My mother is Polish, and as she approaches her 96th birthday, she is increasingly drawn to things that remind her of her heritage. A few weeks ago, she told me a story about how the women in her home baked a sweet bread called babka around Easter time. The children weren’t allowed in the kitchen for several days as the babka was rising and in the ovens because it couldn’t be disturbed. She loves these high-topped loaves, even though no one else in our family likes to eat them.
I found a Polish grocery store about forty-five minutes drive from our house and took her there. She was unimpressed. They had babka, but she insisted, speaking Polish to the woman behind the counter, that it wasn’t REAl babka. It wasn’t round, and there were no raisins, and it had cheese and strawberries. The woman replied that there are many types of babka. My mother sniffed contemptuously, but I bought some anyway. It wasn’t eaten by anyone in our house, and when I tore up the remains and fed it to the birds, only the crows would touch it. I told my friend who owns the UPS store about the search for real babka. She’s Polish and said that her mother makes it at this time of year. Yes, it had raisins in it and was tall and round. She offered to ask her mother to bake some for us. I came home and told my mother, thinking that the search for babka was over. No such luck. Every day for over a week, my mom would ask me again and again when that woman was going to bring the babka. Finally, I was at the Stop ‘n Shop buying groceries, and lo and behold, they had babka for sale! It looked like what my mother had described, so I bought it. Unfortunately, our resident babka expert proclaimed it was too dry and not sweet. Again, I sprinkled the remains for our neighbor’s chickens and other birds, but this time, only the squirrels ate it.
My mother grew more and more disappointed that the lady who promised to bake the babka didn’t deliver. Another friend suggested that I look on-line at Martha Stewart’s recipes because her mother was Polish and they were deliciously authentic. Sure enough, there was a video of Martha’s mom making babka. I decided to try it, even though the recipe called for yeast and I have a fear of anything that calls for yeast and rising and punching dough. My daughter offered to help, and together we toiled in the kitchen for several hours the night before Easter. Just as we were finally ready to bake the three loaves of babka, my oven broke. It was now about ten o’clock at night.
Luckily, I have a neighbor who plays backgammon on-line until the wee hours. We schlepped the three babkas to her house and put them in the oven. They were supposed to bake for a half hour, but it was obvious that they weren’t done and we were awkwardly sitting in her living room when she clearly didn’t want to be entertaining anyone. Martha Stewart’s mom said that you know that the babka is ready if it makes a hollow sound when you knock on it. My neighbor offered to call me when she had knocked and heard the babka’s appropriate reply. About twenty minutes later, the phone rang and we went back to retrieve our bread so she could go to bed.
The babka looked golden brown and very pretty, plus at this point, I’d been involved in this baking experiment for over six hours. I glazed the loaves with a sugary frosting and called it a night. After taking my mom to a Polish church to hear mass on Easter Sunday, we came home to eat the babka. As soon as I cut into the first one, I knew there was trouble. It wasn’t cooked all the way through. I tried the other two but they were also not baked enough. I promised my mother that I would try again once the oven was fixed. She said that enough was enough and this was a good babka recipe that we could make again next Easter.
I have to admit I was relieved to have a whole year to rest up before I tried it again. As I stood looking at a table full of chopped up half-baked babka, my neighbor’s rooster, the Chief, crowed outside my window. He’s a special guy. I confess he’s won my heart, so I crumbled up a whole babka and presented it to him. He wolfed it down, chasing away the hens when they tried to join in the feast.
At least someone loves my babka.