Discovering the Legendary Family Babka

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Julianna. She was born in Poland in the mid-1800’s but immigrated to upstate New York around 1900. There, she married a man named Marcin, and had a baby named Martha. Occasionally Julianna, Marcin and the baby would travel to Chicago to visit with relatives. It was there in the Windy City, in a busy house, that Julianna met a little boy named Allen.

The first time Allen met Julianna he was scared to death of her. To him Julianna seemed very old and very gruff.  But Julianna, who was well-intentioned at heart, just settled in her old Polish ways, possessed a special skill. A skill so special that it could charm anyone, even a scared little boy named Allen.

Juliana’s special talent was baking and her most charming confection was a twisted bread called babka. Everyone in the busy house in the Windy City loved Julianna’s babka. The best in all the land, boasted her proud husband Marcin, who had a belly as round as Santa’s. Everyone agreed.  Even the little boy named Allen, for as soon as he took his first bite of the cinnamon flavored treat he watched all his fears of this old woman fly right out of his head.  It tastes like Christmas, he proclaimed! From that point forward, Julianna  no longer seemed quite so scary. She returned again and again to visit and quickly became little Allen’s most anticipated house guest. As long as she brought the babka, that is:)

That’s a true story from the family archives. Julianna was the second wife of my great, great grandfather, Marcin who hailed from the pretty pastel city of Poznan, Poland in the 1800’s. The little boy named Allen was my dad who was born in Chicago in the 1940’s.

Dad playing with a batch of kittens circa 1946

This information all came courtesy of a notebook of memories my dad filled out about a decade ago. Somehow this information of the famous babka got overlooked in the curiosity department and I never got the chance to ask my dad more about Julianna, Marcin and the famous yet mysterious family bread. A few days after my dad died, I came across the notebook of memories again and was reintroduced to the story of the babka.

Even though Marcin and Julianna shared 10 kids between them, there is no known recipe that’s been passed down through the family. Marcin’s daughter Jozefa, (my great grandmother) died from burns sustained in a kitchen fire when she was just 37, leaving eight children behind. That terrible family tragedy left little opportunity for conversation about lineage, ancestors and recollections when it came to Marcin and Julianna.  No one wanted to dredge up the sad circumstances surrounding Jozefa’s death in order to understand the family that came before her. So a silence fell on that side of history. For a long, long time distant relatives became just a blur of hazy facts and faces. I’m on a mission now though to learn more about my great great grandparents and about that beautiful pastel city where they came from…

Poznan, Poland

It will be a tricky endeavor since I’m dealing with foreign languages and far-off places, but they deserve the effort and it will be fun to see what gets discovered. In the meantime, this one little snippet of a food remembrance from my dad is a cherished link to knowing more about the lives of family members who lived over a century ago.

I don’t have any pictures of Julianna or Marcin yet but I do have a few photos of Jozefa, like this one taken on her wedding day in 1902. Sixteen years later she would die from the fire.

Because I’d never seen, or even heard about babka before it was referenced in the notebook, a new baking adventure was definitely in order. I scoured my vintage cookbooks but found absolutely no mention of it. Luckily, a great recipe was discovered online and the babka came into being in October. Two weeks ago, I posted it on Instagram and shared the story about Julianna.

It turned out to be a really fun and interesting baking project. If you are as unfamiliar with babka as I was, it is one of those cinnamon based desserts that is like a little slice of heaven for the season. Buttery, warm and full of aromatic spice, it tastes like a cross between a cinnamon role and a coffee cake.  Fittingly, (for this story anyway!) the word babka means grandmother in Polish and is a traditional heritage food of both Poland and the Ukraine. Historians suspect that it may date all the way back to the 16th century.

Babka comes in two classic variations – chocolate and cinnamon – and can be augmented with a variety of toppings including streusel, nuts, raisins, spices and dried fruit. Usually it comes in two shapes as well – either round or loaf style.  I chose to make the cinnamon version and baked it both ways – in loaves and rounds. The round version turned out to be a little fancier looking but the loaves are a bit easier to slice, so it comes down to your preference. Either way, it’s a winner of a recipe that tastes great at all times of the day, and is equally enjoyable at breakfast, during a mid-day snack or a late night nibble.

The key to an ultra flavorful babka lies in the freshness of the cinnamon. So if you can, try to find a spice shop in your neck of the woods that offers it freshly ground which would be most ideal. Luckily, as if Julianna was supporting my endeavor, a lovely new spice shop just opened up in my city, so I used Supreme Saigon cinnamon in my recipe. If you don’t have a good spice shop in your area, no worries, you can always order some online or buy a brand new container from your grocery so that you can experience the full bouquet of flavor.

