After Seinfeld made it mainstream in the '90s, babka, the half-yeasted-bread, half-cake hybrid from Eastern Europe, is bigger than ever. Much has changed since our first babka survey of New York five years ago, and there are more ambitious contenders for the Best Babka crown than ever before.
Not that New Yorkers' love of babka is anything new, and it's easy to see why. Babka's rich, buttery, brioche-like crumb, woven with ribbons of chocolate, is unfussy and approachable. You can eat it as dessert or breakfast, as a brunch side or a quick snack. The only trouble is not finishing a loaf as soon as you start it, because one good bite of babka demands another. And if you are new to the city and have no idea what we're talking about, take note: Eat some babka. It's one of the best sweets you'll find in New York.
Babka's current renaissance (which, sorry cinnamon fans, seems to be restricted to the chocolate version) can be attributed to two factors. The first is the continued proliferation of high quality bakeries across New York, many of which are including babka in their offerings alongside croissants.
The second is one particular babka that emerged in 2013: Breads Bakery's enormously popular, tradition-busting version made with a laminated dough and chocolate-hazelnut spread. How big is our Breads babka appetite? Gadi Peleg, the owner of Breads, told me that when they first opened just over two years ago, they sold about a dozen loaves a day. Now, around the holidays, they sell "in the thousands."
With a new crop of highly trained bakers yearning to experiment, and a demonstrated market for the stuff, New York's babka universe has expanded in wonderful ways. Most of the bakeries in this guide didn't even exist when we last examined babka five years ago, and while you can still get any number of excellent traditional babkas, there are some newfangled versions worth seeking out as well.
Regardless of the babka you go for, there are some rules. First and foremost, the babka must taste fresh. With so much babka at our fingertips there's no reason to settle for a stale loaf with a crumb that tastes like a cheap dinner roll. Many popular bakeries with purportedly great babkas didn't make the cut for us because they just weren't that fresh at peak hours when they ought to be.
Second, there has to be some balance between the chocolate (or other filling) and the bread layers. Too much bread and you might as well be eating challah or brioche. Similarly, I love chocolate as much as anyone, but if the babka's so full of chocolate that it tastes like a giant brownie, that's not good.
The Best Old School Babkas
Traditional babka is made with an enriched, yeasted dough braided with chocolate (or cinnamon) filling.
The Reliable, Always Available Classic: Green's
As New York's biggest babka wholesaler, Green's is the babka you probably already know, even if you don't know it's Green's. But if you've ever tried the babka from Zabar's, Fairway, Russ and Daughters, or Whole Foods, then you've tasted it. Their recipe is a crowd-pleasing balance of airy bread and lots of chocolate goo, which has the nice errant crunch of sugar crystals here and there. The crumb is always moist, the chocolate filling is sweet but not overly so, and the top is dusted with a light streusel. When people get confused about whether babka is bread or cake, point them to Green's to show them how it's both at once.
Price: Green's babka reaches $8.95 at Zabar's and over $10 at Whole Foods (sold under those stores' labels), so look for their loaves labeled as Green's, not a store brand; those are only $5.99 for 20 ounces. Kosher.
The Looker: Zucker Bakery
Perhaps the most visually stunning babka on this list, owing to its distinctive woven layers that resemble sections of twine. The top features a matte finish that doesn't distract from the design. Inside is a pleasantly uneven distribution of dough and high quality dark chocolate. Zucker's babka is less sweet than most, granting you license to eat it for breakfast, and it'll especially appeal to those who want to taste the rich, buttery dough underneath all the chocolate. When fresh, (or reheated in the toaster) the aroma from the dark chocolate and warm dough is irresistible.
Price: $13.50 for 1 pound, 5 ounces. Not kosher certified.
The Chocolate Monster: Oneg Heimishe Bakery
One look at the intricate, impossible-to-count folds of dough and chocolate in this babka tell you right away that Oneg Heimishe is the real deal. A kosher bakery popular with South Williamsburg's Hasidic population, Oneg continues to make the heaviest and densest babka on our list. There's a big emphasis on dark, sweet chocolate, which dominates the loaf's flavor, but the overall texture is great—not too heavy. The shiny top is free of streusel and has a pleasant crispness. Some of the innermost layers of dough can get a bit undercooked, but for some people I recognize that's a feature, not a bug. Order it by the pound; the full uncut babka is the length of three standard loaves of bread.
Price: $16.95 for a half loaf (2 pounds, 12 ounces). Kosher.
