Jewish-American babka has Polish roots – babka meaning small grandmother – although the non-Jewish babka is a simple, tall yeast cake that’s baked in a kugelhopf pan without any filling. The Jewish babka is a twisted filled yeast dough made with a simple, relatively lean dough.
In Israel, yeast strudels became popular thanks to Hungarian bakeries and cafes, which offered traditional versions of poppyseed or cinnamon and raisins filled rolls. Those cakes, which have their roots in Austro-Hungarian tradition, as well as Russian, Polish and other Eastern European countries, became so popular that you can still find them in every supermarket, as well as in coffee shops and bakeries all over the country.
But this delectable yeast pastry’s appeal did not stop there. In recent years, a version of the German hefekranz, a braided cake baked in a round shape (kranz means a wreath), or simply kranz, made its way to the shelves of Israeli bakeries. In the Israeli version, the only thing left from the original German braided cake is the braiding. But the term “kranz” became synonymous with a braided cake of laminated yeast dough, filled with a variety of fillings.
Laminated dough is a very rich yeast dough that basically combines the techniques of yeast dough and puff pastry. It is very time consuming since beyond making the yeast dough, you need to add a few steps of folding the dough with cold butter. These days, any braided yeast cake in Israel claims the name kranz, but the real ones are undeniably rich, very tasty and stay fresh for longer thanks to all that butter.
To make things simpler for the home baker, chefs came up with recipes for butter-rich yeast dough that does not require all the folding. It is not as flaky and light as the original laminated dough, but it is still very rich and in that sense very different from the American babka. (And, some would argue, superior.)
A few rules before you start:
Make the effort and buy SAF instant yeast online; it’s more reliable than the store-bought active dry yeast. However, if you can’t, use about 30 percent more active dry yeast in the recipe (quantities in the recipe below).
This babka recipe is very rich, meaning it contains more butter than the average babka recipe. This makes it much tastier but it is also harder for the yeast to rise properly. Add butter last to the dough, as instructed below, and you’ll be fine.
The best way for yeast dough to develop its flavor is by letting it rise overnight in the fridge. If you’re in a hurry, just let it rise at room temperature for a couple of hours; it’s still going to be fine.
Do not over bake the babka. To get a moist babka, it needs to be baked just until almost firm, but when the center still feels a little too runny. It will stabilize a bit more outside the oven.
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