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A Babka and Brioche Get Married And...

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The best brioche is almost as rich in butter and eggs as a pound cake—yet barely sweet and much, much lighter in texture. It’s magnificent plain—the purist will be quick to say it needs absolutely no accompaniment—, but somehow you end up slathering it with more butter and your best jam or honey.

Not your ordinary brioche OR babka.
Not your ordinary brioche OR babka. Photo by James Ransom

When I was 25 years old (in 1975), I watched a French baker, Desiré Valentine, make 50 pounds of this extraordinary brioche on his 3 a.m. shift in the cathedral city of Rheims. At the time, I had no idea how unique his recipe and technique really were, or that I was being shown how to make the best brioche I would ever eat. But I recognized magnificent results when I tasted them—and begged for the recipe. In short order, “my” brioche attracted a little cult following at my own shop in Berkeley. This all being said, I still adore shaping and baking the traditional (plain) brioches á tête in fluted tins, the recipe for which you can find my book, Pure Desserts.

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I’ve since learned how and why this brioche is so special. Even with all of those eggs and oodles of butter, Desire’s brioche has a soft airy, almost cottony texture instead of a cakey crumb. It’s like challah, but ultra-buttery.

This will be messy. That's normal.
This will be messy. That's normal. Photo by James Ransom

The trick to avoiding a cakey texture is to add the butter after you knead the dough, and to keep all of the ingredients cold so the butter doesn’t melt into the dough before it gets into the oven. This explains the recipe’s particularities, like freezing the flour, the use of cold eggs, and why the butter is whipped cold from the fridge, and then kept cold. (Whipping makes it easier to incorporate into the dough, keeping it cold prevents it from melting.)

A great recipe begs to be shown off and used in new ways. If brioche is delicious with butter and jam, why would it not be grand with warm spices and chocolate? Why not make a babka with brioche instead of ordinary bread, and why not load it with more chocolate? During the holidays one year—in a spirit of “more is more”—my book writing and baking partner, Maya Klein, decided to do just that. She turned Desiré’s dough into a glorious chocolate and cinnamon-filled babka, to which I’ve now added even more chocolate.

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You'll need a tube pan for this recipe.
You'll need a tube pan for this recipe. Photo by James Ransom

As with so many good things, the recipe is a little dance of details. None of the steps are difficult, but a little faith is required: Faith you will get the butter worked into the dough (keep the ingredients cold as directed and just keep scraping the dough off of the hook and mixing until the butter is no longer visible), that it’s fine if rolling the dough and filling together is messy, and that cutting the pieces and getting them into the pan will be even messier. It doesn’t matter. You can even bend the schedule; if you're not ready to proof and bake the babka after you’ve filled the pan, put it back in the fridge until you are. It all works out.

If you like, you can add up to a cup of dried cranberries or cherries to the filling, or invent entirely new fillings. Toasted hazelnuts, chocolate, and spices whizzed into a coarse paste in a food processor are all good options. And coming full circle, less can be more again: Using less filling changes the balance and highlights the flavor and texture of the brioche. You are the boss.

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Babka au Chocolat Brioche

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Makes 1 babka

For the brioche:

  • 3 cups (425 grams) bread flour
  • 2 1/2 sticks (280 grams) cold, unsalted butter
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon (70 grams) sugar
  • 1/4 cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)
  • 5 large eggs, cold
  • 1 tablespoon plain yogurt or sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

For the filling:

  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I prefer natural cocoa powder, but Dutch process is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder (or a little more regular instant coffee power)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 ounces (340 grams) dark chocolate (60-66 % cacao works nicely), chopped
  • 1 egg thoroughly whisked with 1 teaspoon of water and a pinch of salt, for the egg wash

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

What would you fill this brioche with? Let us know in the comments!

This article originally appeared a few weeks ago (on December 5), however we're re-running it now because it seems like the perfect thing to make this holiday weekend.