.
- Repeat for remaining rolls.
Shape and bake:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F / 175°C. Line one baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
- Flour your work space generously, then dust the top of the ball of dough. Turn out the dough onto the floured surface and divide into two equal parts. Roll out each half into a large rectangle, about 16"/ 40cm long and 10" / 25cm wide, patting the ends into shape as you go. The dough should be pliable and able to hold the filling, about ¼" / 5-7 mm thick.
- Fold in the short ends, then begin rolling from one of the long ends. Continue until completely rolled up. Using a bench knife or spatula, carefully flip the roll so it is seam-side down on the baking sheet.
- Brush the rolls with the reserved egg white. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden and fragrant.