If lasagne is Australia’s national crisis dish, then babka might just be Melbourne’s lockdown dessert. In the last few months a new batch of local babka-makers has risen, inspired in part by the cake’s popularity in the US and Israel, where chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Uri Scheft have created rich, addictive – and highly Instagrammable – versions of this traditional Jewish dessert.
Babka has evolved as Jewish bakers and chefs moved around the world, bringing their culinary traditions to new places. The dense, yeasty cake originated in the Jewish communities of 19th-century Poland, where it was first made with extra challah dough and filled with jam or cinnamon for a Sabbath treat. But the modern babka is a more decadent cake made with enriched dough (with a long rise) that’s filled, rolled, strategically cut and then twisted into a loaf pan, resulting in a lusciously cracked, chocolatey surface and an entrancing, swirly cross-section that demands attention on social media. Many European Jewish communities have some variation of babka (the kugelhopf and kokosh are close cousins), and Melbourne Jews have been making it for generations – both at home and in Jewish bakeries and delis around Balaclava, Ripponlea and Elsternwick.
But right now, there’s a new generation of babka-makers churning out loaves at home and in cafes and pop-up bakeries across Melbourne. Why the resurgence? Well, here’s my theory: babka is the perfect lockdown cake. It’s comforting, pretty, usually chocolatey, big enough to feed a family or split between friends, and forgiving enough to keep in the freezer if you want to savour it (just pop a slice in the microwave or toaster to heat it up). Similar to other lockdown comfort foods such as dumplings, soup and sourdough bread, babka evokes a simple, old-world nostalgia.
Each of these bakers take a slightly different approach to babka, infusing their creations with their own history, culinary traditions and preferences. Some are made in a more traditional style from a dense, dairy-free dough (which means they can be consumed after a meat meal, in accordance with kashrut), others are based on a buttery brioche. Fillings range from the classic chocolate (often fortified with chocolate chips) to cinnamon (decried as the “lesser babka” in a 1994 Seinfeld episode) to Nutella to hojicha. But you can’t really go wrong here. As Elaine Benes said, “You can’t beat a babka”.
5 & Dime Bagels, Caulfield pop-up, $5
New Jersey native and baker Zev Forman has been making babka in Melbourne since 2010 (and eating it his whole life – babka is big on the east coast of the US). He originally started out doing a loaf at his CBD cafe but found it was a little too messy to cut into slices, so he switched to single-serve babka scrolls that work for dine-in and takeaway. There’s a classic chocolate version made with a mix of Callebaut 54 per cent dark chocolate, butter, sugar and chocolate chips (and drizzled with white icing), and a cinnamon version with walnuts and raisins. These rich, hefty scrolls are generously sized – Forman says single-serve, we say afternoon tea for two for a fiver. You can also place a special order for big loaf for $40. Delivery is available across Melbourne.
Babka Boi, $36
Avi Azoulay was born in Australia, but he fell in love with babka when he was living in Israel, his parents’ homeland. The former Miznon chef started making a complex, dense choc-hazelnut version (filled with Nutella, homemade chocolate paste, choc chips and hazelnuts) at home in Bentleigh under the moniker Babka Boi during lockdown 1.0, and he quickly garnered a following online. Azoulay’s bake is a labour-intensive, three-day process that results in a decadent loaf weighing in at 900 grams. Shoot him a DM and he’ll add you to his waitlist. (You’ll have to be patient, but it’s worth the wait.)
Maaryasha Bakery, Elsternwick, $22
Maaryasha Werdiger has been baking babka since she was a child – first with her grandmother for Shabbat, and now at her eponymous sourdough micro-bakery (based out of her garage in Elsternwick), where she makes a range of breads, babkas and focaccias. The business started a few years ago as a side hustle, but she’s steadily gained a dedicated following via word-of-mouth in Melbourne’s Jewish community. Most weeks you’ll find both vegan and non-vegan chocolate babkas, and vegan and non-vegan cinnamon (the recipe for that particular filling and topping is her grandmother’s). Occasionally she does Anzac, almond or poppyseed versions. The process takes 36 hours from start to finish, and you can taste the time and expertise in every bite. The menu changes each week, so follow her on Instagram and check her website for updates. Like Babka Boi, Maaryasha does small batches that sell out quickly, but these cakes and breads are deserving of your patience. Pick-up on Fridays only.