New spice shop in the city!

Making babka from scratch is a three step process, but don’t let that intimidate you, as this is a very easy dessert to make. The only downside to homemade babka is the amount of time (about six hours) it takes to make from start to finish.  That’s because it is a yeast bread and requires time to rise twice. It is well worth the wait though. It also freezes well, so if you were feeling extra ambitious you could double or triple the recipe and stack the babka up in the freezer for homemade goodness all winter long!

Cinnamon Babka

{This recipe was sourced from family-friends-food.com and the Modern Jewish Baker Cookbook by Shannon Sarna}

For the dough:

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1/3 cup + 1/2/ teaspoon cane sugar

1/2 cup lukewarm water

4 1/2 cups organic all purpose flour

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 cup whole milk

3/4 cup butter (melted)

2 eggs

 

For the Sugar Syrup:

2/3 cup water

1 cup cane sugar

1 tsp vanilla

 

For the Filling:

3/4 cup butter, melted

1/1/2 cups cane sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

pinch of salt

In a small bowl, combine the yeast, 1/2 tsp sugar and the lukewarm water. Stir to combine and then set aside for about 10 minutes so that the yeast can foam.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla, mixing until everything is blended together. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, scald the milk and then remove the pan from the heat and let it rest for 1 minute.
Using a hand mixer, combine the water/yeast mixture, the milk, and the melted butter to the flour mixture and blend to incorporate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time.
Continue mixing on a low to medium speed for 7 full minutes until the dough is shiny, elastic and smooth.
Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a warm damp towel. Allow to rise 1 to 2 hours.
While the dough is rising make the simple syrup by combining the water, sugar, and vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Next make the filling by combining all ingredients in a medium bowl and mixing thoroughly. Set aside.
When the dough has risen, cut it into two equal halves. Roll out one half on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 1/4″ inch thick. Try to roll the dough in as rectangular shape as possible.
With a sharp knife trim the rounder edges of the dough so that they form straight lines, which makes the babka braids look more tidy down the road.
Next spread half of the filling evenly all over the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch rim around the edge.  Ideal tools for this are a frosting knife, a spatula, the back of a spoon or even your fingers.
Then starting at the bottom edge, tightly roll up the dough (jelly roll style) to the very top edge.
Once your dough is all rolled up and resembles a log shape, trim each end with a sharp knife and then cut the log length-wise down the middle to expose the filling inside.
Now that you have to halves of one log, braid the two halves together, alternating one section on top of the other so that it looks like this…
Place the braid in a greased springform cake pan.
Repeat the above steps with the other half of the dough. And then curl the second braid inside the first braid and smoosh the two braids together lightly (like you are squeezing a basketball between your hands) so that it creates some space between the sides of the pan and the dough.
Finally, drape a moist kitchen towel over the pan and set aside to rise for 30 more minutes.
While the dough is rising again , preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the babka in the oven for 40 minutes, then take it out and brush the top of the bread with two light layers of the sugar syrup. Return it to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
When it is ready, the babka will be a golden brown on top and the internal temperature will be 185 degrees. Place the pan on a cooling rack and brush the top with three more light layers of the sugar syrup. Let it cool for 10-15 minutes before removing the babka from the pan. The sides will be be rippled with ribbons of dough…
Slice and serve either warm or at room temperature. The babka pairs really well with a cup of strong coffee, tea or espresso.

Thanks to its bountiful size and rich texture, it makes an ideal holiday food since it can serve a lot of people, transports well and can be frozen for months ahead of time.
When I first posted the babka story on Instagram, several people sent messages requesting the recipe, so I’m pleased to be sharing it here on the blog today. I loved this bread so much that it is now going to be a new annual holiday baking tradition in my house. And I hope it becomes one of yours too. When my dad first met Julianna, she was in her 90’s. I love that she was still baking for her family at that age and still possessed the ability and desire to convince a small little boy that sweetness can be found even behind a sometimes gruff exterior.
Cheers to Julianna, Jozefa and my dad for providing glimpses into past family lives, to Helen and Shannon for providing the recipe and to Savory Spice for opening up shop just in time for this cinnamon-filled baking adventure. Hope you guys will be just as smitten with babka as I am.

 

Bacon, Montana & The Family Pie Crust: It’s Tradition Time!

If you are looking for a fun dessert to make for Easter dinner or you are heading out to someone else’s house for the holiday and want to bring something new (but old) along, we recommend the little known but amazingly delicious Rhubarb Custard Pie.  It has been an Easter tradition in my family since the 1960’s when my mom first started making it with the help of her husband’s grandfather’s homemade pie crust recipe and Betty Crocker’s 1950 Picture Cookbook.

