According to culinary historian Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (2010), babka originated in Poland and Ukraine as a tall yeasted cake, and its name, from the Slavic “babcia” (related to the Yiddish “bubbe”), translates as “grandma's cake.” This may be because the original cakes had tall fluted sides that resembled a skirt (baking babka in a loaf pan evolved later) or because grandmas typically baked these treats, wrote Marks.
Marks explained that Jewish versions of babka evolved in Poland in the early 19th century from challah “when housewives prepared extra dough, spread it with a little jam or cinnamon … rolled it up, and baked it alongside the bread.” These early babkas were made with oil to keep them dairy-free and were a bit firmer and drier than today's butter-enriched loaves. In the late 1950s, Jewish babka began finding its way into Jewish bakeries and then into non-Jewish bakeries in New York City. Many Americans now associate the word “babka” with the Jewish version, explained Marks.
As it has gained popularity, babka has taken on all manner of embellishments such as chocolate, Nutella, and even savory fillings and streusel toppings. Food writer Jake Cohen, whose babka recipe offers Reuben and pumpkin spice fillings, noted in his cookbook, Jew-ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch (2021), “Long gone are the days of Seinfeld, when your only choices were chocolate or cinnamon.”