The Pleasant Surprise: Trader Joe's
Surprisingly fresh-tasting considering it comes from a chain grocery store, though very, very sweet. This babka is all about the chocolate, which, like the European chocolate TJ's sells under their own label, is pretty high quality. Except for a nice, shiny egg-washed top, the bland bread in this babka is mostly an afterthought, but it serves as a nice chocolate delivery system. There's even a layer of chocolate chips on top of all the chocolate filling to hit the point home. If you're looking for a chocolate-centric babka that could never be mistaken for anything but dessert, this is a good value to pick up on your grocery rounds.
Price: $4.99 for 1 pound, 2 ounces. Kosher.
The Nutty: Mother's Bake Shop
This beloved Bronx bakery makes a standout babka by incorporating some of the best characteristics of a good crumb cake. The monster-sized loaf features copious amounts of chocolate and walnuts to go with a thick streusel topping that's both salty and sweet. Although the interior crumb is dense with little air between the chocolate and bread, Mother's nails sweet-but-not-too-sweet while the walnuts bring some nutty flavors to the mix.
Price: $12.95 for 2 pounds, 6 ounces. Kosher version available.
The Best New School Babkas
These "French-style" babkas swap out the traditional enriched dough for a laminated dough. The result is a more flaky, less gooey-centered babka that's especially appealing to croissant lovers.
The New Classic: Breads Bakery
The Breads babka, made with laminated dough and plenty of Nutella, has carved out a niche as one of New York's signature destination treats. And for good reason. Imagine a pain au chocolat overstuffed to the point of bursting with chocolate hazelnut spread, then twisted inside out and baked. Sound good? Yet despite the richness, the layers of dough and chocolate are surprisingly well balanced, and the buttery flakes of the lamination shine through to form wonderful crunchy edges. Best of all, Breads bakes several times a day, so your chances of getting a fresh babka after work shoot way up.
Some babka connoisseurs say that Breads' chocolate babka isn't quite as good as it used to be—more airy, less dense and moist. But it's still very good. If you have a crowd to feed, consider getting the beautiful large-format "babka pie" version, a circular babka with interlocking braids. It's a real looker, and it's excellent, a little more satisfyingly rich than the loaves.
Price: $12 for 1 pound, or $35 for the babka pie. Not kosher certified.
The Babkassant: Arcade Bakery
Made with beautifully woven laminated dough, this airy and intensely flavorful babka has the refinement of an expertly made croissant. Inside is an incredibly moist and tender crumb resplendent with butter, and a very nice dark chocolate is sparingly applied but well distributed. Walnuts in the filling stand out—you can really taste them in their bittersweet glory. The topmost layer is flaky, crispy and slightly crunchy, like a cross between the browned edges of a buttery puff pastry and the nutty, sugary top of a crumb cake.
Price: $4 for a slice or $20 for a 1 pound, 12 ounce loaf (must order in advance). Not kosher certified.
Great Babka-Adjacent Pastries
These pastries share babka's bloodlines, but can't really considered babka proper. Since they combine enriched or laminated dough and chocolate in babka-like formulations, they're close enough for us.
Chocolate Kugelhopf at Andre's Hungarian Bakery
With chocolate goo woven with dough in a kugelhopf-shaped mold, Andre's offering deserves a category all its own. My favorite feature is the dense, well-baked exterior crumb, which is like no other pastry out there. The bakers at Andre's get it that way through the use of a giant ceramic kugelhopf mold that lets the dough turn deeply crackly. By contrast, the inner layers are so light and moist they're almost wet—with butter, that is, as this is one buttery pastry. As for the chocolate filling, it's a dark, not-too-sweet paste with some still-gritty sugar for crunch. There's not a ton of it, but what is there is intense; it's balanced by the sheer volume of dough layers that surround it.
Price: $12 for 1 pound, 12 ounces. Not kosher certified.
Doughnut Babka at Dough
Since they're already highly regarded for their doughnuts, it makes sense that Dough would offer this fresh take on babka using their buttery yeasted doughnut dough. Their Mexican chocolate-flavored "Doughka" features dark chocolate and aromatic cinnamon sugar carefully marbled throughout braids of brioche-like dough. Though the pastry is made with doughnut dough, it's baked, not fried, and it's actually one of the lighter (if not lightest) options on this list. Throw a slice in the toaster to get a hot crispy treat and a house that smells like cinnamon and chocolate.
Price: $10 for 13 ounces. Not kosher certified.