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Part bread, part cake, an all-seasons classic

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2010

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The babka of my memory is perfect. The sweet yeast bread has a buttery, cake-like crumb that is tender and rich. Loaf-shaped, it boasts a rounded bumpy top thick with crumbly golden streusel. Each slice is a surprise of chocolate swirl (another rendition is cinnamon-raisin), that spirals and twists in different configurations throughout the loaf.

Growing up, I considered babka a special treat because it wasn’t something my mother baked. We bought it from the old-style Jewish bakeries, where they were made each morning. My mother would often buy one to bring to a relative’s house, but even better was a guest who arrived at our door bearing a white bakery box with the treasured loaf. These babkas were more cake than bread — in fact, they’re really part cake, part bread — which is how we liked them. Similar to French brioche, babka, which is of Polish origin, is related to the Austrian and Alsatian kugelhopf and Italian panettone.

Today, most of the old shops that made babkas are gone and the ones sold in bakeries, delicatessens, and supermarkets aren’t as good as loaves I remember. Newer versions are typically dense and dry with lackluster flavors. Rather than confine the once-prized loaf to a sentimental food memory, I decided it was time to make my own. Babka has no season, but with the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah beginning this evening, it seemed like a good time to try my hand at it.

After many trials, 14 to be exact, I’ve learned that making babka takes time and patience, but it’s not difficult. An electric stand mixer makes the dough easy because it ends up being sticky-silky-smooth. It’s all the eggs, butter, and milk (I told you it is rich). When it’s time to roll the soft, pliable dough, you don’t need a rolling pin; you can pat it into a rectangle with your hands.

For the filling, make a chocolate swirl, where little chunks that don’t melt provide solid chocolate bites, or prepare a gooey cinnamon-sugar spiral with (or without) raisins. Fruit lovers might prefer apricot preserves and raisins (spread 2/3 cup of preserves and 1/3 cup of raisins on the rolled-out dough) and nut fans can sprinkle chopped walnuts, pecans, or sliced almonds over any of these options. Don’t mix too many flavors. One of my trial loaves, apricot jam combined with grated chocolate, was not a success.

After spreading the filling, roll up the dough like a jelly roll, then twist it a few times as if you were wringing out a towel. Into the loaf pan it goes, with a heavy-handed topping of streusel (you’ll love this later). The recipe makes two: one to eat, one to freeze, or, if you’re feeling generous, to share with neighbors, friends, or family.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.