Chocolate Babka

Well. Are we having fun yet? This week I feel, more than usual, like a bug smashed on the windshield of world events.

Usually the cure for stress is to take a bath or read a book on the couch. But sometimes all you want to do is whip your phone at the wall like a dodgeball, which is when you have to get up and take a walk.

Kierkegaard says there’s no bad mood a long walk can’t cure, and I also say this. Some weeks, though, you can’t go anywhere. Some weeks you get bee-booped by the government on your COVID app and you have to self-isolate for 14 days (I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine.)

So you find yourself wearing an apron over a nightgown over a hoodie over a different nightgown and thinking, “Yeah! This is what people wear! Let’s make some brioche.”

the top nightgown is technically an oversized sweater-dress – I call her the slanket and she is precious to me

Welcome to Babka Club.

The first rule of Babka Club is don’t back down. Remember how dough can smell fear? This is that dough. Don’t worry, though, you’re tougher than she is. Sometimes you need to work out your angst on a worthy opponent, and then, unlike with actual fighting, you get to eat a soft, fragrant slice of chocolate-laced brioche at the end.

(I’m kidding – the actual first rule of Babka Club is have fun and do your best. I’m proud of you, champ.)

Most chocolate baked goods (including most chocolate cakes, shhhh) don’t taste like chocolate. They taste like Brown, which I think of as the bakery version of how cough syrup tastes Red. Is it even a marble cake if the two competing flavors are “margarine” and “Hint O’Tootsie Rolls”? Yuck.

Remember last week when I got mad about how coffee cakes don’t taste like coffee? Babka is the only coffee cake with rights.

Have you ever wanted challah and a chocolate croissant to have a torrid, steamy love affair and then you get to eat their beautiful child? Have you ever wanted a sliceable bread that was essentially already bread pudding? How do I make this clear: babka is everything to me. It’s not trying to be “chocolate-flavored”. It just is full-on chocolate.

You mix together a basic brioche dough, let it rise overnight, roll it out thin and spread it with a sweet chocolate paste. You then do some complex dough origami, let it rise again, and bake it. This should be enough intellectually-stimulating and labor-intensive activity to fool anyone’s fight-or-flight response, especially because there will be not one but SEVERAL points during this process when everything will have seemed to have gone very wrong.

The chocolate paste will be too thick, and clump up, or too thin, and go everywhere. The brioche dough: what a bitch. You still haven’t bought a rolling pin and so have to improvise at the last second (read: use your full water bottle and hope for the best.)  The dough rips, the slices aren’t even, the layers fan open too far, nothing seems to have risen, everything is a nightmare, chuck it all in the bin.

Do NOT chuck it all in the bin.

Believe me when I say that I have often despaired of these little loaves, and they have never let me down. They come out of the oven beautifully bronzed, with white fluffy interiors lightly scented with the citrus of your choosing, laced through with melting ribbons of deep, sweet chocolate ooze. They also look bammin’ slammin’ in your Instagram photos, which I realize is not the point but is still a good thing.

As the great Fran Lebowitz says in episode 5 of Pretend It’s a City, (which you should just go watch already):

“People want to challenge themselves. This is a big thing that people say all the time: ‘I want to challenge myself.’ These challenges are fake! Climbing a mountain is a fake challenge. You don’t have to climb a mountain. There are many things that people have to do and should do, that they don’t do, because they’re scared to do or because they’re bad at it—those are challenges. A challenge is something you have to do. Not something you make up.”

Is she right? Sure. Am I substituting the fake challenge that is babka for the real, frightening challenges that face us in real life? Yes. But maybe the fake challenge is a kind of practice for the real thing, where getting something really good out of imperfect effort is better than not trying at all. We all want to be the kind of person who can make an effortless babka, or at least eat one. To get to eat the babka, though, unfortunately, you do first have to make it.

CHOCOLATE BABKA

This recipe comes from Smitten Kitchen by way of Ottolenghi, which is a pedigree of people I trust to care about whether things taste good. I tried to do a twist on it where I added a teaspoon each of cinnamon and cardamom, and half a teaspoon of chili powder, to the chocolate paste to try to make it Warm and Spicy. Also, to try to make it look like I wasn’t just straight-up copying Deb’s homework, which I totally was (thanks Deb love you Deb you’re the best Deb!)

Did it work? Not even a little bit. (Molly says it tasted like the chocolate went to a Christmas party at some point). For the expense? Not worth it. But watch this space, because my heart does want there to be a cinnamon-spice version of this. Also with nuts. And chocolate chips.

Makes: 2 loaf-sized chocolate babkas

Time: Forever. Like, 2 days.