Rhubarb in its natural state.

Rhubarb is one of those quirky vegetables. Some people call it pink celery. Understandably, it really does resemble the green hued variety with its long stalks and tufted green leaves. But rhubarb is actually part of the buckwheat family and celery is part of the parsnip family so their similarities end at face value.  Unlike the subtle soapy taste of celery, rhubarb is tart like a Granny Smith apple and more spongey in texture than a crisp stalk of celery. It’s ideal baking consistency is soft like a ripe pear with a bright white interior and a pale pink exterior. The general rule of thumb when it comes to selecting rhubarb for purchase is the firmer and redder the stalk the tarter the taste.  Ideally, you want something in-between – slightly spongy to the touch and a 40/60 ratio of stalks ranging from deep red to pale pink for dynamic flavor.

Two important factors go into making this pie a repeat favorite year after year – the filling and the pie crust.  Most people (and pie recipes) pair rhubarb with fresh strawberries, which is a good Spring combo since both are usually in season at the same time.  Sometimes though, these two put together can result in a watery pie which makes the crust soggy and each bite extra drippy. The secret addition to the rhubarb custard pie is the eggs. They act like a binder holding everything in place, so that you get all the sweet-tart taste of the filling without the thin and liquidy consistency. Betty Crocker’s 1950’s version is easy to prepare and always delicious.

The second important factor to this pie (and to all pies, really) is the homemade pie crust. It only takes about 10 minutes and four ingredients to make no-fail pie dough and it cooks beautifully and consistently every time.  Passed down through the generations, this recipe is so good it has been in active use in my family for almost 100 years thanks to this guy who taught everyone how to make it in the very beginning…

Bacon & Dolly Day in Montana circa 1950’s/1960’s

Meet Bacon Day and his wife Dolly. Bacon (yes, that’s his real name!) first moved to Montana in the 1920’s where he married his bride, Dolly, in Missoula and went straight to work in the rural mining town of Gold Creek, as the train depot clerk for Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was so eager to have Bacon join the team, that they gave he and Dolly two railcars to live in and set up homekeeping. Bacon was originally from St. Paul and Dolly from Seattle, so this railroad life was a whole new and exciting adventure for the newlyweds.

1930’s Northern Railroad travel poster

We don’t have any pictures of Dolly and Bacon in their rail car housing but we can imagine that it looked something like these two (now serving as luxury hotel accommodations in Montana)…

Or maybe it looked something like the rail car library built in 1926 that serviced the reading needs of Montana’s lumberjack and logging communities…

Library rail car built in 1926 to serve the literature names of logging camps in early 20th century Montana. Read more about the library car here.

Either way, it must have been a pretty unusual first home for Bacon and Dolly, and a pretty unusual life for two people new to a state that was not quite yet developed. 1920’s Montana wasn’t for the timid or the faint of heart.  Interesting but also tumultuous, it was stunning in topography, erratic in business opportunity, progressive in gender equality and rebellious when it came to law and decorum. Especially when it came to train life.

Northern Pacfic Railroad Advertising 1910-1920’s

When the railroad companies first started building tracks out west with the ultimate goal of connecting the East coast to the West coast, Montana was marketed to new settlers as a land of stunning beauty and abundant farming opportunities. Homesteaders came from the East coast with intentions of building farms, raising livestock and growing food for commerce. But when these newcomers arrived they experienced a climate far different then what they knew back home. The winters were longer, the temperatures were colder, the open prairies were vast and resources were scarce forcing everyone to be immediately self-reliant. By the early 1900’s, livestock brought in from the East (mostly cows) had arrived in such excess they depleted the natural prairie grasses and upset the delicate balance of the natural eco-system, basically reducing the landscape to bare patches. Add-in an almost decade-long drought that occurred in the 1920’s, and the typography of Montana came to look more like a dessert of death than a lush and verdant valley of promise that all the postcards had been promoting..

Butte, Montana postcard from the 1920’s

The rail companies wanted to keep tourism and homesteading moving through the state though, so they would pay local homesteaders $1000 to grow the most attractive crop they could manage from the poor soil and then took those displays back East to show people how wonderful the agriculture was in Montana.

Montana Homestead Poster

This unscrupulous marketing ploy worked, and new settlers came by the train-full to start a fresh life in green and growing Montana. Only when they got they got off the train, they could see the landscape was devasted and the dry soil virtually unmanageable.  Bacon, in his train depot office, would have been witness to all the excitement and disappointment that came through his station, especially when he worked in Gold Creek which was known for its gold mining potential.

