The origins of the babka—meaning “little grandmother” in several of the languages of Eastern Europe—are shrouded in mystery. It’s strongly associated with the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, but the inclusion of chocolate in so many recipes for this yeasty treat has led some food historians to believe it was first made in the Mediterranean. For hundreds of years, chocolate was a rare and unaffordable luxury for the Jews of Europe’s east—but in the sunnier south, there was a strong tradition of Jewish chocolatiers.
Ari Weinzweig, writing in The Atlantic, notes that while one school of thought suggests the first babka emerged from an oven in Ukraine, historian Lesley Chamberlain believes it was a type of panettone brought from Italy to Poland. The person deemed responsible was Bona Sforza—a daughter of Milan’s most noble family who, at the age of 26, was selected by the recently widowed King Sigismund I The Old of Poland (he was also Grand Duke of Lithuania) to be his new bride.
Bona is reputed to have been hot-tempered. Although the marriage lasted 30 years and produced six children, she and her much older (and apparently much calmer) husband were known to disagree. Perhaps this chocolate-spiked take on a sweet Italian bread was a post-argument peace offering. Or, as Weinzweig argues is more likely, the chocolate babka is “a mid-century American Jewish invention”.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the light and lovely texture infused with the flavours of vanilla, orange zest and chocolate—fit for a queen, or for a treasured grandmother.
- For the dough, place sugar and orange zest in the bowl and whizz 10 seconds/speed 10. Add flour, yeast and combine 5 seconds/speed 7. Set aside.
- Without washing the bowl, warm buttermilk/milk and butter 2 minutes/50 degrees/speed 2.
- Add eggs, vanilla and salt, return the dry ingredients mixture to the bowl and blend 10 seconds/speed 6 then Knead 3 minutes.
- Transfer this dough to a lightly oiled bowl , cover with cling film (or wrap in silcone) and let stand in a warm place until doubled in size (about 1–1½ hours).
- Meanwhile, make the chocolate filling by grating the chocolate 5 seconds/speed 7. Add butter and melt 3 minutes/50 degrees/speed 2. Add the sugar, cocoa and salt and mix 30 seconds/speed 3. Allow to cool to room temperature.
- To assemble, roll out the dough to a rectangle about 45 x 25 centimetres on a floured surface. Spread the chocolate filling evenly, leaving 2-centimetre borders on the long sides of the dough. Brush the long edges with egg white and roll the dough up along its length, pressing the edge to seal so you end up with a long sausage.
- Using a sharp knife, cut this roll in half lengthwise then carefully twist the 2 pieces around each other like a plait to create those beautiful twisted layers. Transfer into a prepared greased jumbo bread tin with the cut side of the dough up . Cover and prove a second time in a warm place until doubled in size (about 1 hour).
- Make the streusel, if using, by placing all the ingredients in the bowl except chocolate chips/cacao nibs and blitz 8 seconds/speed 6. Add the chocolate chips/cacao nibs and mix 4 seconds/speed 4. Reserve in the fridge until needed.
- When ready to bake, brush the surface of the dough with egg white. Sprinkle some streusel over (if using) and bake for 30 minutes in a preheated oven at 180C. Cover with foil and bake for a further 10–15 minutes if needed—a skewer inserted in the middle should come out dry.