INGREDIENTS:

Dough
4 1/4 cups (530 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
Grated zest of 1 small lemon or half an orange
3 large eggs
1/2 cup water and up to 1 to 2 tablespoons extra, if needed
3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (150 grams or 5.3 ounces) at room temperature
Sunflower or other neutral oil, for greasing

Filling
4 1/2 ounces (130 grams) dark chocolate (or approximately 3/4 cup chocolate chips)
1/2 cup (120 grams) unsalted butter, cold is fine
Scant 1/2 cup (50 grams) powdered sugar
1/3 cup (30 grams) cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I think this is great, but you don’t have to)

Syrup
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar

METHOD:

For the Dough:

  1. Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl. If you have a stand mixer, thank your lucky stars and do it in that. If not, “don’t worry.”
  2. Add eggs and 1/2 cup water, mixing until it comes together; this may take a couple minutes. It’s okay if it’s on the dry side, but if it doesn’t come together at all, add extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass.
  3. With “the mixer” on low, add the salt, then the butter, a spoonful at a time, mixing until it’s incorporated into the dough. If you have a mixer, skip the next step.
  4. FELLOW PEONS: knead the salt in with your hands. Then, turn out onto a clean board (NO FLOUR) and knead small chunks of butter into it gradually over the course of 10 or so minutes. The dough will go from being craggy and thick to being very soft, sticky, and elastic. If you’re not used to loose doughs, it will be terrifying, but screw your courage to the sticking place, and by “sticking place” I mean “your counter.” The kneading technique you use for loose doughs will be familiar if you’ve hand-kneaded sourdough: it is the legendary Slap ‘n’ Fold. Basically, you grab the dough in the middle, lift it up so it hangs down vertically from your hands, slap it down, and fold it back on itself. Grab the dough from the top/bottom, twist and slap down again. Keep doing that, even as it sticks to the counter, trust that everything you’re leaving behind will eventually re-incorporate. As you go, the butter will meld into the rest of the dough, and then you pinch off more, a tablespoon or so at a time, and knead it in until it’s all incorporated. If you feel like you’re leaving a critical mass of dough on the counter every time you lift it, a bench scraper can be really handy. In fact, I’d say not to attempt this without a bench scraper, because you’re going to have to scrape the dough off the counter and into a bowl to rise.
  5. IF you have a stand mixer, mix on medium speed for 10 minutes until dough is completely smooth; you’ll need to scrape the bowl down a few times. After 10 minutes, the dough should begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  6. Coat a large bowl with oil and place dough inside, cover with plastic and refrigerate. Leave in fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight. [Dough will not fully double, so don’t fret if it doesn’t look like it grew by more than half.] You can also leave it at room temperature for 3 hours, but I can’t imagine doing this whole thing in one day. I need the overnight break timeout in order to avoid a full tantrum. But you might be mentally tougher than I am.

For the filling:

  1. Melt butter and chocolate together until smooth.
  2. Stir in powdered sugar, and cocoa and cinnamon; mixture should form a spreadable paste. It should be about Nutella-texture. If it’s too stiff, it’ll clump up on the cold dough in the next step. If it’s too loose, it’ll squeeze out when you roll up the loaf. So I err on the side of stiffness – my last batch was super clumpy, and it just did not matter in the slightest once the loaves were baked.

Assemble!

  1. Coat two 9-by-4-inch (2 1/4 or 1kg) loaf pans with oil or butter, and line the bottom of each with a rectangle of parchment paper.
  2. Take half of dough from fridge (leave the other half chilled).
  3. Roll out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches. Basically, it should be as wide as your forearm, elbow to fingertips, (a cubit!) and as long as you have room for on your counter. It should be about 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch thick.
  4. The key to rolling out sticky doughs is this: Always Be Flipping. After you’ve given it a few rolls, flip it over and give it a quarter turn before rolling in a new direction. Never let it get too comfortable – this will help you remember to roll it evenly and will stop it sticking because each side is staying floured.
  5. Spread half of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. (or the one closest to you, if it’s wider. I always end up with a triangle, and roll the tip of the triangle into the base.)
  6. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log. (Just squish it and hope for the best. It’s not going to stick anyway. It doesn’t matter. Whatever.) Transferring the log to a lightly floured baking tray in the fridge or freezer for 10 to 15 minutes would make it much, much easier to cut cleanly in half, if you have the space. Repeat with second dough.
  7. Trim last 1/2-inch off each end of the log.
  8. Cut the log in half lengthwise and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. Lift one side over the next, forming a twist and trying to keep the cut sides facing out.
  9. This is the point at which you will think “screw this, I hate this, why am I doing this.” It’s fine. Just squish it into the loaf pan as best you can, and stuff the ends you cut off into whatever empty space you can. The dough will fill in any gaps by the time it’s done rising and baking, so don’t worry.
  10. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise another 1 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. Repeat process with second loaf.

BAKE:

  1. Heat oven to 375°F (190°C).
  2. Remove towels and place each loaf on the middle rack of your oven.
  3. Bake for 30 minutes, but there’s no harm in checking for doneness at 25 minutes. A skewer inserted into an under-baked babka will feel stretchy/rubbery inside and may come back with dough on it. When fully baked, you’ll feel almost no resistance. If your babka needs more time, put it back, 5 minutes at a time then re-test. If it browns too quickly, you can cover it with foil.
  4. While babkas are baking, make the syrup: Bring sugar and water to a simmer until sugar dissolves.
  5. Remove from heat and set aside to cool somewhat.
  6. As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush all of the syrup over both loaves. It will seem like too much, but will taste just right. Let cool about halfway in pan, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way before eating.

Babkas keep for a few days at room temperature, unless you walk into the kitchen one day and you’ve gone from 1 and 2/3 babkas to ½ of a babka overnight. What I’m saying is, get it while you can.

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