Cheese and bread. Could there be a better combination? I think not. Particularly when the bread in question is a pillowy, buttery, just slightly sweet brioche-style, and the cheese is that classic neon-orange-yellow cheddar. (Or for a slightly more “adult” flavor, Gruyère. Or! If you want the best of both worlds, a mix!) Put them together—or rather, roll, split, and twist them together—and what have you got? Salty-sweet cheese bread, fit for any time of day.
When I set out on a cheese-bread-making quest, a number of techniques ran through my mind. Like quick bread, simple and (duh) quick to mix together—a savory, cheesy take on zucchini bread could’ve been fun for breakfast; a tangy sourdough with orange cheese veins would’ve also pleased my palate. Cheesy cornbread? Or pull-apart bread? But then it hit me. In the words of the immortal Elaine Marie Benes, “you can’t beat a babka.”
Okay, technically babka is a sweet braided bread (filled with chocolate or cinnamon—you know it, you love it), yet you’ve probably had your fair share of savory variations as well. This cheese bread has the soft, thready texture of brioche scented with crushed black pepper, with the intricate twists of a babka that, when filled with cheese and chives (and baked with the twist exposed) crisps up in some places and stays delightfully melted in others. Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, reheating slices in the oven or toaster for the best flavor. —Rebecca Firkser
- Prep time 6 hours 35 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour
- makes one 9-inch loaf
(110 grams) buttermilk or 1/2 cup (120 grams) whole milk
(50 grams) water
(1/4-ounce) package (2 1/4 teaspoons, 7 grams) active dry yeast
(25 grams) plus a big pinch granulated sugar, divided
(250 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
(113 grams) whole-wheat flour
(7 grams) whole black peppercorns, roughly crushed with a knife or spice grinder
large eggs, at room temperature
unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces, plus more for greasing
(about 1 1/2 cups) sharp yellow cheddar, Gruyère, or a mix, shredded
melted unsalted butter
Flaky sea salt
- Combine buttermilk and water in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low until it reaches 110°F (or heat to 110°F in the microwave). Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk in the yeast and pinch of sugar. Let sit until foamy, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Fit the mixer with the dough hook and add the remaining sugar, both flours, salt, and crushed peppercorns to the bowl. Mix on low speed until just combined, then add the eggs. Mix until a shaggy-soft dough forms, about 2 minutes.
- With the mixer running at medium-low speed, add the butter by the piece, totally incorporating each one before adding the next piece. Increase the speed to medium and continue to mix until a soft, supple dough forms, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Transfer the dough to a clean, medium bowl greased with a bit of butter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a reusable lid (something tighter than a dish towel) and let rest in a warm place until it puffs up and nearly doubles in size, about 1 to 2 hours, depending on how warm the room is.
- Transfer the risen dough (still covered) to the refrigerator and chill for at least 4 hours (but for ideal flavor development, 8 to 24 hours).
- When ready to assemble the bread, butter a 9x5-inch loaf tin and line it with a piece of parchment, leaving a couple inches of overhang on the longer sides. Butter the parchment.
- Remove the dough from the fridge and gently punch it down to release some of the air. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and roll out the dough into a 10x16-inch rectangle.
- Sprinkle the cheese and chives all over the dough, right up to the edges. Starting from a shorter end, roll the dough into a coil (like a cinnamon bun or jelly roll). Pinch the edges of both ends closed.
- With the seam side down, use a sharp knife to slice the dough in half lengthwise. Drape one log-half over the other, twist the top and bottom halves together once or twice, then pinch the edges together. Don’t freak out if some cheese falls out.
- Carefully transfer the twisted dough, cut side up, into the prepared baking pan, and press back in any cheese that fell out during the twisting process. Cover with a clean towel (or the same piece of plastic wrap if you used that earlier) and set in a warm place to rise slightly, about 35 minutes. Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Place the loaf tin on a sheet pan (to catch any drips). Gently brush the surface of the loaf with melted butter and sprinkle with flaky salt. Bake for 30 minutes, then check to see how brown the bread looks. If it’s quite golden, tent with foil. Rotate the pan and return to the oven to bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the cheese is deeply golden and the bread is golden-brown and registers an internal temperature of 180°F to 200°F on an instant-read thermometer. (If you don’t have a thermometer, tent with foil after 40 minutes and let the bread bake for the full 70 minutes). Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before unmolding and cooling a bit more on a wire rack. Serve warm.