About this time last year, Jolene brought home a two-pack of Schick's Chocolate Babka from Costco in the Marina. Babka was one of the things that I had previously ignored when at Canter's bakery in favor of more portable treats such as rainbow cookies, rugalach, and cheese pocket danish. But I tried a tentative slice of the rich, yeasty cake and was hooked.
A couple of weeks ago, my tastebuds remembered the flaky, chocolaty goodness and I drove to Costco to pick up another two-pack. Although the store was well-stocked with every Jewish delicacy you could think of - they even had economy-sized jars of gefilte fish and ready-to-bake pans of noodle kugel - they did not carry Schick's babka this year. I picked up the family's favorite challah, which being from Costco, is about the size of a Mini Cooper, and went home feeling deprived.
Glatt Mart, with no less than four cases of hummus and hummus-related products.
So I hit Pico Boulevard, home to a large number of kosher delis, restaurants and markets. But after a satisfying six-block hike, the marvels of Glatt Mart, which is arguably the largest kosher market in the state, and a fabulous bowl of lentil soup at Eilat Bakery, all I could come up with was one ring-shaped babka from Schwartz's Bakery. Yelpers alternately love or hate the place - sadly, most reviews reflected the latter - and after tasting the dry pastry, I could see why. Actually, since I bought the last one on a Sunday night, it may have been sitting there since before Friday's Sabbath, so I'm hoping theirs doesn't start out as dry. The experience only made me more determined to find either a Schick's babka or an acceptable substitute.
It is ironic that on my recent trip to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with David, that I would come up with not just one, but three babkas to sample. We made a beeline for Chompie's, the area's go-to deli near Scottsdale. Comparable to Jerry's Deli in L.A., it is a good, clean restaurant with generous portions of reliably tasty deli fare. Their hefty babka loaf is drizzled with chocolate icing and well-marbled within, with a nice, light sweetness and a rich cocoa-y vein. David looked relieved that we had found what I were looking for so quickly, but as usual, I wanted something more "authentic."
Chocolate babka from Chompie's. No fudging on flavor; this is the best in Phoenix.
I spied Imperial Kosher Market & Deli on Glendale Avenue. Buildings in Phoenix are deceptively large due to the exterior walls that make them inhabitable in the desert heat. The tiny store was attached to a comfortable looking restaurant that offers kosher versions of southern fried chicken alongside more traditional fare. I had phoned them a couple of days before and asked if they sold Schick's Babka and they answered unequivocally, "We have Green's. It's the best."
When we visited the store on the Friday after Thanksgiving, we scored the last chocolate babka, which was surrounded by about a half-dozen of Green's cinnamon variety. They felt as squishy moist as the one I chose, but on the babka flavor hierarchy, chocolate reigns supreme.
"Another babka?"... 'Lainie and Jerry contemplate "the lesser babka."
We picked up another the last one on the day-old table from Karsh's Bakery, seduced by the promise of tiny chocolate chips that covered its top, and headed home. Karsh's ring-shaped cake tasted like a Hostess Crumb Cake with a chocolate bar that was melted into the middle of it, but then it hardened, leaving a slab of second-rate chocolate in the middle of the cake. We ate ourselves sick of the chocolate chips that now littered the bag, the plate, and the counter, but pronounced Karsh's a bust. Babka-beleaguered David, who isn't much for sweets to begin with, said that he liked the one from Chompie's the best, and the Karsh's version, "next to last," in the hopes of not having to taste any more babka. He begged me not to unwrap the Green's loaf, so I took it home for the family to try.
Karsh's babka was like me at 30 - pretty but dry-humoured.
This morning, I opened up the Green's babka, which was pronounced delicious and moist by Jolene and Hiro. Despite its Brooklyn origins, it was the freshest, but then again, it is supplied to delis and markets all over the country and its ingredients must ensure a longer shelf life. It has a good, even chocolate flavor, but I prefer the delicate taste of Chompie's version, albeit when it was two days fresher. It is now a dry slab, optimistically stored in a Ziploc container.
The irony of it all was when I walked into Junior's last night for my welcome-home-to-me bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup. I was greeted at the bakery counter that faces the front door by a cut half of a glistening, chocolate chip-studded babka. I hesitated, knowing that a doughy pile of babka souvenirs awaited me at home, but will have to give that one a try.
Last exit to Brooklyn: Green's babka delivers, excellent for a store-bought specimen.
The takeaway from all this? When I get obsessed with something, it can be pretty brutal for all involved. Friends and family must suffer for my art. With a delicacy as folksy and homespun as babka, freshness is key. Sometimes, the best of everything could be found just down the street. And I'm still looking.
After our babka-fest, even this volcanic core on Interstate 10 looked like the perfect marbled babka. Another hill looked like mounds of chopped liver.
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