I love a good, yeasted cake. I ate a lot of kugelhopf, the Alsatian, sweet yeasted cake, while I was studying in France during college. I would traipse around Paris buying kugelhopf at every patisserie and would jot down my favorites, worthy of repeat visits. Babka is also a yeasted cake, and it was something I had never heard of when I was in college. It wasn’t until I was living in New York, attending culinary school in the evenings and working at an office job on Long Island during the day that I first tasted it. One particular day, Amy, a colleague of mine, brought a chocolate babka to work and declared it to be the best babka in existence. I only remember the layers of that babka and they were plentiful. The dough was super thin and wrapped itself around a gooey chocolate filling.
Classic babka, either chocolate or cinnamon flavored, abounds in New York. Go down the bakery aisle at Fairway or stop in at Dean and Deluca, and you’ll find a loaf of babka waiting to be taken home. Every Jewish bakery or appetizing store sells a version. The swirls captivate me. The more swirl, the more impressed I am. How did they do that? I needed to figure this out.
Babka, according to Gils Mark in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, originated in Poland and takes its name from the Slavic word for grandmother, babicia. It is grandmother’s cake. Originally baked in a tall fluted pan to resemble a grandmother’s skirt, classic babka is baked in a loaf pan, and its highlight is its swirled filling.
Babka has gone mainstream. No longer just a Jewish bakery staple, bakeries across the country are getting creative – laminated dough replaces the traditional, enriched dough, traditional fillings like chocolate or cinnamon are gussied up or even replaced with more luxurious fillings like nutella or speculoos. And hybrids have begun to appear – doughka, babka bun and babka ice cream sandwiches have all made appearances.
My first attempt at making babka was for a Thanksgiving special at Bouchon Bakery. I rolled a small piece of dough into an oblong shape, spread a cranberry and orange filling over it, rolled it up, and then with my bench knife, I cut down the length of roll, dividing it in half and opening up those beautiful layers. I twisted it and tucked it into a paper pan. It was festive, and I was hooked on those swirled layers.
When I began to work on the chocolate babka recipe for Sadelle’s, I turned to YouTube to improve my swirl game. I rolled the dough thinner and kept it more rectangular, making it longer and wider. I spread the filling thinner too. And I rolled up what seemed to be the tightest, biggest jellyroll. I twisted it around itself as I had seen in the video. It seemed to take a dozen trials to balance the texture and flavor of the filling with the lightness of the dough so that the dough could hold up the filling without collapsing in the center.
For this recipe for cinnamon babka, I start with a simple, enriched dough. Wet and a little gloppy while fermenting, the dough handles best when chilled completely down. The filling, made with almond paste, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, needs to be slightly warmer than room temperature in order to spread thinly over the dough without buckling the dough. I usually pop the filling into the microwave for just a few seconds to warm it up. The babka can be made in one day and I like to glaze my babka rather that apply a traditional streusel topping. Practically speaking, I like to spread my babka making out over two days, primarily for scheduling purposes.
Makes 2 loaves
447g All-purpose Flour*
220g Whole Milk
22g Fresh Yeast
88g Granulated Sugar
60g Whole Eggs
17g Egg Yolks
11g Fine Sea Salt
135g Unsalted Butter, Softened
*I use King Arthur’s All-Purpose Flour
Prepare the babka dough:
1. Place milk, eggs and yolks in the bottom of a 20-quart planetary mixer. Place flour, yeast, sugar and salt on top (reserve butter for later). With a dough hook, mix on first speed for 3 minutes, and then mix on second speed for 5 minutes. The dough will be moderately, but not fully developed. Add the butter and mix on first speed until thoroughly incorporated. Bulk ferment for one hour.
2. Add the end of one hour turn the dough gently out onto a floured work surface. Divide the dough into 500g pieces. Place the pieces onto pam-sprayed, parchment-lined baking sheet trays. Gently coax and pat the dough into even 6-inch squares. Retard until completely chilled, at least two hours or overnight.
Roll out the babka dough:
1. Working with one babka at a time (keep the rest chilled unless you are a quick worker), on a generously dusted workbench, roll out into an even 16-inch square. To do this work quickly. Use ample bench flour underneath the dough and on top. Rotate the dough frequently by 90 degrees to prevent it from sticking to the work surface. If the dough gets too sticky while working, simple chill it down again. (For reference, it takes me about two to three minutes to roll out the dough). The 16-inch squares can be separated between layers of parchment paper and then stacked in the walk-in until ready to be filled. If stacking, flour should be used underneath and on top of the square.
2. Chill all of the squares until ready to fill and shape.
80g Almond Paste
200g Light Brown Sugar
25g Ground Cinnamon
8g Fine Sea Salt
200g Unsalted Butter, Softened
Prepare the babka filling:
1. While the babka dough squares are chilling, prepare the cinnamon filling. In the bowl of a mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the almond paste, brown sugar, cinnamon and sea salt. Paddle on low speed to break up the paste.
2. Once the paste is mostly broken up, add the softened butter, and mix on low until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the honey. Do not overmix. You don’t need to add air to the filling, but you want the filling to be homogenous.
3. The filling should be kept at room temperature until ready to use. If not using right away, refrigerate and then pull the filling to let it warm up before using.
Fill and shape the babka:
1. Working with one babka at a time, remove one sheet of dough from the refrigerator. I find that pulling the parchment paper that’s underneath the babka and moving the paper and the babka sheet onto an upside down sheet tray helps to transport the babka best.
2. Check the spreadability of the filling. It needs to be very soft and spreadable. My kitchen tends to be on the cool side and so I usually microwave the filling for a few seconds and then stir and microwave again if needed.
3. With an offset spatula spread 250g of filling evenly over the surface of the babka. Work quickly lest the dough begin to warm up and spread the filling all the way to the ends of the dough.
4. Gently and quickly begin to roll up the jellyroll, rolling away from you. Once completely rolled up, pick up the roll and elongate it a little. Set it down and cut the babka roll in half so that you have two rolls, each approximately 10-inches long.
5. Spread some extra filling in the middle of one of the two rolls and place the second roll on top, as if forming the letter ‘X’. Then spread extra filling on the top roll, one-third of the way in on either side, so that there is filling between the two rolls as they are twisted together. This will help keep the layers separate. Twist the bottom roll up and over the top roll.
6. Pick up the babka with two hands and place it in a parchment-lined and oiled 9” x 4” baking pan. Repeat with the remaining babka.
Proofing and Baking:
1. Proof the babka for 1.5 to 2 hours in a warm environment until the loaves look swollen and have doubled in size.
2. Brush the tops of the loaves with egg wash and bake in 350F convection oven set to high fan for 40 minutes, rotating halfway through. (For home ovens, bake for 45 to 50 minutes at 350F).
3. Remove the babka from the pans and let cool.
113g Unsalted Butter, Melted
240g 10x Sugar
5g Ground Cinnamon
2g Fine Sea Salt
65g Whole Milk
Make the glaze while the babka are cooling:
1. Melt the butter and allow to cool just slightly. While the butter is cooling whisk together the 10x, ground cinnamon and salt.
2. Whisk the milk into the dry ingredients. Then whisk in the butter.
3. Once the glaze is made, brush over the babka.