The Saga of the Babka

The first time I ever made babka, I was in summer camp in the Catskills and we had a baking activity (because nice religious girls have to know how to bake for their husbands of course) and we learned how to make challah, chocolate cake and other traditional delicacies. One of the other things we learned was babka. Babka is a traditional Jewish yeast cake that is often served on Shabbat morning.

I used to make the babka recipe that I got from camp for a while, but it was a huge “patchke” (effort).  The recipe also called for over a whole pound of butter/margarine which is a bit much for me, and you had to let the dough rise for six or seven hours total which basically takes up a whole day.  Also, the recipe is on a paper inside the cover of one of my mom’s cookbooks, and not in Israel with me. I more or less forgot about it and that was that for many years. (That wasn’t much of a saga, was it? I guess in my mind, I added on all the years in between into the story.)

Chopped Walnuts
Chopped Walnuts

Last week was Shavuot and though the entire holiday is so dairy-centric, i was asked to make a non-dairy dessert for dinner.  I had no idea what to make.  Not even the slightest idea. So I pulled out one of my first cookbooks, The Perfect Cake, that was given to me by a classmate in high school. In high school I had a thing where I made a cake for everyone in my grade’s birthday.  We are not talking about fancy cakes here, but basic yellow cakes, maybe with chocolate chips or something. In twelfth grade, one of my classmates gave the book to me as a present but it has not gotten as much use as it should have.

Adding the dates.
Adding the dates.

So during my dessert decision making I pulled out this cookbook so that it wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was in the mood for a yeasted cake for some reason, and I had a package of yeast that needed to be used up before it expired. The Perfect Cake is basically a cookbook that provides basic recipes for various kinds of cakes – yeast, sponge, genoise, cheesecake, etc. and then a whole bunch of variations and flavorings. The recipe for the basic yeasted cake also came with a richer variation besides all the optional fillings. I went for the richer variation because I was worried that the dough might be dry, and as the cake was not going to be served with coffee, I wanted it on the moister side. What I most did not want was a recipe that would require more than two hours of total rising time because we had to leave to our friends’ by noon.  (We ended up being a bit late anyway as Rocker Dude had to paint the Little Rocker’s nails – fingers and toes! She wanted alternating pink and purple on her fingers and alternating green and blue on her toes.  It looked great!)

Cutting the roll to expose the filling.
Cutting the roll to expose the filling.

The dough was easy to mix up and did not have a whole pound of margarine, it rose really nicely and was easy to roll out.  The filling was another decision.  I like cinnamon babka best.  This hearkens back to the days when I did not like chocolate at all (what?!?!?) and I would not eat chocolate cakes or anything.  The only exception was Hershey’s and Reese’s.  Since then my tastes have matured somewhat and my father can again claim me as his daughter (He is a chocolate person.  One of his favorite ice creams is Death by Chocolate.) But for the babka I decided to go cinnamon anyway. I filled it the way I normally fill cinnamon buns, and rolled up the dough.  In retrospect, I should have used more filling because it was kind of lost in the dough.

One roll all done!
One loaf all done!

Instead of following the shaping instructions in the book, though, I followed the instructions on the back of the yeast package. I know, I am such a rebel. Basically, instead of just twisting two rolls together, I made one roll, and then cut it in half down the middle.  This gave me two half rolls of many layers.  Then I twisted these together and put them in the pan. I think it helps the filling get out and makes the cake a bit more appealing.

Two loaves ready to go.
Two loaves ready to go.

After this cake working out, but the filling not making me happy, I made the dough again and tried different fillings.  I made a date nut filling for the Little Rocker’s friend’s birthday party, a brown sugar and cinnamon that is now in the freezer, and a chocolate (yes Abba, a chocolate) that has since been completely finished. I used a lot of margarine before putting on the fillings and that definitely helped make the cakes a bit gooey-er. Rocker Dude did not want to even try the date-nut babka as it had nuts, and he does not get nuts in food. He is just unclear why they have to be there in the first place. I loved it.  We had organic barhi dates that I had ordered a few weeks ago from our csa and they were super-sweet. That version was a success.  A bit messy, but a success.

All done
All done

I made the brown sugar one and I enjoyed that one a lot, so did Rocker Dude. A basic sweet dough with a sweet filling. The chocolate was an afterthought as after the two loaves I still had some extra dough.  I didn’t want to just take chocolate spread and use that as a filling because I thought it was kind of a cop-out, so I mixed cocoa and sugar (you know, so it would be sweet), and sprinkled that over the melted margarine. Rocker Dude asked to use for filling.  He said that there should be so much filling that he has to lick it off his fingers. He has a point.

Three kinds of babka - top right - brown sugar, bottom - chocolate, and top left- date-nut.
Three kinds of babka – top right – brown sugar, bottom – chocolate, and top left- date-nut.

While this is not a quick recipe, it is simple and just requires some rising time.

P.S. I just finished watching the first season of Nashville, and who knew that Hayden Panettiere could sing?? Also the two main characters keep doing the stupidest things – so frustrating!! Can’t wait for the next season :).

Recipe:

Dough:
1/2 cup warm water
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 oz. active dry yeast, or 25 grams fresh yeast
1/3 cup honey
1 tsp. salt
1 cup yogurt or soymilk with a little vinegar
2 eggs
1 tsp. grated lemon or orange zest
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 butter or margarine, melted and cooled to room temp.
4 to 6 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

Egg Wash:
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. water

In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, sugar and yeast. Let sit for five minutes until the mixture looks bubbly (if you are using fresh yeast, then you don’t have to wait). Add the other ingredients except for the flour. Whisk until blended.  Add in the flour, one cup at a time until the dough forms a soft ball. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for a few minutes adding flour as needed to prevent sticking. When the dough feels smooth, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours.

The dough can be refrigerated at this point overnight. Bring to room temperature before continuing with the recipe.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When the dough is finished rising, divide into three parts. Roll the first piece of dough out to 1/4 inch thickness.  Using a pastry brush, generously brush the dough with some melted butter. Sprinkle on the desired filling (recipes below). Roll up the dough lengthwise into a tight roll. Slice the roll down the middle with a sharp knife. Twist the two halves together, with the cut sides facing out. Place in a 9×5 inch loaf pan or in a 9×13 inch pan (with room for another one). Brush with egg wash.

Let rise again for forty minutes or so, until not quite doubled in bulk. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake sounds hollow when you tap on it. Cool on a wire rack.

Fillings:

Chocolate Filling:1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup sugar

Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Filling:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon

Date-Nut Filling:1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped
8 dates (I used barhi dates), pitted and finely chopped

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