Babka represents the best of both worlds: bread and cake. The braided and often sweet baked good is a diminutive of the word baba, (grandmother) and is of immense cultural significance within Jewish communities.
Babka has been around for more than 200 years and largely remained under the radar until the 1950s when European-centric bakeries in the US began making them. It led to an evolution of sorts, which saw babka go from byproduct to main character.
Early forms of babka were made from leftover challah dough that was rolled up and filled with jam or cinnamon. But modern takes have seen chefs and bakers dial up the butter, go heavy on the Nutella and add textural contrast with crumbles and streusels.
Avi Azoulay says he didn’t choose babka, it chose him, with the fateful match leading to the creation of online business Babka Boi. The chef defines what babka is, charts the labour-intensive process it necessitates and reveals why all chefs have a love–hate relationship with it.
Avi Azoulay grew up in Israel where babka was a staple on Shabbat morning. “For me, it’s nostalgic,” says the former Miznon chef. “It’s a special day, so you don’t have a normal breakfast; you have coffee and cake in the morning.”
Babka is made from the same dough as a lot of other things and was traditionally rolled out and filled with cinnamon sugar or jam. “It didn’t have any butter and was just a homemade baked good mums or grandmas would make alongside challah,” says Azoulay.
“It’s a slash between a brioche-style bread and a cake, so you could describe it as a bread cake.” Azoulay initially began making babka for himself during lockdown before friends started asking for their own loaves to try. It didn’t take long for word to spread and for Babka Boi to launch to the public.
“I started getting noticed by some people in the food world and all of a sudden everyone wanted babka, so I thought I may as well go with it,” says the chef. “I wanted to create my own version of a good babka and put it out into the world.”
Babka Boi is still in business, with Azoulay balancing making babka with other culinary endeavors. The chef dedicates three days a week to the process thanks to the considerable amount of time required for each step of the babka-making journey. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re making five or 20 babkas,” he says. “I’ll make the dough on Wednesday, bake on Thursday and deliver on Friday.”
It took around six test runs for Azoulay to find the right babka recipe, which is a combination of ingredients and measurements from many sources. The chef says a quality babka is determined by several factors that span from adequate proving to temperature management. “It took me some time before I found the right texture and crumb I was looking for that reminded me of my time living in Israel,” he says. “I wanted lots of layers and for it to be dense and light at the same time.”
Babka dough is relatively simple and is made from flour, eggs, salt, butter, sugar, water, salt and yeast. Azoulay preferences plain flour over bread flour for its softness and ability to create a cake-like texture.
The chef combines the ingredients with vanilla and orange or lemon zest, but holds back on the butter at first. “It all goes into the mixer and gets kneaded for 10–20 minutes until you get a nice, smooth, elastic dough,” says the chef. “You let it rest for 10 minutes and then I add the butter in cube by cube until it’s incorporated.”
The dough is then put into containers and left to undergo a 24-hour cold rise in the fridge. “It has to be fermented between the first and second stages of rising,” says Azoulay.
“Some people don’t let it go as long, and it ends up being dense and a bit raw. There’s a fine line between it being under or over proved, so you have to be careful. When you leave it in the fridge, it slows down the rising process, which gives the dough better flavour and makes rolling easier.”
Once the dough has doubled in size, Azoulay portions it into 500g pieces and rolls it into a rectangle before the filling is added. Babka Boi’s signature is chocolate hazelnut which sees Nutella teamed with dark chocolate chips, roasted hazelnuts and a house brown butter chocolate paste.
Other flavour options cover apple cinnamon and cinnamon streusel, but restraint is key no matter the interior. “If there’s too much filling, the dough can’t handle the weight and it can collapse,” says Azoulay. “By the time the filling goes in, it weighs around 900g.”
The dough is then rolled into a long cylinder and cut down the middle before it’s braided. “I like to twist the dough and find that you can see the layers from the top
by cutting it open,” says Azoulay, who goes on to place the babka in a baking tin to prove again.
“The second rise can take anywhere between one and a half to three
hours,” says Azoulay. “I like to put it in the oven with a pot of steaming water at the bottom. You’re looking for it to grow in size by at least one-third, but not more than half; you want it to be quite puffy and pillowy.”
Baking is one of the core pressure points of making babka, with the bread cake often appearing to be fully cooked before it actually is. Time and temperature varies according to what’s inside, with Azoulay starting the chocolate babka at 180 degrees Celsius before dropping it down to 160.
“The chocolate one gets dark quite quickly and it looks done within 20 minutes,” says the chef. “But it can take between 30–40 minutes before it’s baked through. I like a crispy top and for it to be quite dark, so it has contrast when you take it out of the tin.”
After the babka comes out of the oven, it gets hit with an extra boost of sweetness and any additions such as praline, crumb or streusel. “They also get doused in sugar syrup to seal in the moisture, which provides a nice shine.”
Azoulay’s babkas are cooked in single-use baking tins, with the loaves requiring a number of hours to completely cool down. “They need around four hours to fully cool,” says the chef. “I leave them in the tins because babkas can unravel if they’re not cooked properly.”
The last (and best) part of making babka is eating it. Azoulay offers two suggestions that both start with cutting a thick slice around 1–2cm in size. “The first is putting it in the microwave for 5–10 seconds to soften up the butter and the chocolate, which brings the flavours to the front,” he says.
“You can serve it with some ice cream or cream. The second is frying it with butter like French toast and cooking it on both sides until it caramelises and then finishing with some sea salt on top.”
The mammoth loaves, which almost tip 1kg in size, also have a long shelf life. “They can last up to five days on the bench if wrapped properly,” says Azoulay. “You can also freeze them.”
Azoulay is part of a small group of people who focus on making babka in Australia, with many chefs trying their hand at the baked good only to realise just how laborious it is. “Everyone has a love–hate relationship with babka,” he says. “One day it works out perfect, and the next it’s different. It’s very fickle and you need to get every step right along the way. But nothing beats the feeling when you make a good one.”