As Valentine’s Day approaches, my thoughts turn to chocolate (of course). Chocolate babka would be a great treat for a romantic dinner. Selecting the best chocolate babka for the celebration is easier now, since I recently attended a chocolate-babka marathon tasting — a chocolate babkathon.
The only date when the self-appointed, chocolate-babka gluttons could gather for a babka tasting was the day of the New York Marathon. While athletic marathoners burned off thousands of calories running throughout the boroughs, dedicated babkathoners gathered up sugary, chocolate, carb-laden loaves to taste in a marathon of our own: four from Manhattan, five from Brooklyn and one brought in from Rockland County. A 2014 tasting, also on Marathon Day, featured six babkas for eight people.
This year, the eleven tasters carried precious babka on the train, in cars, on bike and by runner. They eagerly took on the 10 samples of different heights, weights, textures and flavors — close to $200 worth of babka.
In the two-year interval between Babkathon I and Babkathon II, the number of possible entries grew due the increased abundance of babka in the New York area. Amy Rothberger, a consultant living in Brooklyn who planned the event decided that not every babka from year one could compete again. It was Rothberger who dubbed the event “Babkathon.” She kept the 1st-place winner from Oneg Heimishe Bakery in Williamsburg and 2nd-place Breads Bakery) in Manhattan from Babkathon I as the starting standards for round II. While we had intended to include the reasonably priced Trader Joe’s chocolate chip-crowned Chocolate Brooklyn Babka, our scout tried to procure it twice in two days only to find that it was not available on either try.
The morning of the tasting, my husband, Mark, and I liberated a slab of Ostrovitsky babka from a synagogue’s chocolate event in the Rockaways. Appetizing restaurant Sadelle’s had run out of babka by the time our volunteers arrived in the afternoon. Not wanting to be excluded from the competition, a kind staffer scrounged in the kitchen to find a last piece that she donated to the cause, enough for everyone to have a bite. It also turned out to be too late to order a babka online for delivery from The Babka Lady. When contacted through her website, owner and baker Frimet Goldberger generously contributed a chocolate-cinnamon babka that arrived just in time.
Undaunted by the weight gain ahead, the group earnestly reviewed the categories for the blind test: appearance, chocolatey-ness, gooey-ness, slice-ability, texture, dough, and overall appeal. Then the mouths got busy. Admittedly, some tasters felt overwhelmed; some regretted having had dinner; and most needed a lot more seltzer. We even thought we might have uncovered a babka scandal. A few tasters were convinced that a private-label babka had really been baked by industrial Green’s Bakery (they sell under their label and as a private label) at twice the price.
The table boasted chocolate babkas from Babka Lady, Breads, Brooklyn Larder, Green’s, Mekelberg’s, Moishe’s, Oneg Heimishe, Ostrovitsky, Petite Shell and Sadelle’s. Several of these have received press not only on The Forward but also at Grub Street, the New York Times, Serious Eats and Tasting Table. Understandably, bakeries have their own spin on how to prepare the Ashkenazi treat: Breads bakes batches at least three times a day. Brooklyn Larder includes buckwheat and rye flours, along with chocolate and honey filling. Sadelle’s features chocolate shortbread crumbs in the filling.
And the Winner Is…
Ultimately, there were two finalists: Oneg Heimishe once again, followed by the Babka Lady in 2nd place. The two winners share a few characteristics including significant size, generous chocolate fillings and family recipes with Hungarian roots. The small Williamsburg Oneg Heimishe bakery, with kosher certification, also makes a flatter version called kakosh. Babka Lady’s Goldberger bakes out of her kosher home kitchen and also sells halvah, cream cheese- and pumpkin-filled babkas, along with smaller babkalach. Her chocolate babka braids separate strands of chocolate and cinnamon. As one taster, Hazon’s Sarah Wolk, noted, you could take different bites from the same babka and enjoy very different flavors.
Sure, we could not include every New York chocolate babka. And perhaps one year we will explore babka spinoffs, such as babka ice cream, babka milkshakes, doughka (doughnut-babka hybrid), babka pie and/or babkroissant. The spreadsheet will be updated. Undoubtedly, there will be Babkathon III. In the meantime, chocolate babka may become a Valentine’s Day tradition.
Want to make a chocolate babka?
Watch a video of Melissa Clark of the New York Times demonstrating chocolate babka basics using her recipe.
Find Deb Perelman’s favorite recipe for “better chocolate babka” based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe, at her Smitten Kitchen blog.
Cookbook author and Forward contributor Leah Koenig created a raspberry chocolate babka.
Would you like to purchase chocolate babka on line?
Rabbi Deborah Prinz lectures about chocolate and Jews around the world. Her book, “On the Chocolate Trail,” is used in adult study, classroom settings, book clubs and chocolate tastings. (It makes a great gift for any Valentine’s Day, bundled with a chocolate babka or other favorite chocolate treat.) She is developing a new project about women and chocolate. Send your thoughts about the best chocolate babka to her at her blog onthechocolatetrail.org.