Gluten-free babkas by Felix Goodwin, at the Windsor Hotel, $16 to $20
Inspired by his own experience living with coeliac disease, pastry chef Felix Goodwin specialises in gluten-free cakes, biscuits and patisserie. His special gluten-free takeaway menu for The Windsor includes two kinds of babka: a choc-hazelnut version with Callebaut ganache and Piedmonte hazelnuts, and a choc-popcorn version that’s laced with popcorn praline and topped with golden candied popcorn. Both are made from a buttery brioche base, and the cross-section of the choc-hazelnut version looks just like a traditional babka. Pick-up and delivery (within 15 kilometres of the CBD) are both available. Place your order here.
Spitz’s Bakehouse, Ashwood, $16 to $30
Asher Spitz has been working in hospitality for 16 years – more than half his life. He started out in the kitchen, but for the past decade he’s worked front-of-house and in operations for venues such as Boilermaker House and Cookie. Spitz regularly bakes bread and pastries at home for his family – including the Jewish classics he grew up with in Israel and Australia, such as challah and bagels – so when he was stood down from his job in March, he decided to return to his culinary roots. In May he launched Spitz’s Bakehouse from his home kitchen in Ashwood, where he makes four types of babka: a brown-butter pecan number with cinnamon and brown sugar (which he describes as his “signature”); one with 70 per cent Lindt dark chocolate; a Lotus Biscoff and pecan version; and salted dulce de leche with Lindt dark-chocolate chips. Pick-up and delivery are both available – DM him on Instagram or email to place your order.
Bupkis, Caulfield North, $4 to $25
Lawyer-turned-chef Saul Finberg got his start in the culinary world in 2015, when a redundancy prompted him to pursue his passion for food. With a few years of training at Bistro Guillaume, he’s now baking a range of babkas, biscuits and brownies from his home in Caulfield North. Finberg is constantly updating the menu based on seasonal ingredients and what catches his eye at Prahran Market each week, but for now you can expect three standard babkas each week: Nutella; chocolate fudge; and apple pie caramel (an intense apple reduction that’s laced with dried apples). He does traditional loaves that can feed a family, and two smaller “knot” styles that serve one to three people. Bupkis is a playful hybrid Yiddish-English slang word that means “nothing”, but these babkas – which ferment for at least 24 hours – are definitely something. Pick-up and delivery are both available – DM him Facebook to place your order. A selection of pastries are also stocked regularly at Spout in Ripponlea.
Sucre du Jour, Camberwell, $15
Pastry chef Eigen Ting and his partner Josephine Tan literally chased the scent of babka on a holiday in New York a couple of years ago. Walking through Central Park they smelled something “really amazing”, says Ting, so they followed their noses to a nearby kiosk that was selling babka, where they tasted the cake for the first time. Fast-forward to the Covid-19 lockdown, and the couple decided to experiment with baked breads they could easily pull off in a domestic kitchen – which is how their babka R&D began. Now they’re selling four varieties at their cute new patisserie, which is influenced by French techniques and Asian flavours. There’s a matcha brioche with black-sesame spread and raspberry-seed jam; dark chocolate with hojicha (a Japanese green tea); Nutella with hazelnut praline and salted caramel; and a savoury cheese and potato version (the dough contains mashed potato). The loaves all weigh about 400 grams. Pick-up is available in-store, or you can order online for delivery within 25 kilometres of Camberwell.
The Left-Handed Chef, South Melbourne, $15
Chef Ehud Malka was born in Israel and commenced his culinary career there. Last year he overhauled the menu at his eight-year-old cafe to reflect his culinary roots, so you can now order falafel, shawarma and creamy, perfectly piquant hummus to go. The latest addition? Chocolate babka, of course. It’s non-dairy – the filling is boosted with a dairy-free Israeli chocolate spread, plus cocoa and raisins – and has a shorter rise time (so it’s easier for Malka to churn them out) and a lighter texture than some of the other babkas on this list. They’re also included in the Shabbat dinner and Sunday Shuk family meal packs. Pick-up is available, plus delivery to selected suburbs. Order here.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on September 1, 2020. Menu items and some details may have changed since publication.