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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner; Headshots from Left to Right: Monday Morning Cooking Club, Courtesy of Bakey, photographed by Daniel Lailah, Courtesy of Naomi Elberg, Doug Schneider
Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Famous Chocolate Babka Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

published Sep 6, 2021
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My earliest chocolate babka memories are from two kitchens in Long Island, where I grew up. My high school best friend’s mom, who is of Iraqi descent, baked the first homemade loaves I ever ate, and later gifted me the recipe at my bridal shower in 1991. Her babkas had a crunchy top and dense dough, with a perfectly gooey filling and lots of swirls. My own babka recipe is based on hers. Another high school friend’s parents brought home chocolate babka from a bakery in Queens. This one was fluffier, with thicker cake-like layers and stripes of gooey chocolate. I was hooked for life.

Four Shoyer children were raised on chocolate babka, and they really are among the happiest people I’ve ever met. I have published many babka recipes, including my popular babka bites, and once taught a babka-making Zoom class to 450 people. In short, babka is a big part of my life — and it should be a part of yours, too. Nothing screams comfort food like chocolate babka, with its layers of soft dough and chocolate filling. As Elaine Benes of Seinfeld famously said, “Nothing beats a babka.”

To make sure we can all share in the bliss of homemade babka, I went in search of a recipe that’s moist, with an easy-to-make dough, a decadent chocolate filling, and the perfect ratio between the two. And I’m happy to report that my search was successful. Read on for all of the twists, turns, and swirls along the way.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Meet Our 4 Babka Contenders

To keep things consistent, I only considered chocolate babkas that were baked in a loaf pan. The dough had to be made from scratch, but I wasn’t as strict about the filling — it just needed to be chocolate-based. Ultimately, I landed on four impressive recipes, each with a distinct point of view.

Naomi Elberg is a popular instagrammer who posts a lot of babka photos. Her account, naomi_t.g.i.s (Thank Goodness it’s Shabbos, which is Yiddish for Shabbat), features mostly Jewish desserts and baked goods to serve for Shabbat and holidays. The creative treats include cookies, cheesecakes, and rugelach, but it’s her babka posts that have always caught my eye.

Israeli native Uri Scheft’s chocolate babka from Breads Bakery was voted the best chocolate babka in New York City by New York Magazine and Serious Eats. I have tasted his babka both at his New York and Tel Aviv bakeries, so I knew he was a babka expert. I chose the recipe from his Breaking Breads cookbook, which has a different, sweeter dough than the one used in the bakery.

Shannon Sarna is the founding editor of The Nosher blog, which focuses on the best of Jewish food. She’s also the co-host of the parenting podcast Call Your Mother. Her first cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker, is essentially a babka bible. The book features an array of different doughs and fillings: sweet, savory, classic, whimsical. Prior to this showdown, her babka was the only one I’d ever baked other than my own.

Monday Morning Cooking Club is a group of four Jewish women from Sydney, Australia, who, in 2006, started cooking and baking together every week. They have now published four cookbooks, with all of the proceeds going to charities. Their latest book, Now for Something Sweet, is devoted to baked goods. I have made two absolutely delicious recipes from it already, so I trusted them to have a great babka recipe. 

Credit: Paula Shoyer
Babka recipes

How I Tested the Babkas

As a kosher baker, I often use butter substitutes in my baking so I can serve babka immediately following a meat-based meal. But because three out of the four contenders make their babkas with dairy, I tested them all with unsalted butter to ensure I was tasting the best versions of the recipes.

As for the rest of the ingredients, I used King Arthur bread and all-purpose flours and Swan’s cake flour. I used large eggs and fine sea salt across the board. All of the babkas were baked on the same summer day, with Naomi’s and Uri’s doughs made the day before so they could rise in the fridge overnight. All of the loaves were baked in a 8.5 X 4.5 X 2.75-inch USA loaf pan.  

I shaped all the babkas similarly, by rolling out the dough into a rectangle, spreading the filling to the edges, and then rolling the logs up tightly. I sliced down the middle of the logs and twisted the two pieces around each other. The twisting directions varied among the recipes. Each recipe yields a different number of loaves, so I scaled down the recipes to make one loaf each. (I did make Shannon’s full dough amount because it was harder to scale down.)

