Babka or Bust
Breaking the Babka Code
In some circles I’m acknowledged as one a Jewish baking goddess, so it was a shock to recently discover that I’m not the babka guru I thought I was. I invented Caramel Matzoh Buttercrunch, as well as the world’s best honey cake (Moist and Majestic Honey Cake) as well as cracked the code for Montreal Bagels. But Babka? I thought I knew ye. As soon as it started trending, I knew I had to revisit it.
The classic babka I’d been making and teaching for years is a really good babka but it’s not ‘the’ babka of the hour. The one I make is the one your grandmother preened over and passed down until it achieved family legend status. So let’s not diss it. It’s amazing in its own right plus it is one of those things that’s great fresh and almost better (ambrosial) toasted. Many bakeries have a version too and variations of it (Greek Easter Breads, Italian Pannetone and Russian Kulich) abound — which brings us to some babka history notes.
All indications point to babka’s roots as central European; at least that’s the cinnamon, nut and raisin connection. The word baba itself is Polish for ‘grandmother’ (lots of folks contend that puffy babka refers to a grandmother’s pleated, voluminous skirts). Some Jewish bakeries (and cookbooks) call babka: bobka, bubka and even kokosh. Speaking of which, although most Jewish baking is tethered to a Jewish holiday, babka has no particular celebration its synonymous with. It’s as welcome at Rosh Hashanah as it is a Shavuot, a break-the-fast (Yom Kippur) as well as a Sunday brunch or a bris. Babka is welcome anytime you have a gathering of people that appreciate great, sweet, yeast baking.
Chocolate babka is more of a mid-20th century invention and purported to be descended from chocolate-making Spanish Jews who fled Spain around Inquisition time. My baker’s instinct favors another possibility which is that central Europe baking had a collision with France because to me, chocolate babka variation has a strong connection to pain au chocolat. Of course, these days beyond cinnamon babka versus chocolate rivalry (think of the Seinfeld episode), there’s poppy seed, cheese, almond, prune, and Nutella. But I digress.
But as babka started trending a few months ago (happily all Jewish baking is getting a new glance), clearly the style of babka that inspired fanning and heavenly-rolled eyes was the ‘chewy, sticky, dense, impossibly sweet one’ you can only get at some bakeries. There’s a plethora of recent features that tout their babka as ‘the one’ but those recipes just made the same, nice, conservative babka I already knew.
But any major North American city with a legendary Jewish bakery has one; names like Russ and Daughters and Zingermans come up often in these discussions. In these parts (i.e.Montreal), the bakery with the best babka, bar none, in Cheskies. And that is where my babka adventure, post my cookbook, began again. Can you make Cheskie’s babka, a friend asked. It’s The Best. Hubris makes me think I can bake anything.
I bought Cheskie’s babka to do a reconnaissance in my own kitchen. Hefty and redolent of industrial baker’s cinnamon (i.e. sweet and hot) it’s sold by the hunk, that is, by weight. It features about 14 coiled layers and is sweeter than the usual babka, dense, and weighted in so much cinnamon or chocolate schmear you have to sit down to savour it. Cheskie’s babka rarely makes it home; people pull it apart in hunks in the car ride. True, being pareve, there wasn’t a pervasive sense of dairy-rich butter in this yeasted coffee cake but the texture was remarkable unique and the sheer heft? Impressive. This wasn’t bready — it was sludgy and leftovers lasted for a week without staling. Begrudgingly I conceded, it was better (or different) than mine. I also like both change and challenge. I invented gluten free hamantashnen — I could do this.
I called Cheskies and explained I was doing a feature on babka and theirs, undisputedly was ‘best’. The woman I spoke to generously invited me to come and watch their early morning baking to watch and learn. “No recipe — but you can watch’. I didn’t need the secret recipe — that I could figure that out on my own. It was technique. At any rate, I couldn’t believe my luck: Cheskie’s was opening the doors to Fort Knox of baking. Clearly, TGTBT (too good to be true).
