For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with the notion of making babka from scratch. Countless people, from family and friends to anyone willing to listen, have heard me voice my babka baking intentions. My desire to bake a beautiful, twisty loaf of dessert bread arose for no reason that I could pinpoint, but that’s fine. One doesn’t need an excuse to make a delicious babka.
Besides the occasional curiosity-fueled kitchen experiment, I’m not a baker by any means. And I’m not well-versed in Jewish treats predominantly associated with the East Coast, either. I’m a Midwesterner raised on Catholicism and fish fries. My Detroit-born mother’s strong Polish heritage includes a family babka recipe, but the kind with raisins and nuts, not the highly Instagrammable babka with a swirled filling.
So I’m not sure when I became so determined to bake a babka of my own. It could have been spurred by one of my brother’s holiday visits to our childhood home armed with an array of New York City delicacies. Maybe I’ve simply watched too many Seinfeld reruns in my life (“You can’t beat a babka!”). Or I’d simply scrolled through too many Instagram recipes or stared too long at my spice cabinet’s unused cinnamon sticks and inadvertently awakened overpowering babka aspirations. I don’t know. But I was determined to make a loaf of both chocolate and cinnamon...eventually.
And here I am, and here we all are collectively, at home in the midst of a pandemic. Some of us are drinking while others are buying lots of new home workout equipment, a lot of 60-year-olds are learning what Zoom is, and a shit ton of people are baking.
The current crisis has been likened to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but unlike those disasters, it isn’t a singular event at all. Nobody was taking a moment to bake a pie while watching the news of the World Trade Center’s collapse, or learning the art of sourdough as they listened to FDR’s Infamy Speech. This event is relentless and ongoing, and whether we’re willing to admit it or not, outlasting it will require our collective perseverance.
Part of my new routine often includes waking up with a feeling of hopelessness. I come from a long line of anxiety-filled doers, busy bees who like to contribute something however they can. So my experiments in both baking and cooking have ramped up with some urgency lately, to the point of being almost outlandish. I’m living with my partner and her parents amidst an out-of-state relocation timed rather poorly with nationwide shelter-in-place orders. None of these housemates of mine have asked for banana bread, sweet potato brownies, carrot cake, tea cake, tahini bread, or oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, nor have they asked me to cook virtually every meal for the four of us—in fact, it’s been gently requested that I stop. But then what would I do? I’m no medical professional. I don’t have large chunks of cash to donate to the cause. I don’t know how to sew a mask. When “doing one’s part” looks for so many like a rotation of sweatpants, what do those of us who are tired of sitting on our hands have to offer?
We bake. We turn to new recipes. We bake babka, finally, like we always said we would. In the process, we learn that babka dough has lots of butter, and that incorporating it all nearly wears out the stand mixer. We learn that cutting and twisting the dough is much easier than the process of rolling it out and spreading the filling was. We learn that the filling in a cinnamon babka is more liquidy and sugary than the chocolate variety and can drip onto the bottom of the oven, producing enough smoke to fill up the entire house. We exercise patience as we wait for the inside of our babka to bake all the way through, even as the tops come close to burning. And of course, we place our freshly baked babkas by the window and take dozens of pictures, which is all that’s left to remember them by just two days later.
Right now, we all must bake our babka, whatever that means to us. Yours might be a daily box of Velveeta shells and cheese or an ongoing attempt to tweak a secret family chili recipe. Or a TV show about tigers or basketball stars, or painting every room of the house, or fixing the stand mixer. If your contribution to this fight looks like nothing more than maintaining your sanity and health from the isolated comforts of home, that will be enough. Bake your babka. Master your babka. Find ways to share your babka. Move on to a new babka. But please, just choose a babka that keeps your ass inside.
For The Takeout’s best babka recipe, click here.