I first tried babka at Honey & Co. In their little restaurant on Warren Street, its white walls and plants whisking customers away from smoggy London to a momentary respite of sun-dappled tranquillity, there is a counter laden with tempting cakes and pastries. After a memorable meal, stuffed to the gills and discovering a new level of discomfort in my belly, I still managed to eat a whole slice of chocolate hazelnut babka on my way home. This time will forever be known as the Babka Incident and it’s my go-to thought, a private joke between me and that cheeky piece of babka, any time I’m full but won’t stop eating.
Dubiously described by Honey & Co as a ‘yeast cake’, I must reinforce to you dear reader that a babka is so much more. Should I call it a sweet bread? A brioche? My shameful vice? All these words or phrases I can use simply don’t do it justice. Its enriched bread dough is lined with sweet spread, traditionally jam or cinnamon, then layered and folded like squidgy origami, and was a method for using scraps of challah dough within the Jewish diaspora of 19th century Eastern Europe. Little did they know, their method would one day – in the sadly childish vernacular of the modern world – break the internet. Babkas are now everywhere; sweet, savoury, and are the base for new inventions of pizza-babka, sourdough-babka and doughnut-babka.
Now, my Babka Incident was three years ago and I still think about it.
What with lockdown and all this time to get up to mischief, or more suitably, sitting looking at my laptop (a great story to tell the grandchildren), I thought now is the time to attempt the food that I couldn’t stop eating even when it was physically difficult.
There are hundreds of differing recipes for babkas. The filling is your choice, a topic I will get to in a moment, yet I was surprised to see so many variations of the dough.
Honey & Co. say to mix all your ingredients together to make a dough, easy peasy, then leave it in the fridge overnight (!) which isn’t ideal if you’re craving babka now. On the other hand Paul Hollywood doesn’t even prove his before rolling. Other recipes make a fuss about feeding in the butter like it’s a brioche, a mere molecule at a time, while others are fairly relaxed and bung it all in at once.
So finding the perfect dough is one of the reasons why I made two.
One of the reasons. The other reason is because I’m greedy.
I made the two babkas: 1) which I proved for two hours in the kitchen then put it in a covered bowl overnight in the fridge (which conveniently fell on a day I was hella busy so making babka was not as essential as it would be otherwise) and 2) a dough with just a two-hour prove, then an hour’s chilling to firm the dough.
The results are in.
My favourite dough, by far, was the one I used the same day. The crumb was light and fluffy; the bread had puffed up, spilling over the edges of the pan. It was soft yet chewy, while the other, albeit delicious was slightly denser and more solid.
As for your chosen fillings – your only limit is your imagination! The internet is full of incredible creations – apple crumble, rhubarb and custard, sesame seed – and I had almost too much fun playing around with ideas. In the end I chose cinnamon, chocolate and espresso, and vanilla frangipane, apricot and almond.
During the experiment, I found that a butter-based filling softened as the babka proved, as with my mocha babka. Therefore it was much more prone to leakage as it baked. Next time I will chill the proved dough for 30 minutes before egg washing and putting it in the oven.
Two babkas in two days was a feat of some doing, and my cardigan got the worst of it, so I will reward that with a wash and myself with a slice of apricot and almond. And probably another when I’m really full after dinner.
Babka – with two different flavours!
Ingredients for 1 babka loaf
- 330 g strong plain flour
- 40 g sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 2 tsp dried yeast
- 85 ml milk
- 1 egg
- 90 g unsalted butter
Cinnamon, chocolate and espresso filling
- 100 g unsalted butter
- 120 g sugar
- 80 g milk chocolate finely chopped
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 shot of espresso
Apricot and almond filling
- 100 g unsalted butter
- 100 g sugar
- Seeds of ½ vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract – keep your empty vanilla pod afterwards!
- 2 eggs
- 140 g ground almonds
- 75 g plain flour
- A splash of milk
- 5 tbsp apricot jam stir first to soften it
- 50 g flaked almonds
Quick sugar syrup
- 100 g sugar
- 100 ml water
- 1 tsp honey
- The empty ½ vanilla pod you used earlier, if you want
The babka dough:
- Using a food mixer with a dough hook, or in a bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt. Heat the milk until lukewarm (test it by dipping in your (clean) finger) and add the dried yeast. Stir to dissolve and pour it into the dry mix.
- Add the egg and butter, a small chunk at a time, letting each piece incorporate into the dough which should form a ball and come away from the sides of the bowl. Knead it for 5 minutes on medium speed, or by hand for 10 minutes, until smooth and soft.
- Place it in a greased bowl and cover with cling film or a clean tea towel then leave it in a warm room for two hours to rise.
- Next, put it in the fridge for an hour so the dough can become firm before you roll it out.
- While waiting, grease a 2lb loaf tin with butter and line the base and the top and bottom sides with baking parchment, making sure you have a few centimetres of overhang so you can get the babka out!
- Meanwhile, make your chosen filling:
Cinnamon, chocolate and espresso filling:
- Put the butter and sugar in a saucepan and let the butter melt and dissolve the sugar. Stir in the chocolate, cocoa powder, cinnamon and espresso until it is smooth and combined. Leave at room temperature to cool before use.
Apricot and almond filling:
- Using an electric whisk, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat again to combine. Pour in the almonds and flour and stir together until smooth, adding a little milk if the mixture is too stiff to spread.
Assembling the babka:
- Roll your prepared dough into a long rectangle measuring roughly 30 by 50cm. Dough doesn’t always go in the direction you want so patch it up here and there when necessary.
- Spread with a layer of your chosen filling – if trying the apricot filling, first spread thickly with frangipane (you won’t need all of it) then top with the jam, then 40g flaked almonds.
- Gently fold over one of the long sides by a centimetre then roll it all the way until it makes a long sausage.
- Now, using a sharp knife (not a serrated one as it will drag) carefully cut it in half lengthways. You will see layers of filling and dough inside.
- Place one half over the other in the centre, creating a floppy cross. Gently cross the strands of the bottom half, then the top half.
- Carefully lift the braid and squash it into the loaf tin. It will fit! It just takes determination.
- Leave the babka to prove for an hour or two – it will noticeably fill out the tin. If making the mocha babka, pop it in the fridge once proved to set the filling.
- Preheat the oven to 210°C/190°C fan/410°F. Bring it to temperature and, if you want, brush the babka with a bit of egg wash. For the apricot babka, sprinkle with the remaining flaked almonds and place on a baking tray.
- Bake in the centre of the oven for 10 minutes, then turn it around and bake for another 10 minutes so it cooks evenly. Lower the temperature and bake it for a final 15-20 minutes at 190°C/170°C fan/375°F.
- While it is baking make the quick sugar syrup: put everything a saucepan and bring to the boil over medium-high heat. Let it bubble for a minute then turn off the heat and leave it to cool.
- At last, when your babka emerges from the oven, baste it with sugar syrup which should sizzle and hiss very satisfactorily.
- Leave it to cool in the tin (I know, more waiting!) as it will fall apart if you remove it while warm. When it is finally ready, slide a knife around the edge of the tin and lift it out with the baking paper.