Babka has always seemed to me to be a rather elaborate yeast-raised cake native to Russia and Jewish bakeries of New York. My friend Natasha (from Jerusalem) made a delicious apple babka several times during her visit to Ann Arbor a few years ago. I knew that New York bakeries that I had never been to made chocolate babkas. In today's New York Times is a long article about babka: An Old Hanukkah Treat. In it are Joan Nathan's interviews with several chefs -- including Evelyn's favorite baker Ann Amernick whose photo I lifted. Each one describes how they make it.
Suddenly, I realized that what we called cinnamon bread when I was a child is definitely the simplest type of babka as defined in the article. Its ingredients were flour, eggs, milk, and yeast. Swirls of cinnamon-sugar were in each slice. Our favorite commercial version came from Pratzel's, my father's preferred local Jewish bakery. It was rather dry, really like bread, and had only cinnamon in the swirls, no raisins. I'm sure that the local bakers never used chocolate or more elaborate fillings, such as today's article describes. They always made it in a loaf, never in a tube pan as Natasha did, and as in some of the pictures.
When my father bought this cinnamon bread, we ate as much as our parents would let us. Sometimes we spread the slices with cream cheese. Sometimes we pulled it apart along the cinnamon fault-lines. We liked the most cinnamony slices, and especially the ends. The top was sticky with cinnamon-sugar, but didn't have a crumb topping -- the bakery made other coffee cakes with crumb toppings. Some of them might have also been varieties of babka. Other bakeries used crumb topping on their cinnamon bread.
My father's Aunt Goldie made the dough for cinnamon bread approximately the same way she made challah dough. She never measured, but added ingredients, kneaded, and used her hands to feel whether the dough was right. We thought her cinnamon bread was the best in the world. My father said so. I remember it as a little richer and less dry than the bakery version. She made it all year, as the article says, not just at Hanukkah. I can't remember ever hearing the word babka. Now I know.