WATERTOWN — Babka, a sweet yeast cake common throughout Eastern Europe, is made with flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. In this area, most bakeries offer babkas in loaf shapes, laced with cinnamon or chocolate or both.
At International Natural Bakery, round babkas are made without chocolate, topped with glistening fresh apricots, slices of apple, cherries, plums, or poppyseeds. Recently, bakers were making babkas with sweet cheese and blueberries. The bakery specializes in dark rye bread, Russian-style whole-wheat bread, and challah. The round fruit-topped babka was inspired by a Polish friend of bakery owner Boris Freyman, who grew up in Russia. He says of the babka, “Some would say it’s Jewish, some would say it’s Polish.”
The name is an informal play on the word “baba,” which means grandmother in many Eastern European languages. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s bakery in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote in The Atlantic online last month that there are theories that babka originated in the Ukraine or even Italy (it bears a passing resemblance to rich, airy panettone). “The old forms of the babka were likely much larger, somewhere from the size of a modern day panettone on up to a few feet high,” he writes. He surmises that the name originally was “baba,” and when the confection was made smaller, “the name shifted to the diminutive, ‘babka,’ meaning ‘little grandmother.’ Some others say the tall shape they were made in resembles a grandmother’s pleated skirts.”
Under the deft handiwork of Mario Mio, a young Warsaw-born baker at International Natural Bakery, the top of the babka rises into swirling peaks that give it a majestic look. To make the cake, the fruit has been cooked down, spread onto a sheet of dough, rolled up, cut into pieces, and set cut sides up in the baking pan. The bits of fruit that remain after cooking them add a flavorful bite and a delicate fragrance to the light cake.
International bakers had the idea to try babka because they had leftover challah dough, which is very flexible, Freyman says. In only a few months, they have increased production from a few dozen a week to about 300 each week. Freyman says he wants to keep the quantities small enough to ensure high quality. Babkas measure about 8½ inches in diameter, and they’re about 3 inches high, with the fruit filling ringing the top. Prices are $3.99 to $5.99.
Freyman says he was pleasantly surprised at how good the babkas look. They were given the ultimate test, he says. His 75-year-old mother told him the babkas taste good.
Call ahead for availability at International Natural Bakery outlet, 128 Arlington St., Watertown, 617-923-1224. Also available at Wilson Farm, 10 Pleasant St., Lexington, 781-862-3900, and A. Russo & Sons, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500.