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Babka is a sweet, leavened bread created from a rich dough made for Easter Sunday throughout Slavic cuisines including Ukrainian and Polish. Traditionally the practice of eating Easter bread or sweetened “communion” bread traces its origin back to Byzantium and the Orthodox Christian church.
Many a generation in the Coal Region remembers watching their grandmother or mother making loaves of babka for Easter every year without fail. Many more remember eating babka and savoring the rich sweetness of this generations old Easter staple.
Every household has it’s own variation of this special bread; none are “right” or “wrong”; the “best” is the variation your family likes.
Sometimes raisins, citrus zest, citron, or even saffron are added to the dough which is then traditionally baked in cylindrical tins — notably 1 or 2-pound empty coffee cans here in the US — but can be made in a typical loaf pan or even tube/Bundt pans although using those is not addressed in this recipe.
Difference between babka and paska
Babka is similar to “Paska“, but is usually sweeter. and richer, almost cake-like. While babka and paska are two different Easter breads, you will often hear the names used interchangeably. Traditionally, paska is baked in a large round decorated on the top with symbols, including crosses, flowers, braids, wheat, or other designs representing aspects of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic faith.
Babka is traditionally baked to be tall and cylindrical. “Paska” is based on the Hebrew word for Passover (pronounced “peisakh“). Babka, like paska, is usually only made to celebrate Easter Sunday and the rising of Christ. “Baba” means “grandmother” in Ukrainian or “old woman”; the diminutive form is “babka” and stems from the matrilineal prehistoric Trypillian culture.
Put it to bed
One old cookbook and several “church ladies in the know” insist that the loaves must be cooled on a soft surface, being rotated periodically, to prevent the bread from deflating. One book references cooling the loaves on pillows! You can use kitchen towels…
The bread should not be removed too early from the tins/pans because this can also contribute to deflation of the loaves. They should cool about 15 minutes before being removed.
Some cooks glaze the tops of babka with a thin icing, others do not. Babka can be made in large or small loaves, even using empty soup cans as baking tins. When dividing up your dough for whichever size can you choose, fill the tin about 1/3rd full of the dough.
Tips on using cans for baking
Make sure the cans are food-grade safe when heated and that their interiors do not have a coating inside (usually white) because the plastics and chemicals in this coating can leach into your babka and be unsafe
Babka is baked in an oven started at a high temperature, then lowered so the dough will puff up and form a firm crust. This also helps insure the interior fully bakes before the exterior gets too brown or burns. An instant-read thermometer is extremely helpful;, an internal temp of 200F means the bread, no matter what size tin is used, is cooked through.
Traditional Ukrainian BabkaCuisine: Ukrainian, Eastern European, Coal RegionDifficulty: Intermediate
Babka is an Ukrainian sweet, leavened bread made with a rich dough which is made for Easter Sunday to celebrate the rising of Christ.
2 (1/4 ounce) packets active dry yeast
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 cup scalded milk
1 cup butter OR 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, large, room temperature
6 egg yolks, large, room temperature
6 cups all purpose flour
1 cup golden or dark raisins
1/2 to 1 cup sugar (to your taste depending on sweetness desired)
1/3 cup dark rum (or water)
Zest of one orange and/or 1/2 cup candied citron (if using citron, add it when incorporating the raisins)
- Egg wash
1 whole egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon water
- Proof the yeast with the 1 teaspoon of sugar in the warm water. If yeast does not get “frothy”, start with new yeast.
- Combine the scalded milk with the butter, sugar and salt. Stir. Allow butter to melt and liquid to get lukewarm (about 105F) to melt butter and then let stand till lukewarm.
- In a large bowl or bowl of stand mixer, beat the whole eggs with the yolks. Make sure milk mixture is around 105F to 110F; cool or warm as needed to achieve this temperature. Stir in yeast mixture. Add half the flour and beat 5 minutes with an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. You can do this by hand using a wooden spoon but it will take longer. Add the rest of the flour to make a very heavy batter which holds together but is too soft to knead. Continue beating well until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rise in a warm spot till double. This rise will take awhile, don’t rush it.
- Meanwhile, soak raisins in rum (or water).
- Drain the raisins well, reserving the rum. Stir batter, then mix the raisins into the dough.
- Grease tins and line with parchment paper (grease paper, too) or grease very well and sprinkle with bread crumbs to help prevent sticking. It is easiest to fill cylinder shaped pans by greasing your hands, pinching off pieces of dough, dropping them into the tin, then pressing gently with floured fingers to fill gaps and smooth tops. Press any exposed raisins back into the dough. Brush tops with egg wash. Let rise lightly covered until double in size.
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- As soon as the babka is ready to bake, reduce the temperature to 350 F and place the tins in the oven. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes (coffee can sized) or until a instant read thermometer inserted into the center reads 200 F. or just under. Adjust according to pan size; the smaller the tin, the shorter the baking time. Checking by temperature determines exactly when your bread is done.
- Take them out of the oven and place them on something soft like folded soft towels on their side still in the tin, rotating the pans occasionally. After 15 minutes remove them from the tins. Keep them on their side until they cool; gently rotate them once in a while to prevent deflation and settling.
- OPTIONAL: To glaze babka – sift 1 – 2 cups powdered sugar into a bowl and stir in some of the reserved rum (or milk) until it reaches a thick pouring consistency. Spread on top of loaves allowing some to trickle down the sides.