I spent the first seven years of my life in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, and that has helped to form not just my tastes but my memories (real or imagined) of tastes.
We went to New York City frequently, and I remember going to Chinatown for Chinese food, and to Greenwich Village for the spiciest chili I had had in my entire seven year-old life (I tried to tone it down with water, then sugar, until it was a mess and I was allowed to stop eating it). In Jewish delis, we had matzo ball soup, to this day my favourite soup ever. We had pastries and doughnuts and cookies of all sorts. But as far as I can recall, I never had a babka.
So why does this babka bring it all flooding back? The taste is so evocative, so reminiscent of my childhood, that I can’t believe we didn’t have a babka every Sunday! It’s comforting, and chocolate-y without being too sweet. The crumb is moist but borders on dry by the third day, and yet that is perfect as well. It goes as brilliantly with a cup of coffee as it does with a glass of milk, and I’m sure it would be delicious with a glass of sweet wine. The cinnamon in it reminds me of the coffee cakes my mom used to buy, but without the dreaded raisins that my sister loved and I loved to toss out.
In other words, it’s everything I want a breakfast cake to be and everything that I ever imagined it was. It kind of sounds like true love.
Adapted from Waitrose Kitchen; Makes one enormous babka, or two slightly more reasonable-sized ones
Babka means grandmother in Polish. There is speculation that it is so named because the swirls are reminiscent of the folds of a granny’s skirts. But I like to think that it is because this cake is so comforting and homey and like a big smiley hug, especially when you cut into it and see the beautiful happy swirls of chocolate nut filling.
This is not a sentence I say very often, but I’m not usually all that enthused about chocolate with bread. I like this one though, because it is not too sweet. The original recipe calls for a mix of milk chocolate and dark chocolate, but I went for all dark, with no complaints from anyone with a sweet tooth. Not that I know anyone like that around here…
The original recipe uses hazelnuts, but we had a guest with an allergy so I used almonds instead. I blanched them myself, but I don’t know if this step is even necessary for the final outcome. If you need instructions about blanching almonds, see here.
There are a lot of steps involved in this, but all of them are easy to do. Plus, you can make this cake in one day, or stretch it over two so that it comes out of the oven with just enough cooling time for a late breakfast/brunch. Instructions for both are below.
For the dough:
- 500g white flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 75g dark brown sugar
- 2.5 tsp instant yeast
- 125ml whole milk, warmed to body temperature
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 150g unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
For the filling:
- 200g blanched almonds, toasted
- 300g dark chocolate, chopped (I used chips with 76% cocoa content)
- 150ml whole milk
- 3 TB cocoa powder
- 1.5 tsp cinnamon
- 3 TB honey
For the glaze:
- 75g brown sugar
- 75ml water
Put all the dry ingredients for the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer. Attach a dough hook and, with the mixer running, pour in the milk and then the beaten eggs. Then add the pieces of butter and continue running the mixer for 8-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth. (You can do all this by hand if you prefer – simply mix it all in a big bowl and then knead in the butter by hand, and continue kneading until smooth.) Cover the bowl with cling film, and leave the dough to rise for about 2 hours or until it has doubled in volume. If your house is chilly, like mine, this step might take a little longer!)
When the dough is almost ready, make the filling. Put the almonds in the food processor and whiz until they are chopped. Remove 50g of the chopped almonds and set aside with 200g of the chocolate. Now put the rest of the filling ingredients into the food processor with the remaining almonds, and blend until smooth. Set aside.
Knock back the dough and knead briefly on a floured surface. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until you have a rectangle about 60cm x 40cm. The dough is quite oily, so you shouldn’t need any flour on the rolling pin, but if you run into trouble and it helps, by all means add some.
Once the dough is rolled out, spread the filling over the entire surface, then scatter the remaining nuts and chocolate over the top. Starting at a long end, roll the dough up quite firmly into a log. Slice the log lengthwise in half, so that the two sides are lying cut side up in front of you.
Keeping the cut sides as exposed as possible, lay one side over the other and continue until you have created one long twist. If any of the filling falls out, stuff it back in wherever you feel it needs it.
At this point you have two options. One is to make a huge babka, which is what I did. Simply take your twisted dough and arrange it into a circle on a parchment-lined baking sheet. The other option is to make two smaller ones: cut the twist in half and gently arrange, with the twisted cuts facing up, in two greased baking tins.
If you would like to bake the babka the next morning, cover it loosely with cling film and leave in the fridge overnight. Take it out about 2 hours before you want to bake it. Then follow the steps below.
Alternatively, leave the babka at room temperature, and when it has doubled in size, place it in a 170C/350F oven and bake for 40 minutes. It should be golden brown on top; if it starts to brown too much, cover the top loosely with foil and continue baking until it is done. It should be firm all the way around, with no doughy bits obvious in the centre. If in doubt, overbaking is preferable to underbaking.
When you remove the babka from the oven, make the glaze. Put the sugar and water on to boil for 2 minutes, then brush the liquid over the hot babka. Wait 15 minutes and continue with the remaining glaze. Waitrose Kitchen recommends leaving the babka to cool completely, which we did because I finished baking it at 10:00 pm. If you finish baking yours earlier in the day, good luck with that piece of advice.