At its best, babka is crack-like in its ability to burrow into the psyche, forcing its gooey sweetness into the crave-generating centers of the brain and not letting go until you have ingested far more than your digestive system can handle. An Eastern European cousin of coffee cake, the rich yeast bread derives its name from bacia, a Slavic term of endearment for grandma, which the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food points out may have been because the fluted tube pans in which babkas were originally baked gave the cakes the appearance of an old woman's pleated skirt.
Today's babkas are shape-shifters — sometimes round, sometimes loaf-shaped; there are dairy versions and those made pareve by the use of oil and margarine; some have a streusel topping, others are frosted. And though cinnamon and fruit-based varieties are available, most babka-philes agree with Seinfeld's Elaine, that the chocolate babka is king. Turn the page for five of L.A.'s babka best.
There is much to admire at this bustling, old-school New York style bakery — perfectly shaped black and white cookies, an impressive assortment of rugelach, and a surprisingly fine dense, chewy bagel. But when your number is called, it would be anathema to forgo the babka ($6.95.) Topped with a coating of icing worthy of a chocolate frosted donut, the loaf folds together strands of brioche-like dough with pockets of oozing rich chocolate, punctuated by individual chocolate chips that slow down the eating process just long enough to let you savor these miniature morsels. So moist that it often recalls cookie dough, Bea's babka will have you licking your hands clean. 18450 Clark St., Tarzana; 818-344-0100.
Just across the street from Bea's, one of that bakery's former chefs is churning out what may be L.A.'s most complex babka ($8.75.) With a crown of smooth chocolate frosting and seemingly endless swirls of filling and dough, this is the babka lovechild of a donut and cinnamon roll romance. Despite hints of raisin-tinged fruitiness, the pastry is so chocolate-laden that chewy umber bits of cocoa escape as it bakes, becoming crunchy chocolate nuggets around the babka's outer edge. Though sold under the Viktor Benes label, the babka at this branch of Gelson's differs from those (still very good) versions at other Gelson's locations. 5500 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana; 818-906-5752.
3. Fred's Bakery and Deli:
Made with Fred's original recipe, the babka ($10.95) at this 60-year old bakery is rich with sour cream, giving the dough a slight flakiness, which plays well off of the dense chocolate filling. For fans of the crumb, there is an extremely generous dusting of fine, not-too-sweet streusel here, and the ladies behind the counter will gladly add a sprinkle of powdered sugar for good measure. 2831 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-838-3093.
While the words, “I got it at Costco” may not have the artisan appeal of “It was handcrafted at the local bakery,” three area Costcos (Van Nuys, Northridge, and Westlake) have recently been shipping in some of Brooklyn's best babka from the venerable Borough Park kosher bakery, Schick's. While in appearance this is the simplest of the bunch, the Costco babka packs a walloping punch of pure fudgey richness — like under-cooked brownie wrapped in the sweetest, most tender challah ever. Although a warehouse manager at the Van Nuys branch reports that his and other area Costcos don't regularly stock the good stuff, response has been so positive to this slice of Brooklyn heaven that he anticipates carrying it more regularly. 6100 Sepulveda Blvd, Van Nuys; 818-464-1480.
5. Diamond Bakery:
For kosher keepers and the lactose intolerant, this Fairfax stalwart offers a delectable dairy-free version of the streusel topped babka ($6.00.) Scented with cinnamon, the swirls of chocolate filling are ample, and although the outside can get dry, the cake itself is plenty moist. The crumb topping is just sweet enough, offering a great crunch in a perfectly balanced cake to crumb ratio — plus there are chocolate chips. And for those aching for more chocolate, Diamond does a mean chocolate racetrack. 335 N. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles; 323-665-0534.
Babka Bonus: Stolichnaya Bakery
For those missing the chocolate gene, this tiny Russian bakery, tucked in beside the West Hollywood Whole Foods bakes up gorgeous apple babkas that rival the best of the cocoa variety. Baked in tube pans, they almost resemble bubbe's skirt, but more importantly, with a light, slightly spongy texture, reminiscent of a buttery Danish pastry and filled with succulent apples, raisins, and cinnamon, not even Elaine would pass up these babkas. 7875 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood; 323-656-7136.