Chocolate Babka

Week Thirty-Seven: Viennoiserie

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No, I didn’t just make babka.  That was baba.  Totally different.

Well, except for the name: “baba” is Slavic for “grandmother”, and “babka” is the diminutive form, “little grandmother”.  That bit is similar.

Oh, and there’s the fact that there is a Polish creation also called a babka, which is rather like a larger (yes, larger) version of a baba.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Have I thoroughly confused you?  Allow me to elucidate.  Baba, like the ones I made two days ago, are boozy, soused little yeast-leavened cakes.  Polish babka is bigger, shaped more like a kugelhopf, but is iced, not syrup-soaked like a baba.  Jewish babka, the bread I’m making today, isn’t a bit like either of those.

It’s essentially a marbled brioche, which is to say it’s an eggy, buttery bread, rolled up with chocolate or cinnamon inside, then twisted on itself before baking.  It toes that fine line between breakfast and dessert, maybe too sweet for one and not sweet enough for the other… or maybe it’s just right, perfectly suited for both.  (Who says you can’t have chocolate at breakfast?)

Hailing originally from Eastern Europe, babka has become a firm favorite here in the United States.  It is most commonly filled with chocolate or cinnamon, but fruit fillings are also used (and the appropriateness thereof hotly debated).  It can be topped with streusel or left plain.  Like most rich breads, it’s most commonly served at special occasions, but is most common around Hanukkah.

For this version, I’ve used both chocolate and cinnamon in the filling, since I couldn’t decide which I would prefer.  Not to mention, the combination of chocolate and cinnamon is positively enthralling; it’s absolutely one of my favorite pairings.

This bread bakes into an impossibly good loaf, not too eggy or buttery, yet as tender and moist as the finest muffin.  The bright cinnamon spice with the deep bitterness of dark chocolate swirls through each bite, rendering the idea of spreading butter or jam on a slice unthinkable.  And simply because it’s September doesn’t mean you have to wait until December to make it; babka is just as good now as it is at Hanukkah.

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Chocolate Babka
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Makes two 9 x 5 inch loaves

For the dough:
1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup cold milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon brandy (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For chocolate filling:
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft, but not melted
7 to 8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate (about 60% cacao, if marked), finely chopped

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for an egg wash

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt.  Beat together the milk, eggs, brandy (if using), and vanilla.  Add to the flour mixture.  Using the paddle attachment, mix at low speed until a rough dough forms.

2.  Increase the speed to medium-low, then beat in butter, one tablespoon-sized piece at a time.  Continue to beat until the dough is shiny and forms strands from paddle to bowl, about 4 minutes.  The dough will be very soft and sticky.

3.  Scrape the dough into a large, lightly-oiled bowl.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

4.  Line two 9 x 5 inch loaf pans with 2 pieces of parchment paper (1 lengthwise and 1 crosswise).  Mix together the sugar and cinnamon for the filling.  Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, and gently deflate.  Divide dough into two equal halves.

5.  Keeping the unused piece covered with plastic wrap, roll the other out on a well-floured surface to a rectangle about 10 x 18 inches in size.

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Gently spread 3 tablespoons of the softened butter on the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch border on one long edge.

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Brush the un-buttered edge with a little of the egg wash.

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Sprinkle half of chocolate evenly over the buttered dough.

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Sprinkle half of the cinnamon-sugar over the chocolate.

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6.  Starting with the long side that isn’t brushed with egg wash, roll the dough jelly-roll style into a long cylinder.

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Pinch the egg-washed seam to seal.

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Bring the ends of the cylinder together, forming a ring.  Pinch the ends to seal.

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Twist the ring to form a figure 8…

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…then twist two more times.

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Place in one of the prepared pans.

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7.  Repeat shaping and filling procedure with the other piece of dough.  Chill any remaining egg wash, covered, to use later.  Loosely cover pans with lightly-greased plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until the dough reaches top of pans, 1 to 2 hours.  Thirty minutes before baking, place an oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 350° F.

8.  Brush the tops of the dough with some of the remaining egg wash, taking care not to press too hard and deflate them.  Bake at 350º F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until deeply browned.  Transfer loaves to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.

Notes:
1.  Be sure to let the bread cool totally before cutting; otherwise, the crumb will not have fully set and the marbled pattern will be ruined.

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