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Babka Glow Up! Inside the Twists and Swirls of This Instagram-Famous Chocolate Bread

2022-07-28   ◆   3 minutes read

The story of babka has as many twists as the cake/bread itself. Whether you’ve grown up eating it from the grocery store, seen it on Instagram, or are just hearing about it for the first time, there’s a ton to learn about this beautiful and delicious pastry! It takes a lot to sift through all the rumours and explore its ties to ancient matriarchal societies, Sabbath rituals (Jewish Saturday’s traditions), and social media influencers. So, let’s jump into it!

Chocolate babka slices on a black plate and a textured steel grey blanket. Tranches de babka au chocolat sur une assiette noire et une couverture gris acier texturé

Chocolate Swirls of History

Amidst the mystery of this chocolate bread’s origin lies a agreement that it appeared in Eastern European Jewish communities somewhere in the 19th century. Unlike some desserts that have trackable history through oral tradition or recipes, there is not much documented because it came from the repurposing of extra challah dough. Challah is a braided bread that holds a great deal of significance in Jewish culture. Challah is important during the three Sabbath meals, as two challah breads are used as prayer objects thanking God for ensuring the Israelites had food during the 40 year Exodus from Egyptian slavery. To sum it up, no one needed a recipe for babka cake because everyone was simply adding toppings to their challah recipe!

Braided vegan challah bread sliced into some pieces on a wooden cutting board with a little bowl of salt. Pain challah végétalien tressé coupé en morceaux sur une planche à découper en bois avec un petit bol de sel
Braided vegan challah bread (Lion’s Bread)

Something that does follow a consensus however, is that although chocolate is the most popular topping nowadays, this would not have been the case for the first iterations of the cake. In the 19th century, all of Europe was propelling into social movements such as trade union development. However, a lot of Eastern Europe was still very much experiencing peasantry. The people who could afford chocolate were only drinking it at this time. Plus, the big chocolate strides (like the invention of the chocolate bar in 1847) were only happening in major cities! Today’s popular swirl of chocolate in the cake would have been unheard of in the homes that most likely invented it. Those first moments were filled with other delicious ingredients such as swirls of seeds, jams, or cinnamon.

Where Does the Name “Babka” Come From?

The origin of the name is a deep linguistic rabbit hole. Let’s start with the first level: “babka” is Polish for “grandmother.” This makes a lot of sense in the story of our bread because many sources swear that it was invented in Poland or Ukraine. Where the rabbit hole deepens however, is that there are actually two breads that do not look similar but have the same name. These breads are the Polish or Ukrainian Easter babka. So, how did an Easter cake inspire our fantastic chocolate bread?

Ukrainian Babka Bread with some still in tin cans and some painted Easter eggs in the foreground. Ukrainien Babka Pain avec certains encore en boîtes de conserve et quelques œufs de Pâques peints au premier plan
Easter Babka nowadays is baked in tin cans (Leite’s Culinaria)

The Grandmother of Breads

The Ukrainian and Polish version were part of Slavic culture even before Easter existed. Clay statues from Trypillia (an extremely small town in Ukraine that dates back to 4000 BCE) suggest that Ukraine was a matriarchal society before Christianity arrived. Anthropologists suggest that the original use of “babka” for these breads was because they were used in fertility rituals. In some slavic languages this word also means “woman.” These breads were made in a bundt-cake shape that now represents Christ’s dominion, but back then was meant to represent the womb.

Trypillia pottery that's been repaired and has a female presenting figure. Trypillia poterie qui a été réparé et a une figure féminine présentatrice
Female figures were prolific in Trypillia pottery findings (Messy Nessy)

Savella Stechishin in her iconic history cookbook, Traditional Ukrainian Cookery, outlines anthropological theories of the babka-paska pipeline. The fertility ritual would have been celebrated in the early spring around the time of modern-day Easter. When Christianity arrived, the name was modified as paska, which is similar bread in a different shape, to better fit the themes of Easter. Adapted from its Hebrew translation of “passover,” paska is used interchangeably with the babka cake in certain parts of the world. This name confusion suggests an attempt to assimilate the cakes.

Beautiful Ukrainian Easter paska with dough decorations on top and little Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. Magnifique paska ukrainien de Pâques avec décorations de pâte sur le dessus et petits œufs de Pâques saupoudrés tout au long
Ukrainian Paska is known for its dough decoration (Korena in the Kitchen)

Although the chocolate and Easter babkas may seem very different at first glance, they most likely come from a very deep-rooted desire to hold onto ancient culture. The exact origin of the chocolate one may mysteriously and yet simply mean “grandmother.” However, the significance of them in Ukrainian and Polish culture makes it difficult to believe that there could be that much of a coincidence. Any way you look at it, this bread is a pragmatic, beautiful, and matriarchal dessert that deserves all the love it gets on social media.

How Babka Went Dessert-Viral

Let’s move back to talking exclusively about our beloved chocolate babka and how its more recent rise in appreciation happened. In 1994, there was an episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld, where characters lamented over the inferiority of the cinnamon swirls. This notoriety, even in the form of an inside joke, made the desserts blow up in a way that had never been seen before. Cafes and cookbooks increased their inclusion of these desserts at this time and many food historians point to this moment as pivotal.

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Even though they had become beloved, for the same reasons we whimsically went over in our coconut macaroon blog, dessert maintained a bit of a stale reputation. And we mean that in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. It was an easy food to mass produce and it became less of something special and more of something simple to bake at home. 

In 2013, this reputation took a complete turnaround. Breads Bakery, an artisan bakery in New York, opened and created their chocolate babka with syrup, semi-sweet chocolate, and a hazelnut spread. The mix of having an extremely delicious and aesthetic recipe as well as an effective marketing strategy created a viral influx of posts on social media. Prominent influencers were posting their babka photos left and right. Instagram accounts were created exclusively to document adventures for the best babka cake. This braided bread grew to a league of its own. Now you can get various innovations beyond your wildest dreams. There is ice cream, there are doughnuts, and even ice cream sandwiches! Who knows where we are heading next?

Babka sabra

If you’ve never tried this amazing chocolate cake, you’ve really got to get on the roller coaster that is this iconic treat. Going from being leftovers to the biggest dessert on Instagram is the underdog story of the ages. With all the choices and adaptations, it really couldn’t be a better time. Try some babka near you!

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