In the chocolate-cinnamon rivalry, you’ve probably come to think of the latter as the “lesser babka,” thanks to the "Seinfeld" episode, "Dinner Party." In New York, however, the two varieties of babka are equally popular: among non-Jews, anyway. Chocolate is the clear favorite in Jewish circles, with the exception of the winter holiday season, when cinnamon creeps up to the number one slot.
This according to one of the two owners of Green’s, the Williamsburg bakery long renowned for its delectable babka, who has requested to be identified as David Green.
For years, Green’s products, and its babka in particular, have been sold at major grocery chains, New York City specialty stores, and several kosher food markets. According to Green, it’s the most popular babka in the country, and more recently, the company has started shipping its products to foreign countries.
But even if you’ve never purchased a babka bearing the Green’s label, blue for chocolate, orange for cinnamon, chances are, you’ve tried it. Since the mid-1990s, Green’s has sold babka without its packaging to special clients, most of them New York-based upscale food markets. It has become a common practice for companies to later affix their own labels to the babka, claiming it as their own without crediting Green’s.
For the sake of confidentiality, Green and his business partner, who requested to be identified as Moish, declined to list such clients, but prime suspects have widely included Russ & Daughters, Dean & Deluca, Katz’s Deli, and Barney Greengrass, whose babkas look eerily similar to a standard Green’s loaf (thick swirls of chocolate or cinnamon, flaky layers of dough, a light sprinkling of streusel on top) and boast the same exact ingredient list: flour, sugar, palm oil, water, whole eggs, cocoa, yeast, vanilla, and salt.
Green and Moish usually give clients permission to keep the source of the babka a secret and insist that the business model is actually lucrative. Customers purchase babka from a name that they trust, which keeps the specialty markets coming back to Green’s for more.
“People come into the store, and see, let’s say, Zabar’s, so they want their babka because they think, ‘They’re the best!’” Green said.
Zabar’s may not be the best example; General manager Scott Goldshine explained that Zabar’s used to carry Green’s babka under its name but no longer does. Green confirmed.
“They don’t like that we sell to other places around [New York],” he said. “We had a small issue with them.”
Green’s Old World roots have helped establish babka, whose name derives from the Polish “baba,” meaning “married peasant woman,” as a New York Jewish culinary staple. According to kosher food blogger Levana Kirschenbaum, the success of Green’s, particularly in the past few years, may point to a more general increase in the popularity of babka among non-Jews.
“Babka is becoming very big [and] very, very fashionable,” Kirschenbaum, who recently created a social media campaign called #babkasaga, said. “You can find it at Balducci’s, at Dean and Deluca. And I think it’s funny, they always look for the kosher maker.”
Other companies, however, have modernized and popularized the flaky treat. Zaro’s Family Bakery, founded in 1927, lends babka the convenience of fast food by selling it at major transportation hubs like Penn Station and Grand Central. The Israeli-owned Breads Bakery prepares its babka (pictured) with unorthodox ingredients like Nutella and laminated dough.
In 2013, an airy, croissant-like slice of Breads babka graced the pages of New York Magazine under the headline “Best of New York.” Since the issue hit newsstands, several New York bakeries, such as TriBeca’s Arcade Bakery, have begun selling their own homemade babka.
“The babka has taken on a life of its own,” Gadi Peleg, a co-owner of Breads, said.
While Green’s helped establish babka as a New York Jewish culinary staple, newer bakeries like Breads have made babka a trendy dessert in the vein of cupcakes or macarons, sparking an interest in the delicacy that has not been present since the 1994 Seinfeld episode.
According to Kathryn Kates, who played the woman behind the bakery counter who coughs on Jerry and Elaine’s babka in “The Dinner Party” and who later appeared in “The Marble Rye,” the episode introduced babka to an audience that had previously been unaware of its existence.
“I remember when we were filming it, I went over to Jerry and said, ‘You know what the greatest thing is? All across America, men are gonna be turning to their wives and going, ‘What’s a babka?’’” Kates said. “You know, only New York Jews really know what babkas are, and we loved it.”
Green’s customers and enthusiastic passersby often make references to “The Dinner Party” to Green and Moish. If you wonder if this gets old after a while, consider that neither Green nor Moish has ever seen the episode.
“Why it’s so popular, the Seinfeld show?” Moish asked. “Is it still on?”
Carly Stern is an Editorial Intern. Rebecca Brill is a freelance writer.