Thing or Not A Thing: Babka

Published on 9 September 2020

Photo: Felix Goodwin's chocolate and popcorn babka (credit: Felix Goodwin)

It’s been a comfort food for generations of Jewish people. And now, a fresh crop of Melbourne bakers are pulling this braided bread in new directions.

Coils of glossy dough. Tiger-striped insides. Melty chocolate in every bite. Yes, we’re talking about babka, the latest bread-based obsession of our lockdown selves. Just ask Broadsheet and Good Food: this is the baked good of the moment.

Before you (rightly) roll your eyes and point out (correctly) that babka has long been a “thing”, let’s look at the data. Google searches in Australia for babka have shown a definite uptick in 2020, and Victoria leads the charge, with twice the volume of searches as New South Wales and Tasmania, the next most babka-hungry states. Things reached a peak around 5 April, when most of Australia had been in lockdown for several weeks. Maybe some of us had tried and failed to maintain a sourdough starter. Maybe we wanted to keep busy with a notoriously involved bread recipe. Maybe we were just looking for comfort – and is there a better place to look than a sweet yeasted dough named after a Polish term for grandmother?

To take it back a step, babka originated in Poland in the 19th century, where it was part of the culinary traditions of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities there. Early recipes took days-old challah, the braided bread enriched with eggs, and spread it with cinnamon or jam before baking it again. When the bread made its way to the wealthier United States and Israel with Jewish migrants in the 20th century, chocolate began to be used. The foundations remained the same though: a brioche-style dough (minus the butter and milk) spread with something sweet and plaited into a rope-style shape. Until the 2010s.

Babka ice-cream sandwiches, babka doughnuts and even savoury takes were all spotted as the new wave of babka crested in the USA, led by Breads Bakery and its founder Uri Scheft. Of course, the more conventional chocolate and cinnamon were regularly seen on the tables of goys and Jews alike before all this, in diaspora communities all over the world.

But now Australia is experiencing its own nouveau babka craze. It makes sense, given our current taste for all things bready. Focaccia has made a solid comeback over the last three to four years, things on toast are a familiar sight on fancy snack menus, and Melbourne has welcomed a host of new bakeries in recent years.

These newcomers join the ranks of our Monarch Cakes, our Baker di Chiricos and Loafers, and, of course, our Babkas, the Fitzroy bakery which opened in 1993 and offered its namesake cake from day one.

“We used to make it and nobody wanted to buy it,” says owner Sasha Lewis. “Most of the Jewish people who knew what it was lived on the other side of the river.”

The other side of the river being the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, Caulfield North and surrounds, the beating heart of Melbourne’s Jewish community. On Acland Street in St Kilda, Monarch Cakes has been trading since 1934, with the chocolate babka its most popular cake. The bakery offers a single-serve size right through to larger loaves that feed a dozen people. Elsternwick’s Aviv Cakes serves a round version with small pieces you can easily tear off, while back on the northside Babka serves a bundt-shaped babka, inspired by a tin that Lewis’s parents brought to Australia when they migrated from Germany and which she used when the bakery first opened.

Lewis says there was a wave of interest in babka after Seinfeld’s 1994 episode featuring the great debate about chocolate versus cinnamon. But then demand died down again. That was, until recently as fresh takes and names have brought about a renaissance all over the city.

Leading the charge of babka 2.0 is a group of small and savvy operators who aren’t afraid to push the envelope. Pastry chef and diagnosed coeliac Felix Goodwin has been baking gluten-free treats at the Hotel Windsor since May. After he managed to pull off a good brioche dough, he got the idea to try babka when he asked his mum what she’d like as a sweet treat on Mother’s Day.

“She said something chocolatey, something hazelnutty. With the brioche, it was perfect.”

Using a mix of flours that includes sorghum, cornflour and potato starch, Goodwin offers a Belgian chocolate and hazelnut version, as well as a chocolate fudge number topped with popcorn. He reckons part of the bread’s new popularity stems from how well it travels, essential in these delivery-only times, and the fact that it keeps well for a few days.

Recently he did a babka swap with the sensation that is @babkaboi, Israeli chef Avi Azoulay. Azoulay has been overwhelmed by demand after the Jewish community, followed by the rest of Melbourne, cottoned on to the tightly marbled chocolate babkas he was posting on Instagram. There’s currently a long waitlist for his braided loaves.

At Sucre du Jour in Camberwell, bakers Eigen Ting and Josephin Tan are swirling the likes of black sesame through matcha dough, adding roasted Japanese green tea to dark chocolate babka and experimenting with a savoury version involving potato bread, garlic and cheese.

But if you just want a really great example striped throughout with chocolate and hazelnut, there are plenty of those too. Here’s to living in a babka-loving town.

Verdict: Thing

Get your taste:       

Aviv Cakes. Mon-Fri 8am-3pm, Sat-Sun 8am-1pm. Pick up only from 412 Glenhuntly Rd, Elsternwick. avivcakes.com.au, (03) 9528 6627.

Babka. Tues-Sun, 7am-7pm. Pick up only from 358 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. @babkafitzroy, (03) 9416 0091.

Babka Boi, waitlist only. Order by email babkaboiaus@gmail.com or visit @babka_boi.

Felix Goodwin, gluten-free babka. Thurs-Sun. Delivery available within a 15km radius of Melbourne CBD. Pick up from The Windsor Concierge, 111 Spring St, Melbourne. Pre-order online at thehotelwindsor.com.au

The Left-Handed Chef. Wed-Sun, noon-2.30pm, 6pm-7.30pm. Delivery available to select suburbs. Pick up from 219 Park St, South Melbourne. Order online at lhceatery.com

Miznon. Fridays only. Delivery available within a 20km radius of Melbourne CBD on orders over $50. Pick up from 55 Hardware La, Melbourne. Order online at miznonaustralia.com

Monarch Cakes. Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat-Sun 8.30am-6pm. Delivery available on pre-orders. Pick up from 103 Acland St, St Kilda. Pre-order online at monarchcakes.com.au or call (03) 9534 2972 for same day orders.

Sucre du Jour. Tues-Sat 9am-4.30pm, Sun 11am-4.30pm. Delivery available within a 25km radius of Camberwell. Pick up from shop 10, 436 Burke Rd, Camberwell. Order online at sucredurjourofficial.com.

By Emma Breheny

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