For the past few years, my sister has taken it upon herself to request an unconventional birthday treat. A regular birthday cake is never good enough for her. She's requested homemade Chocolate-Glazed Yeast Doughnuts, a sky high New York Style Cheesecake, and last year, she wanted an entire week dedicated to breakfast treats. This year, however, I beat my sister to the punch. I thought "birthday babka" had a nice ring to it, and she immediately agreed. I'd been wanting to make a babka for years, but I was never brave enough to go through with it. The yeast, and the folding, and the swirls! It all seemed like too much. I had already opened my mouth though, and she was set on her birthday babka, with lots of chocolate swirls. There was no turning back now.
I went straight to Smitten Kitchen, because I knew Deb had simplified Yotam Ottolenghi's chocolate krantz cake recipe into one that was foolproof. If I've learned anything from working closely with Clarkson Potter over the past few months, it's that Ottolenghi is a brilliant, brilliant man. I figured that if Deb had worked her magic on an Ottolenghi recipe to improve it, the final result had to be spectacular. Her recipe seemed completely doable, and as I was reading it through, I wondered why I hadn't ever given myself chance to actually make a babka. It didn't seem that hard.
And it wasn't. It's a two-day process, so it's a little time consuming but not overly difficult. On the first day, the dough is made entirely in a stand mixer. It's a bit similar to making a brioche dough, where butter is introduced in small increments and then the dough is left to knead for a few minutes, uninterrupted. After a slow rise overnight in the fridge, it's time to create the filling and shape the loaves. The filling takes only a few minutes to prepare, and is just a matter of mixing together chocolate, butter, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder. The dough is rolled out into a rectangle and the filling is spread on. It gets rolled up into a tight cigar and sliced in half lengthwise, revealing the alternating layers of dough and chocolate filling. The two halves are intertwined in a twist, to create those beautiful spirals. After another rise, the loaves are ready to be baked. They'll emerge from the oven puffed and wonderfully golden brown. A thorough brushing of simple syrup over the hot loaves ensures that the tops will be sweet, glossy, and perfectly beautiful.
I was so pleased with how my babkas turned out. They looked as impressive as I had hoped they would, and they tasted better than I could have imagined. Sweet, orange scented bread paired with a dark, barely sweetened chocolate ribbon; I don't think there's a better combination than that. The babkas weren't perfect; they could have been flakier, and I should have rolled the logs more tightly, but these are just technical flaws. Beginner mistakes. With a few more practice attempts, I'm sure that this recipe will yield a flawless babka. For now though, this babka will do just fine. It's pretty darn tasty, and the satisfaction of having finally made one makes it that much sweeter. My sister loved it too, so I'd say this was a hugely successful birthday, on many levels!
recipe from Smitten Kitchen
originally adapted from Jerusalem
For the Dough
530 grams all purpose flour
100 grams granulated sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
grated zest of half an orange
3 large eggs
1/2 cup water, and 1-2 tablespoons extra, if needed
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
150 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the Filling
130 grams dark chocolate, chopped (or chips)
115 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar, scant
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
For the Syrup
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
To make the dough, combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add eggs and 1/2 cup water, mixing for a few minutes until it comes together. It’s okay if it’s on the dry side. If the dough doesn’t come together at all, add 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass. With the mixer running on low, add the salt, then the butter, one tablespoonful at a time, mixing until it’s incorporated into the dough. Once all the butter has been added, mix on medium speed for 10 minutes until dough is completely smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. The dough will begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl as it mixes. Coat a large bowl with canola oil and place dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, prepare the chocolate filling. Melt the chocolate and butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat until smooth. Stir in the powdered sugar and cocoa powder, and cinnamon, if using. The mixture should form a spreadable paste.
Butter two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Remove half the dough from the fridge. Roll it out on a well-floured surface until it forms a 10 x 12-inch rectangle, with the long end facing you. Spread half of the chocolate mixture on top of the dough, leaving a ½-inch border on all sides. Brush the edge opposite from you with a small amount of water. Roll the dough up into long tight log, sealing the edge. Transfer to a lightly floured sheet pan. Repeat the process with the other half of dough. Freeze both logs for 10-15 minutes (this will make it much easier to split the logs).
Trim the last half inch off the end of each log. Split the logs in half lengthwise, and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. Pinch the top ends of the logs together, and form them into a twist, keeping as much of the cut sides facing out. Place the twist into one of the prepared loaf pans, and repeat with the second log. Cover the loaf pans with a clean, damp tea towel and set aside to rise for 1 ½ hours at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and position a rack in the middle of the oven. Place the loaf pans in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. If the babkas are browning too quickly, tent with a piece of foil. You'll know the babkas are ready when a skewer inserted in the center can be removed with no resistance.
While the babkas are baking, prepare the simple syrup. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove the syrup from the heat, and set aside to cool slightly. As soon as the babkas are removed from the oven, brush the syrup all over them. It will seem like a lot, but it will get soaked into the crust. Let the babkas cool about halfway in the baking pans, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Enjoy!
Makes 2 9 x 5- inch loaves