I’m told to arrive at The Good Egg, a Jewish-inspired cafe in East London, no later than 9 AM. Although this requires me to rise almost an hour and a half earlier than usual, one thing is guaranteed to get me leaping out of bed: the promise of a ridiculously good brunch.
Luckily, delicious brunches are basically the cafe’s M.O. (although it does also offer a dinner menu). After starting out as a brunch pop-up, then opening permanent spaces in Stoke Newington and Soho, The Good Egg has developed a style of Jewish cooking influenced by the modern British dining scene. Dishes include whipped feta with rhubarb, aubergine shawarma, bagels, and something called “Hanukkah brisket hash.”
“Eggs were a huge part of Jewish culture,” founder Joel Braham explains after we find a seat at one of the cafe’s tables, already filling with eager customers. “But we didn't want to do street food anymore.” Instead, they wanted their permanent space in Stoke Newington, and most recently Soho, to be “a Jewish-inspired restaurant, taken out of the context of the Jewish deli in New York, by putting it in the neighbourhood setting.”
Despite my early arrival, I’m actually not here to write about the brunch. Instead, I’m here for something far more sacrilegious, far more ungodly—a classic babka, but crossed (ahem) with a hot cross bun. Thus creating: the hot cross babka.
To get to the bottom of this bake, I’m joined by Oded Mizrachi, the pastry chef and creator of The Good Egg’s babka-bun hybrid. After ordering breakfast (I have, conveniently, arrived very hungry), I ask Mizrachi why he decided to combine the two baked goods.
“We started [making babkas] before we opened The Good Egg, and from the beginning, it was a massive hit,” he explains. “We used to sell out every time.”
“It was obvious that we wanted to do something for the period, and then it was almost an immediate thing,” Mizrachi continues. “We thought, ‘What shall we do for Easter? What do people eat at Easter? Oh, hot cross buns. Oh, let's do a hot cross babka.’”
Although the cafe always has a classic chocolate babka on sale, Mizrachi is constantly coming up with new and interesting fillings to spread inside the brioche dough. Some seem to work, like the Christmas marzipan and soaked berries, and others are, well, less successful. “We did some horrible ones that tasted awful,” says Mizrachi. “I did one with rosemary and potatoes." He shudders. “Carb in carbs.”
Despite some failures, the chef clearly isn’t precious about changing up the classic babka recipe.
“[The hot cross babka] is the same dough as the babka, but the filling is the flavours of the hot cross bun. It’s a very straightforward thing to do,” he says.
OK, so the flavours work, but what about the slightly controversial matter of taking a Jewish babka, and piping a cross—which represents the crucifixion of Jesus, let's remember—on it? I’m not religious in the slightest, but isn’t there something a bit off about this? Religious cake enthusiasts might be, I don’t know, offended?
I’m not the only one to have this thought—Jay Rayner, food critic for the Observer, tweeted about the babka recently, saying, “Look, I don't want to get all rabbinical on your arses but... Babka is a Jewish bread and the whole ‘hot cross’ thing is about nailing Mr Jesus to the two by four. I’m all for a bit of interfaith understanding but…Oh sod it, a curse on ALL your garbled religious brainthumpery.”
I asked Mizrachi what he makes of mixing two faiths in the oven. He doesn’t look that phased.
“Yeah, well, we thought about the cross,” he says. “We're not a Kosher restaurant, we’re not a Jewish restaurant—we're inspired by Jewish food, by Israeli food, by American delis. So it wasn't really an issue of the Jewish and Christian heritage.”
“We have Jewish customers and we have non-Jewish customers,” he says. “We don't need to appeal to one and not to the other.”
But just in case you were wondering, “[The hot cross babka] is Kosher!” he says. “But we do have bacon here.”
I tell Mizrachi that I’ve never actually had a babka until today, so I ask, for him, what defines Jewish food and Jewish baking?
“I don't know, but it feels like things that are very laborious,” he laughs. “If it's a lot of work, or your mum is making it for you, and you need to appreciate it.”
He continues, slightly at a loss: “For me, it's stuff that I grew up with … but obviously, that’s not the answer.” I disagree. Heritage and memory are important parts of food culture, and if Mizrachi feels Jewish cuisine focuses on meals or dishes that accrue meaning over time, then that’s as legitimate a way to define it as “we put a lot of tahini on stuff.”
He seems semi-convinced. “Jewish cooking for me is what we ate with our grandmas when visiting them.” I wonder what they would have thought about piping a cross over a babka.
Ignoring any potentially unhappy relatives, the hot cross babka is a delicious combination. After our discussion, I watch Mizrachi make the cake: kneading the dough, letting in prove, spreading a spiced butter mix over the babka dough, and sprinkling it with sultanas, ginger, and candied peel. He then rolls the dough, cuts it in half, and entwines it to create the distinctive marbled pattern. When it comes out of the oven, I have a taste. It’s sweet, spicy, and crucially, the shape of the babka still lends itself to being sliced and covered in butter, as is the only way to consume a hot cross bun.
Taking a bite of the hot cross babka is almost a religious experience. Perhaps it’s not so unholy after all?