Babka means "grandmother" in Polish, so it is appropriate that I learned this recipe from my husband's very pious Lithuanian grandmother.
Since this has been my husband's all-time favorite cake since he was a little boy, I was a wise bride and spent time in Mrs. Denis's tiny Tel
Aviv kitchen, watching her make her gorgeous twisted cinnamon-and-cocoa-filled coffee cakes. Mrs. Denis always ground her own cinnamon
in a heavy brass mortar and pestle, pointing out that the effort was worth the extra fragrance. The recipe is
milk-based, meant to be eaten with coffee in the morning or afternoon, but you can substitute margarine for the butter and water for the milk to make a dairy-free cake.
I have given directions for mixing the dough by hand, but it can also be mixed in a stand mixer or a food processor. Mrs. Denis always made her babka
freestanding in an elaborate twist, but for me and my testers, these have split, spilling the filling — so I bake the babkas in pans.
Makes: Two 2-pound (900-gram) pan breads
Recipe Synopsis: Scald the milk. Make a yeast slurry, then beat in the remaining ingredients and mix the dough.
Let the dough rise for 2 1/2 hours. Shape the dough and let proof for 1 1/2 hours. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes.
Time Required: About 7 hours
| (CLICK TO BUY)
For the Dough
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter or dairy-free margarine
1 1/2 cups milk (any type) or 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 fat cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons table salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks
1 egg for glazing
For the Filling
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar (reserved from above)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (any type)
8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup raisins, 1 cup chocolate morsels, and/or 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
|Softening the Butter
Remove the butter from the refrigerator; set aside.|
|Scalding and Cooling the Milk (optional)
Heat the milk in the microwave or in a small heavy pot on the stove just until bubbles form around the edges and the milk steams.
Pour the milk into a pitcher or other container and let it cool to 105° to 110°F, about the temperature of a comfortable bath.
(This can also be done in advance and the milk just warmed before making the yeast slurry. This step denatures a component in
the milk that attacks the flour’s gluten and causes a coarse, depressed texture.)|
|Mixing the Yeast Slurry
As soon as the milk (if using it) is cool enough, whisk together the yeast and 1 1/2 cups of the flour in a large bowl.
Whisk in the warm milk or water until smooth. Let the slurry stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to ferment and puff up.|
In the meantime, if using the cinnamon stick, pulverize it in a heavy mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder until finely powdered
(it will never be as fine as commercially ground cinnamon and will have some tiny chips, but this is fine). Mix it or the 1 teaspoon
ground cinnamon with the sugar, and set 1 tablespoon of this cinnamon sugar aside to use in the filling.|
|Mixing the Dough
When the yeast slurry has puffed up, whisk in the reaming cinnamon sugar, the salt, vanilla, and egg yolks until smooth.
With your hands or a spoon, stir in the remaining 4 cups flour all at once, along with the softened butter, and mix
the dough until it is shaggy but holds together. Scrape the dough out onto the work surface and knead until it is a soft dough.
(Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now to clean it and warm it for fermenting the dough.) This dough is very soft and sticky,
but with enough kneading, it will become smooth and shiny.|
The dough should feel soft and buttery and be easy to knead; it will be speckled with cinnamon bits if you hand-ground the cinnamon.|
|Fermenting the Dough
Place the dough in the warmed clean bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. (Or, the dough can be refrigerated right after kneading,
then removed from the refrigerator to finish fermenting up to 24 hours later.) Let the dough rise for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on
the temperature in the your kitchen, or until doubled in volume and very soft. (If the dough has been refrigerated, fermenting may
take up to 1 hour more.)|
While the dough is rising, generously butter or oil two 9-by-5-inch bread pans for the split-top loaves or two 8-inch or 10-inch round
cake pans for the pinwheel twists. If you are concerned about the babkas sticking, line the pans with parchment.|
|Making the Filling
Make the filling just before shaping the breads; it firms up very quickly as it cools and will spread best when still warm. Combine the sugar,
the reserved cinnamon sugar, and the cocoa in a medium bowl and stir well to press out any cocoa lumps. Add the melted butter and whisk
the filling until smooth.|
|Shaping the Babkas
When the dough is fully risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut it into two equal pieces. If you have enough room to
spread out (such as a large kitchen table), you can work more quickly if you follow the steps successively with both halves; otherwise, shape
one half at a time to completion, keeping the second one covered.|
|To Form the Split-Top Loaves
Using a little dusting flour, roll one dough piece out smooth side down into a rectangle about 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick and as wide as your baking
pans; do not roll it out too thin, or the raisins, chocolate chips, and/or nuts will poke through. Smear the dough up to just 1 inch (25 mm) of its
edges with half the cocoa filling (this will be a very thick layer) — this is easiest to do with your clean hands; warm the filling gently if it is too firm.
Scatter half of the raisins, chocolate chips, and/or walnuts over the filling.|
Roll up the dough very loosely from one side like a carpet. Without stretching the edge at all, seal the seam by pinching the edge into the roll.
Use a little water if you need it to help the dough stick. Starting from the center of the roll, lightly press it out to the open ends to force out
any air bubbles that may have formed during rolling. Seal the ends of the roll by pinching them together. Check the seals again, even the
thickness of the roll under your hand, and place it seam side down in one of the prepared pans. Repeat to make the second bread.|
|Proofing the Loaves
Cover the shaped babkas with plastic wrap. (At this point, you can refrigerate the loaves for up to 24 hours.) Let the loaves proof until very soft
and expanded — they should be nicely domed over the pans — about 2 1/2 hours (or up to 3 1/2 hours if the loaves have been refrigerated). It is better
to slightly overproof at this point.|
Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking arrange an oven rack in the lower third position and preheat the oven to 300°F. Beat the remaining egg
with a pinch of salt for glazing the breads.|
|Baking the Babkas|
When the babkas are ready to bake, brush with the egg glaze. Stipple (or poke) them with a toothpick to pop any large air bubbles. |
Use a sharp knife to cut a long deep slash down the length of each loaf, cutting through at least three layers of dough.
The deep cut allows the center of the loaf to expand upward without bursting through the other layers. Place the loaf pans on a foil-lined baking
sheet to prevent the bottoms from burning and to catch any spills. Bake the babkas for 50 to 60 minutes, until they are a dark mahogany color and
their tops are firm and bounce back when pressed. After the first 40 minutes of baking, turn the loaves around so that they brown more evenly.
If the babkas are coloring too quickly, cover them with foil. If after 40 minutes they seem too pale, increase the heat to 350°F, but do not overbake them or they will be dry.
When the babkas are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes in the pans, then tap them out of the pans and let them finish cooling on a rack.|