Today: Call it bread or call it dessert -- this babka will bring you nothing but good things.
I first made babka a couple of years ago when I was set to meet a pair of internet friends in real life for the first time. I wanted to make a nice little sweet to go with the tea we were scheduled to have, and I wanted a treat that would be impressive and totally delicious, but not too over the top. I also had to carry it on the subway for an hour, so it had to be easily portable.
With all of its twists and swirls of sweet filling, I knew that babka would be just the thing -- but I couldn’t make just any babka. It had to be a chocolate babka. I whipped up a loaf, much like the one I’ve made here, and it was a hit and a half. I don’t know if it was just the bread, but I am happy to say that the ladies I served it to have become near and dear to me, so I always think of this babka as my own personal friendship bread. Elaine was right: You can't beat a babka.
Babka is traditionally made from an enriched dough that's rolled up and filled with a sweet filling: usually chocolate or cinnamon, and occasionally studded with almonds, dried fruit, or poppy seeds. I tend to like a bit of spice with the chocolate in my sweet breads, so I went heavy on the chocolate here, light on the cinnamon, and added some chopped almonds for crunch.
More: Another crunchy, sweet way to make friends? Homemade Kouign Amann.
This dough can rise overnight in the fridge, so if making the dough and forming the loaf seems a bit complicated, feel free to spread the steps over the course of two days.
To make the dough, you will need:
2 1/4 teaspoons (or 1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup milk at 110º F
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Stir the yeast into the milk to dissolve. Let it sit until it's foamy.
While the yeast proofs, cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the oil and vanilla extract, and mix well to combine. Then add the egg yolks one at a time, mixing until each yolk is incorporated before adding the next. Increase the mixer speed to high and beat the mixture for about 2 minutes.
Turn the mixer to low and add the flour and salt, followed by the milk and yeast mixture. Switch to the dough hook attachment and mix the dough until a soft, tacky dough forms. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead by hand for two more minutes. The dough should feel soft, supple, and smooth.
Move the dough to a clean, oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at a moderate room temperature for about 2 hours, or until it has almost doubled in size. You can also let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator, then shape it the next day.
To make the filling, you will need:
1 cup finely chopped chocolate
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter
Prepare the filling while the dough is rising. Use a pastry blender or bench scraper to cut the ingredients together into a streusel-like crumble.
To shape the bread: Roll the risen dough on a lightly floured surface into a roughly 15- by 18-inch rectangle. Gently lift the dough to make sure that it will easily release from the work surface. Sprinkle the filling mixture evenly over the top of the dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edges, then roll the dough from the long end into a tight log about 20 inches long.
Gently bend the dough into a "U" shape and twist the arms of the dough two or three times around each other to form the loaf, then pinch the seams together. Place the dough into a greased 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise at room temperature until the babka fills the pan, 1 to 2 hours.
When you're ready to bake, preheat oven to 350º F. Then prepare the streusel. You will need:
2 tablespoons soft, unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 pinch salt
1 egg (for the egg wash)
Combine all of the streusel ingredients in a bowl and mix until crumbly. When the loaf has risen completely, brush with an egg wash made from one egg and one tablespoon of water, then sprinkle the streusel mixture over the top. Use a toothpick to poke a few holes in the top of the loaf -- this will release any air pockets trapped between the folds of the dough and filling.
Put the loaf pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for 20 to 30 minutes more. When it's finished, the loaf will be a deep golden brown on top and sound hollow when the bottom is tapped.
You can also use a thermometer to check the internal temperature, which will be 185º F when the loaf is finished. Let the babka cool to room temperature before slicing.
Photos by Yossy Arefi