A Babka and Brioche Get Married And...

December 23, 2016

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. 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.

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. 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.)

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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.

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.

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Top Comment:
“My dough was a bit too sticky probably and it was really hard to roll without everything falling apart. My only comment is that the "crust" was a bit hard. Maybe a bit less baking time next time I make it. Heavenly crumb. THANKS and happy holidays!!! Will be making it again very very soon. ”
— Ishtar

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.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dee Myers
    Dee Myers
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    Jean Kauper
  • Pam Kozlow
    Pam Kozlow
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Dee M. December 22, 2018
My first try at this wonderful recipe was a complete flop. My second try was fantastic.The first thing I did wrong was overworking and adding flour to make it a bread dough.its not.
I love the clear directions which for the flop I did not pay strict attention.
Long as you resist the urge to make the dough less wet and sticky by adding flour its perfect.
My second cook it looked exactly like the photos. MY grandkids declared it a remake.
Karen O. January 21, 2018
How about a filling of peanut butter and strawberry preserves? You could also sprinkle with peanuts. I love anything peanut butter.
Anita B. December 29, 2017
I read the other comments about make this recipe without a machine. This type of pastry was made without machin for a very long time. Just made mine by hand and came out perfect. I wish I could attach a picture.
Jean K. November 25, 2017
Is it essential to cut up the dough into 18 pieces instead of leaving in long and intact and placing in a loaf pan? Wondering if it would look more traditionally Babka with the thin layers when cut.
BurgeoningBaker December 13, 2017
That is what I was wondering too. Seems like an unnecessary step instead of just making twists and then putting it in the pan. I think it is entirely up to you.
Pam K. January 28, 2017
No my yeast was fine because I did proof it and it was active. It may have needed a little more flour because I live in Florida but it's cold today and not that humid. Thanks for responding!
Pam K. January 28, 2017
My dough after kneading for 5 minutes was very soft and didn't work it's way up the dough hook. It remained very soft (almost like cake batter) after putting in the butter. I decided to beat the dough after the butter to see if this would set it up enough to work up the dough hook but it never did. I have baked with yeast but never ran into this problem. I used bread flour and all ingredients were cold. I'm not sure what happened. I put in fridge and will check texture tomorrow.
Lolli January 28, 2017
I wonder if your yeast was dead? I didn't follow the instructions and proofed my yeast before adding it.
Lolli December 31, 2016
Is it essential to use bread flour in this recipe?
Lisa L. December 31, 2016
Bread flour absorbs more moisture than all-purpose or cake flour (since it has a higher protein content), so if you don't use bread flour you'd end up with an entirely unworkable sticky mass of dough. I guess you could add more flour to it, but the more you add the denser the end product will be :-( So there isn't really any way around it...
Lolli January 1, 2017
Is that why your dough was so sticky then?
Lisa L. January 1, 2017
Yes, I think the dough is supposed to be sticky, but manageable after you pop it in the fridge overnight. My dough was probably extra sticky because I don't particularly enjoy lugging out a stand mixer, and tried to do everything by hand (so I most likely ended up not initially kneading the dough enough). Other than that procedural issue, however, I did follow the recipe (so I used bread flour).
Lolli December 31, 2016
Is it essential to use bread flour in this recipe?
Lisa L. December 25, 2016
Right now I'm waiting for it to rise - looks and smells really nice! However, I did have a problem of my dough being so so sticky there was absolutely no chance of me even beginning to roll it out, even with an overnight rest in the fridge. I slowly added more and more flour - probably 1-1.5 c extra, until it was still sticky but more manageable, then kneaded by hand until smooth and slightly tacky to the touch. I stirred everything in the beginning few steps manually, with a big spatula, until (I thought) it reached the same appearance + consistency as shown in the video - maybe I missed something? If I ever make this recipe again, I'll be sure to use a mixer of some sort...
Ishtar December 22, 2016
Just made this. It was AMAZING although messy. My dough was a bit too sticky probably and it was really hard to roll without everything falling apart.
My only comment is that the "crust" was a bit hard. Maybe a bit less baking time next time I make it. Heavenly crumb. THANKS and happy holidays!!!
Will be making it again very very soon.
Lolli January 28, 2017
I agree. I baked it to 190 degrees per the recipe and it was too dry. About 8 seconds of microwave softened up the slices to save it, but I will bake it much less next time.
Vicky W. December 19, 2016
Is the chocolate sweet, unsweet or semi-sweet? Look forward to trying this recipe!!! Merry Christmas!

Karen December 17, 2016
Hi, can you clarify size of tube pan and if it should be greased or floured please?
bmorgen December 11, 2016
I came home to San Francisco in 1972 after spending a summer in France as an exchange student. I found your Cocolat truffles a year or so later when I went to UC Berkeley. It was inspirational. We will make the Babka this Christmas with our new family in Cork, Ireland.
Karen December 10, 2016
Love this! I am going to try walnut pesto, a southwest variation with cilantro, chilies, cheese, etc, a fig jam or an onion jam variation. Savory can be fun.
Caroline L. December 5, 2016
Alice!!! You've outdone yourself.
AntoniaJames December 5, 2016
This is too funny! I recently made and popped in the freezer for Christmas morning a challah Gubana with my WASP, NorCal twist - filling made of chopped figs and walnuts (both local) + dark chocolate + the spices I typically put in my steamed plum Christmas puddings. A first cousin to this! ;o)
jamcook December 5, 2016
In the recipe is that 2 1/2 CUPS of butter, it doesn't say. Thanks
Riddley G. December 5, 2016
It is 2 1/2 sticks. The recipe is updated. Thank you!
jamcook December 5, 2016
Thank you , I did not want to proceed without that clarification.