Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Chocolate Babka

I first heard of a Babka while watching an episode of Seinfeld called "The Dinner Party." In the episode, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are all attending a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. Elaine stops by a bakery with Jerry to purchase a chocolate babka as a gift for the hostess. After waiting in line to pick up their babka, they discover a hair perched at the top of the cake and try to exchange their chocolate babka only to discover that the bakery only has cinnamon babkas remaining, as the last chocolate babka had just been purchased by another couple on their way to the same dinner party. Reluctantly, Elaine is forced to leave with a cinnamon babka, which she describes as "a lesser babka."

A Babka is a slightly sweetened yeast dough that is generously filled with a mixture of chocolate or cinnamon-sugar before being twisted, topped with a simple streusel, and baked in a high loaf pan. They were made famous by Jewish bakers in New York City, although there are other European variations that bear no resemblance to one another.

I first baked a babka with my Mom when she came to visit after Matthew was born. Paul, Mom, and I devoured the loaf between us within a 24 hour period. The flavor was so addictively chocolaty, we could not stop cutting ourselves a slice each time we passed the loaf looking so innocently enticing while perched upon the counter top. Since then, I have tried a couple different recipes and variations of the babka and each loaf has been as wonderfully delicious as the next. It is simply perfect as a breakfast treat with a strong cup of coffee. Babkas also make wonderful Christmas gifts. Paul practically cries when he sees me packaging them up as gifts. He would much rather eat all the babka by himself. I don't let him because I love him (not that I wouldn't love him as a blimp with a cholesterol problem).

After having baked and enjoyed both types of babkas, I have determined the chocolate babka to be superior to the cinnamon version. The sweet, soft bread encompassing warm, rich swirls of chocolate seals its place as the king of all babkas. And I am sure that everyone who has tried one will agree with me. Well, everyone except maybe Jerry Seinfeld:

"Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka. People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, "Oh this is so good, what's in it?" The answer invariably comes back, "Cinnamon." "Cinnamon." Again and again. Lesser babka?? I think not."

When I asked Paul what treat I should make for Saint Lucia's Day breakfast this year, he replied: "CHOCOLATE BABKA!"

In my opinion, that's the final verdict.

Chocolate Babka
adapted from Cooking Light

This is the simpler of my two favorite babka recipe. The other recipe I like to use is quite a bit more decadent and definitely more time consuming. I like the simplicity of this recipe and think that the end result is extremely rich and satisfying despite using a whopping 2 1/2 sticks of butter less than my other recipe. If you would like to try the richer babka recipe, you can find it on the Martha Stewart website.

For the Dough:
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 package active dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
3/4 cup whole milk, heated to 110 degrees
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups bread flour
5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces and softened

For the Filling:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the Streusel:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Dissolve 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and yeast in warm milk in the bowl of a stand mixer; let stand 5 minutes.

Stir in 6 tablespoons granulated sugar, vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and egg yolk. Weigh or lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour and bread flour to milk mixture; beat with dough hook attachment at medium speed until well blended (about 2 minutes). Add 5 tablespoons butter, beating until well blended. Scrape dough out onto a floured surface (dough will be very sticky). Knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes), gradually adding about 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will be very soft).

Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise 1 ½ - 2 hours or until doubled in size. Punch dough down; cover and let dough rest 5 minutes.

Line the bottom of a 9 x 5–inch loaf pan with parchment paper; coat sides of pan with cooking spray.

To prepare filling, combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, salt, and chocolate in a medium bowl; set aside.

Place dough on a generously floured surface; roll dough out into a 16-inch square. Sprinkle filling over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border around edges. Roll up dough tightly, jelly-roll fashion; pinch seam and ends to seal. Holding dough by ends, twist dough 4 times as if wringing out a towel. Fit dough into prepared pan. Cover and let rise 45-60 minutes or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare streusel, combine powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour. Cut in 2 tablespoon chilled butter until mixture is crumbly; sprinkle streusel evenly over dough. Bake at 350° for 40-50 minutes or until loaf is browned on bottom and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool bread in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack before removing from pan. Cool bread completely on wire rack before slicing.

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