For the love of babka: the Slavic sweet bread with a long tale
Babka, a Slavic sweet bread, took center stage at family gatherings and found its way into travel bags for long trips home.
When I was a child there existed a cure for all ills of the heart. I remember, when I was 8 or so, lying on my bed, pouting over some forgotten parental injustice. I was inconsolable until my Polish grandmother came into my room, rubbed my back, and quietly announced, "I have babka."
That was all I needed to hear. I sprang out of bed, ran to the table, and – nirvana.
Babka! The sweet sweet bread of the Slavic lands: plain, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate, fruit-filled. Take your pick, but I have always loved mine straight up, unadulterated, untampered with.
Babka! The aromatic centerpiece of the Polish-American table for generations, ours not excepted. In the New Jersey town where I grew up, Tatarowicz's Polish Deli was the source of the manna. I recall Christmases and Easters when the line of eager, restless babka-eaters stretched out the door and down the street. Once inside, the smell was intoxicating, as was the sight of the lightly browned, round pillows of delight, heaped on the counter, warm out of the oven.
This past Christmas I returned to New Jersey with my young son, Anton. As we rode Amtrak south, I regaled him with tales of babka. I told him about the time my brother and I played football with one in the living room before my mother, eyes wide with horror at the sacrilege, intercepted the loaf and threatened to deny us our fair share at the table. I told him about the time my father, tucking into a wedge of babka with butter, was rendered speechless by the tears of sheer joy flooding his eyes. And about the time, when I was a teenager, that I decided to make my own babka and tried to expedite the kneading process with an electric mixer, setting the thing on fire.
Mr. Tatarowicz hung up his apron years ago, but a legion of Polish delis blossomed in his place. I took Anton to one of these oases: Pulaski Meat Products in Linden, N.J.
It's true what they say about smells being powerful reminders of times past. As soon as I walked in I was transported back to those halcyon days of fresh babka. Like everything else, babka has been adorned beyond recognition with ingredients an honest Pole would find objectionable. But babka in the raw still exists for purists like me, and I immediately identified a loaf that resembled a giant muffin with a sun tan. "Here, Anton," I said to my son. "Put your hand here." He laid his palm upon the babka and I could see from the look in his eyes that he felt the warmth.
However – and this was unfathomable to me – Anton didn't want to try any! I cajoled and implored him. I waved a buttered slice under his nose, but he dug in and refused. (He did, however, want to play a game of pass with the loaf.)
Finally, after mustering all the diplomatic skills at my disposal, including an advance on his allowance, I got him to nibble off a piece. That did it. In the next moment Anton went from finch to dinosaur. He devoured the babka with such abandon that I had to look away.
We ate heartily of the babka during our time in New Jersey. I also bought a large one for transport back to Maine, which, for all its virtues, is a babka wilderness. As we choo-chooed north, I reclined in my seat, looked out the window at Long Island Sound, and reveled in the knowledge that just above me, in the overhead rack, lay my babka. My babka!
A few hours later we rolled into Boston. Snow was falling and the strong wind was blowing litter about the standing buses and trains. We gathered our luggage and joined the crowd of passengers alighting onto the platform, anticipating the warmth of the station.
It was at this point that I experienced a feeling of incompleteness. As I walked along with my son, I asked him if he had all of his things. He assured me that he did. Then he glanced at me. "Dad," he said. "Where's the babka?"
The babka? I dropped my bags and patted myself down. Then I turned heel and raced back to the idling train.
I found my seat and, I'm happy to report, the babka as well.
And that's how my New Year got off to a wonderful start.