Eventually, all this agriculture business got sorted out once the rains came and residents were properly educated on how and what to grow in this new environment. Montana began to thrive once again. Leaving Gold Creek, Dolly and Bacon moved on to settle into another rural rail town, Phillipsburg, where Bacon worked as a train conductor on a transportation line for livestock and mining equipment.

Now an abandoned track, these are recent photos of the train line running through Phillipsburg with views that Dolly and Bacon would have seen on a daily basis.  Photos courtesy of D & D Travel.

From their wedding forward, Bacon and Dolly lived in Montana and loved it. Dolly often wrote poems about the natural beauty of her surroundings. They both mastered baking – Bacon with his pies and Dolly with her bread. Stories have been passed down that tell of breakfast at their house – often fresh caught trout and a homemade loaf of bread, served possibly with a slice of pie. For over 55 years, these two watched the growth and evolution of their marriage,  their state, their family and their landscape all from the vantage point of the railroad tracks that ran through their lives and their hearts.

In some future posts, there will be more stories about Dolly and Bacon and their wild Montana life, but in the meantime, we have a holiday to celebrate and a pie to bake so it’s back to the rhubarb custard.

I recommend preparing the filling first. It can sit off to the side for a little bit while you make your pie crust.

Betty Crocker’s Rhubarb Custard Pie Filling

Makes enough filling for one 9″ inch pie

3 eggs

2 2/3 tablespoons milk

2 cups sugar  (I use cane sugar)

4 tablespoons flour

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

4 cups chopped fresh rhubarb (about 8-10 long stalks)

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash, dry and cut the rhubarb into small bite-size pieces.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly. Add the milk and then mix again before adding the sugar, flour and nutmeg.

Toss in the rhubarb and mix thoroughly. Then set aside while you make the pie crust.

Great-Grandpa Bacon’s Fool-Proof Pie Crust

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup butter or shortening ( I always use butter)

1/2 cup ice cold water

1/8 cup milk (reserved until the end)

In a bowl, mix the flour and salt. Roughly chop the butter and add to the flour mixture. With a fork press the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles course meal. If its easier, you can also do this quickly using your hands – jus don’t crumble the butter so much that it starts to melt from your body heat.

Once the butter is mixed in, add the ice-cold water (the colder the water the better). Mix until the dough clumps together and you can easily form a crumbly yet cohesive ball.

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth, board or marble slab and cut in half with a sharp knife. Place one half of the dough ball off to the side. Roll out the remaining half of the dough with a wooden roller that has been dusted with flour. If you don’t have a wooden rolling pin you can use a wine bottle, or a cylindrical jar or vase (if you use either make sure to dust it with flour). Roll the dough out as much as possible without tearing it. Makes sure it is big enough to accommodate your pie dish. Once the dough is the right size, gently fold the dough in half on the cloth.

Line the crease of the fold line up with the center of your pie dish and gently lay the crust (still folded) down so that it covers just one side of your dish, then unfold the other half to cover the other half of the dish.  There should be excess dough hanging off the sides of the dish. It should like this…

Pour the rhubarb mixture into the pie dish and set aside.

Next, in the same fashion as before, roll out the other half of the dough ball. In order to make a basket weave design for the top crust, you’ll need a sharp knife to cut strips of dough.

Place the first strip of dough vertically on the pie and the second strip of dough horizontally so that it forms a cross. Next weave the remaining strips in an over-under pattern, alternating each slice as you go.

Next, cut away the excess dough along the sides, leaving a collar of about 1 inch of extra dough all the way around the rim.  Pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together.

When finished dot the exposed holes with the remaining tablespoon of butter and brush the top crust lightly with milk.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the rhubarb custard is bubbling. Let cool on a wire rack before serving. This pie is very versatile in the presentation department –  serve it warm, cold or at room temperature.

Like pecan pie it is pretty sweet as it is, so you don’t need to add whipped cream or ice cream. Its ideal companion is a hot cup of coffee. And no one would look twice if you wanted to enjoy a slice for breakfast. Sometimes that’s the best time of day for a little decadence. If he was still alive, Bacon would be right there with you, enjoying a plate of breakfast trout.

If you get a chance to try this recipe, please let us know how you liked it. And if you have any questions on how to make your pie crust please comment below and we’ll get right back to you.

In the meantime, cheers to all the recipes that turn into traditions and cheers to Bacon and Dolly for always being a part of our most delicious holiday celebrations.