Three of the babkas, those from Naomi Elberg, Monday Morning Cooking Club, and Shannon Sarna, were baked in my GE Monogram oven, which is always true to temperature. Uri’s was baked in my Wolf oven for timing purposes — I wanted to get them all in the oven as soon as they were done rising. I followed the recipes precisely, even when it came to baking times, which I had a hunch were a tad too long.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Candy Bar-Like Babka: Uri Scheft’s Chocolate Babka

Uri’s babka required a serious time commitment, with separate long rising times. His recipe uses cake flour, which gives the babka a denser cake-like texture, which is what I like about my own recipe. I don’t need my babka to taste like challah.

In the recipe, Uri mentions that the babka is messy to assemble, and he wasn’t kidding. Unfortunately, the baked loaf also looked rather messy. I have always insisted that taste is the most important feature of any food item, but when lined up with the other babkas, this one wasn’t quite as striking.

As a recipe writer myself, I truly appreciate how Uri walks you through the steps in detail, telling you precisely what you’re looking for. This is an exceptional skill — many chefs with teams of people doing the baking cannot always make their recipes accessible to home cooks.

As for the taste, the dense, cake-like dough was tastier than the bread-like ones of the other contenders. Yet, that great dough is essentially a delivery system for Nutella, which takes over, even with the addition of the chocolate chips. I personally prefer the taste of a homemade chocolate filling that is more balanced with the dough. That said, if you’re a huge Nutella fan — or want a babka that tastes like a candy bar — you will absolutely love this.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner

2. The Best Babka for French Toast: Monday Morning Cooking Club’s Chocolate-Tahini Babka

This recipe was easy to follow and both the dough and filling were easy to prepare. Once risen, the dough was soft and stretchy, making it easy to roll out and shape. What’s unique about this recipe is that there’s tahini in the filling. I worried that the taste would make it too different from the others, but instead, I found the flavor rather mild. It was more pronounced on the second day, but overall it still tasted like chocolate babka with a hint of something else. The filling texture was also a little gritty rather than smooth.

The loaf was tall and pretty, but the interior didn’t have enough swirls. Fewer swirls meant that with each bite I got either dough or chocolate, but not both together. The dough was also extremely bread-like, making it taste like challah, albeit with some chocolate inside. I really liked this recipe’s instruction to line the pan with parchment, which made it easy to remove from the pan. The top was too crunchy, which made slicing a challenge. Next time I would bake it for five fewer minutes.

The bready texture and mild flavor made me think that this babka would be great for babka French toast, but it wasn’t my favorite one to eat straight out of the pan.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The New York Bakery-Style Babka: Naomi Elberg’s Chocolate Babka

This recipe required many ingredients and generated a sink full of dishes. It also had more steps than the other recipes: You make the dough, two fillings, and a crumb topping. My kitchen was trashed after making all of the components for this babka. 

Because of the two fillings, the loaf was hard to roll up and twist, but the overall look of the baked loaf — lots of swirls and a bit of ooze — is just what I want in a babka. The multiple layers of dough and chocolate make sure that you get an even amount of chocolate and dough in each bite. The crumble topping was a pretty finishing touch and added a bit of extra crunch, but didn’t add much flavor.  

The two fillings also gave this babka a very intense chocolate flavor. It tasted like the bakery babkas I grew up with, with a mild yet distinct aftertaste that I assume comes from the chocolate pudding powder in the filling. This babka got points for nostalgia, but still wasn’t my favorite.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Most Comforting Babka: Shannon Sarna’s Chocolate Babka 

Every aspect of Shannon’s recipe was easy: the recipe directions, mixing the dough and preparing the filling, the reasonable rising times, the rolling of dough that had risen really well, the assembly, and the baking. 

Shannon’s recipe is unique in that she directs you to brush a sugar syrup glaze over the loaf multiple times, including one application about midway through baking. The five layers of syrup add pop of sweetness that remains after the babka cools, rather than seeping into oblivion in the loaf, which inevitably happens with just a single brushing. 

The baked loaf has a soft dough texture and just the right amount of smooth filling. What also elevates this babka is the addition of cinnamon in the chocolate filling. Everyone who tasted this babka smiled when the cinnamon flavor kicked in.

My only criticism is that I would have liked the overall loaf to be taller. Next time, I’ll make two rather than three loaves from the dough, an option Shannon herself suggests. I would also bake the babka for a little less time so that the interior is even softer. But this babka is the winner because it truly is how you want your babka to taste — moist, flavorful, and supremely comforting.

Do you have a favorite babka recipe? Let me know in the comments below!