It's a lockdown trend that's been decades in the making. Babka, a braided yeast cake popular in Melbourne's Jewish community, has become a sought-after stay-at-home treat – fuelled by social media and the limited capacity of the micro-bakeries producing it.
Saul Finberg was stood down from his chef job at Bistro Guillaume in March. Stuck at home and obsessed with fermentation, he started making babka. "I wanted to bake something from my childhood," says Finberg. "When I was a child, babka was everything to me. First it was the ones with cinnamon filling. Then I found out about chocolate and my mind was blown."
He worked on a recipe and developed a knotting technique instead of the traditional braid. Finberg tested it out on friends, then started supplying Ripponlea cafe Spout. In June, he was producing 20 cakes a week from his home kitchen. Now it's 140.
"I didn't know there was a trend," he says. "I was head down, trying to make people happy in these hard times."
Finberg started doing a giveaway each week and encouraged people to tag someone who needed joy. Some weeks there have been 1000 responses. "I just want to make people happy," he says. "It's about giving someone that moment of reprieve. I never thought I'd be baking for a living but I've never been happier. I believe it's destiny."
Avi Azoulay had stepped back from working as a chef (at Lomah, and prior to that Miznon in the CBD) before COVID-19 hit. He enrolled to study community services but home-based learning during a pandemic wasn't working for him.
"I was bored and I felt like making a babka," he says. "I took a picture, put it on Facebook and a friend asked if I was selling them. That's how it started."
Steady uptick turned into a frenzy when food author and educator Alice Zaslavsky praised his babka on Instagram. "I started getting messages left, right and centre," says Azoulay.
He now has 400 people on a waitlist but is making just 30 babkas a week. "It's a long, tedious process," he says.
The first step is to make a brioche-like dough. In the Jewish kosher community, there are two types: an oil dough that can be eaten with the Sabbath meal to comply with restrictions against eating meat and dairy together, and a butter dough which can be eaten the next morning with coffee.
Azoulay uses butter and lots of it. He lets his dough rise for 24 hours, then rolls it, fills it (chocolate and hazelnut is classic), braids it and gives it a second rise. It's then baked and finally brushed with sugar syrup glaze to seal it and keep it moist.
"Babka is the ultimate comfort food," says Maaryasha Werdiger, a Jewish community-supported sourdough baker.
"It's a solid staple in every religious person's house and there's always a discussion of whose is best because everyone loves babka. I have a notebook with recipes from my grandma, my aunties and friends."
Werdiger has been making babka for 20 years and she's somewhat bemused by it becoming a trend. "It's like when sushi got big in Melbourne – we thought we'd discovered it. Suddenly, the babka secret got out."
Artisan babka makers on Instagram
Saul Finberg's @by_bupkis. Available at Spout, 48 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
Avi Azoulay's @babka_boi. Available at The Leaf Store, 111 Ormond Road, Elwood
Spitzs @spitzs.bakehouse. Order direct