Easter has sprung, and with it lots of ham and lamb-shaped butter, lemon desserts and colored eggs. And babkas. Big, Polish babkas.
Babka, which in Polish literally translates to “little grandmother,” (and therefore making it quite apropos for my corner of the Foodseum universe), is a sweet, eggy, buttery bread often served around Easter to celebrate the return of all things decadent after the forty day fast of Lent. Since I kicked off the Lenten season by talking about the glutinous Polish donut, Paczki, it was only fitting that I end it on a similar note with the babka.
Like any food that worth its salt, there are more than a few hands in the air trying to take credit for its creation. While it’s most agreed upon that babka hails from Eastern Europe, specifically the Slavic regions, another theory suggested by food historian Lesley Chamberlain claims that the babka was sent east from Italy by Queen Bona Sforza of Poland in the 16th century and developed from typical Italian pannetone. Whatever its origin, it seems the Polish have staked the hardest claim, and it is to them we turn for our recipes.
Traditional babkas all have the same yeasty brioche-like base, and each loaf is distinguished by its flair: fruit, nuts, seeds and booze being the most traditional additions. Sweet cheese or chocolate fillings were either reserved for the well-to-do, or not seen at all (chocolate not becoming an acceptable edible until 1879 when made palatable by Mr. Lindt). One account suggests different cultural groups make the babka differently; whereas traditional Polish loaves are baked in a bundt pan, meant to resemble a grandmother’s wide, flowing skirt, the Jewish sector in New York is credited with twisting their babkas and fitting them in a loaf pan, and really embellishing them with chocolate. If that’s true, thank you to them.
Chocolate talk brings me to today’s recipe. I’ve known Helene Liwinski for approximately 10 years (whoa). She’s one of my best friends with whom I’ve hopped oceans, crammed for law school exams, laughed until it hurt, and cried until it stopped. I know her well enough to know that absolutely, under no circumstance, will we ever plan a vacation around Easter. Easter in her household, and in most traditional Polish households is sacrosanct; a weekend filled with time-honored traditions strictly observed despite age, distance and the relative busyness of one’s life. Easter baskets filled with colored eggs are blessed on Holy Saturday, mass is attended on Easter Sunday, and I know that, in the Liwinski household, a babka, along with a lemon tart, graces the countertop every year. According to Helene, they top theirs with a chocolate ganache for maximum goodness. In fact, if you leave this alone on the counter in her house ,someone will covertly peel a bit of icing off the side...at least, until the babka disappears altogether, which takes less than 24 hours. Pastry addicts, all.
Despite being traditionally a yeast cake, Mrs. Liwinski’s version is yeast-free, making it more like a marble pound cake. Still, the idea is the same, and for the Liwinski Polish Easter, it’s what’s from this mother’s kitchen.
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup potato starch (NOT flour)
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 TB lemon zest
- 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1 tsp vanilla
- ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- For the ganache:
- 9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and sugar a bundt pan.
- Whip eggs with sugar. Continue, while gradually adding the flour, potato starch, salt and baking powder. Add melted butter, vanilla and zest.
- Set aside 1/3 of the batter. To this, add that the cocoa and mix.
- To the bundt, pour the light batter in first, and then the chocolate batter on top, like a ring in the center. Swirl it around a bit for marble effect.
- Bake for about 40-50 minutes until a tester comes out clean, careful not to overbake. Let sit in the bundt pan for about 15 minutes, and remove to finish cooling.
- While the cake is cooking, make the ganache: In a bowl, add the chocolate. In a saucepan over medium heat, add the cream until it reaches a scald, just below a boil. Add the hot cream to the chocolate and let sit 1 minutes. Whisk the cream and chocolate until smooth, and pour over the cooled cake, covering well.
Chrissy Barua lives in Lincoln Park and successfully lawyers by day despite an addiction to bad movies, cookies, and travel. She'll be bringing you monthly doses of delicious as she tries to track down the best grandma recipes she can find. (Follow her on her other cooking adventures at The Hungary Buddha Eats the World.)