Upon arrival (at the wee morning hours), I spent a good half hour waiting, perusing the copious baking cases (Black and White Cookies, Giant Sprinkle Cookies, Danish, Challah, Strudel and other mouth-watering goodies). The Cheskies person finally came out and told me politely: no. They’d rethought it and decided I couldn’t come into the production area. (Drat). But, said Ms. Cheskie, she could offer a few technical notes.
“First she said, roll it thin on the sheeter’.
On the sheeter? A sheeter is a huge and standard commercial bakery machine that makes filo dough out of anything — that thin? A sheeter??? Oh my. That was news.
“Yes, on the sheeter’.
Ms. Cheskie carefully folded a nearby paper envelope on the counter in half, maybe once more and showed me the thin paper diameter — about 1/8 inch, maybe less.
Then, I said, I guess a cold rise or what, an hour or 90 minutes, egg wash and bake?
“No — no rise.”
Oh my g-d. No rise on a yeast bread? Impossible! But that also accounted for the dense texture. I was blown away. Even bagels have a short fermentation time.
Still, the truth was Cheskie’s babka was umpteen layers and none of them were particularly bready. The layers were laminated with delectable chmear and almost compressed and yet you could still count the layers (12–14). That news, along with the comment about the sheeter (i.e. roll thin as thick cardboard) and no rise seemed to be the two most cogent points. It was worth going across down to find this out, after all.
The rest, as you say, is another chapter in my personal baking history I am now delighted to share with you. This babka took a few tries (and used over 10 pounds of unsalted butter in my many attempts). I’m sure it could still be even more exact but it’s pretty darned good and pretty darned close to Cheskie’s. It’s delicious and features real butter (since it’s not pareve or non-dairy). True, it has a few steps (sugar syrup, butter crumbs, schmear) but overall, it’s easy and without a rise, it’s shorter than a regular bready babka. It’s also the perfect dough to utilize leftover apricot, mun (poppy seed) or prune hamantashen filling or almond paste.
Chewy Gooey Old Fashioned Cinnamon (and Chocoalte) Babka
Chocolate Schmear option
Chewy, Gooey, Old-Fashioned Cinnamon Baka (Chocolate Schmear Variety below)
This recipe makes two medium babka (I suggest one cinnamon and one chocolate) or three small ones. It’s sticky, sweet and not a bready, yeasty babka but a dense, chewy one. It takes relatively little yeast, is rolled very thin and no rise — but bakes up into a Jewish bakery delight.
Cinnamon Schmear * (* enough for one large, 2 medium or 3 small babkas)
2 cups sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
5 tablespoons cinnamon
3/4 unsalted butter, softened
Warm milk, if required
¾ cup water
3/4 cup sugar
Butter Crumb Topping
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup water
4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup softened butter, in chunks
1 1/3 cup warm milk
5 ½- 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, or as required
Chocolate Schmear option follows
To prepare the pans, generously spray two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray. Stack two baking sheets together and line top one with parchment paper. Place loaf pans on prepared baking sheet.
For the Cinnamon (or Chocolate Schmear, if using) place all the ingredients in a food processor and process to get a soft paste, about 1–2 minutes. If it’s very thick and not spreadable, add in a touch of warm milk. Set aside.
For the Sugar Syrup, in a one-quart pot, boil sugar and water in a small pot for 3 minutes. Cool and set aside.
For the Butter Crumb Topping, in a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, and butter. Using a fork or fingers, break butter into flour mixture until it is clumpy or in the consistency of a rough crumb topping. It doesn’t have to be even.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
For the Babka Dough, in a mixer bowl, stir together the water and yeast briefly. Add two cups of the flour on top and mix briefly. Then add eggs, sugar, salt, butter, milk and half of the remaining flour and mix. Once dough is quite thick and can be kneaded, attach the dough hook. Knead on slowest speed of mixer, dusting in more flour mix, with a wood spoon, until it is sticky, about 2 minutes. Cover and let rest 10 minutes. Then resume kneading 6–8 minutes until it is soft, smooth and holds together, dusting in more flour as required.
Generously flour a large work surface. Divide dough in half (or three or leave whole for respectively 3 small rolls or one large one). Roll out the first half very thinly (almost like strudel) 20–24 inch square. Smear with half of the Cinnamon Schmear. Very carefully, as if you were rolling a sleeping bag up in the snuggest way possible, roll the dough, jelly-roll style — trying to make 12–14 full revolutions. Repeat with remaining section of dough.
With a very sharp knife, cut each roll lengthwise almost all the way through. Twist each roll and place side by side in the loaf pan. Or shape each roll into a horseshoe, twist each roll slightly and place in loaf pan. They will be squished in but that’s ok. Brush with egg wash. (You can also roll one huge log, split horizontally in half, squish ends together and then twist the two pieces together; place in pan). Place pan (s) on baking sheet.
Brush with Egg Wash and then sprinkle on Butter Crumb Topping if you are using.
Bake 40–50 minutes until babka is well-browned and seems solid to the touch.
Remove from the oven and let cool in pan. Brush or drizzle on Sugar Syrup if desired (it might be gooey enough without it); let rest 1 hour before removing from pan.
Makes two medium babkas, three small or one very large.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ cup cocoa
Mix all ingredients in food processor until smooth. Add in warm milk if required to make it spreadable. Yield: for one small babka, double for two or three babkas or one large one.
Traditional Cinnamon Babka with Crumb Topping
Babka, no matter how you make it (since recipes vary widely) is pure heaven because it strikes just the right note of sweetness, being neither pastry nor bread. It is relatively easy to make — not as complicated as true Danish with its rolled in blocks of butter but certainly richer and moister than an average sweet dough. Unlike my recipe for the sticky, gooey babka, this recipe does take more yeast and a traditional rise before baking.
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup warm regular or 2% milk
2 drops pure almond extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened in small pieces
6 cups approximately, all-purpose flour or bread flour or half-and-half combination
Cinnamon Schmear Filling
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
2–4 teaspoons cinnamon or, for chocolate, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup chopped walnuts, optional
Egg wash (l beaten egg)
Sugar for sprinkling
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
For the dough, in the mixing bowl of a mixer, hand whisk together water and yeast. Let stand about a minute to allow yeast to dissolve. Stir in one cup of the flour called for, then the warm milk, the eggs, vanilla, almond extract, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Fold in softened butter and most of the remaining flour, holding back some until you see if you need all over it (or may have to add a bit). Mix the dough and then, with dough hook, knead on slow speed 8–10 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
Remove the dough hook from the mixer, spray the dough with non-stick cooking spray and cover the entire mixer (bowl, machine and all) with a large plastic bag.
Allow to rise until puffy, about 45–90 minutes.
For the Cinnamon Schmear Filling: In a food processor, process the butter, sugar, corn syrup, cinnamon and walnuts to make a loose paste.
For the Crumb Topping: Cut butter, confectioners’ sugar and flour together to make a crumbly topping.
Divide the dough in two equal parts. Cover with a tea towel and let rest ten minutes. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or generously grease two 9 inch spring form or layer cake pans. If making one large babka, generously butter a 10 inch tube pan. Have ready, a large baking sheet topped with a sheet of parchment paper.
On a lightly floured board, roll dough into a 16 by 16 inch square. Arrange or spread on filling of choice (variations below) all over dough surface. Roll up dough into a large jellyroll. Cut in half. Place both halves in prepared pan, beside each other — it doesn’t matter if they are a little squished. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with some sugar. Place the pans on the baking sheet and cover the entire sheet with a large plastic bag. Let rise until babka is flush or over top of pan.
Repeat with other half of dough, using a different filling or additional cinnamon filling if desired.
To use all of dough in one large babka, procedure is the same but you will be using all of dough at once. Roll dough out into a 20 inch square (instead of 16 by 16) and proceed as above. A large babka is especially dramatic but two smaller ones give you two flavor and assembly options.
Brush the babkas with the egg wash then sprinkle with Crumb Topping.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake 35–45 minutes (50–70 minutes for one large babka) until babka is medium brown. Cool pan fifteen minutes before removing to a rack or serving plate.
Makes one large or two medium babkas
If you love this recipe, you’ll love the rest of them (2500 online) at www.betterbaking.com or my cookbooks. But start with the babka. I don’t want to overwhelm you.