The classic loaf I had been teaching for years is a really good babka. But it's not The Babka of the Hour. Babka, it should be explained, is a sweet yeast bread, like cake. Its dough is richer than that of a cinnamon bun but not as rich as Danish dough. It features a sticky, gooey, addictive filling of cinnamon sugar or chocolate sugar spread and either a glossy glaze or a crumb topping - or both.
Lately, babka has been getting its due online at various sites and blogs, perhaps prompted by the glorious cover shot on Food & Wine in January. Once that magazine put babka front and center, it seemed like a trend you'd want in on.
Thing is, the babka recipe in those features, including the one I was used to making, is the same one your grandmother might have preened over and passed down until it achieved family legend status. That babka is amazing in its own right and one of those things that's great fresh, almost better toasted and not unlike the one many bakeries produce. Variations or derivatives of it are everywhere: Greek Easter breads, Italian panettone and Russian kulich. Which brings us to some history notes: All indications point to babka's roots as Central European - at least that's the cinnamon connection. The word "babcia" (BAHB-cha) itself is Polish for "grandmother"; lots of folks contend that puffy babkas recall a grandmother's pleated, voluminous skirts. And although the bread seems tethered to Jewish bakeries, it is not baked for any particular Jewish celebration. Babka is as welcome at a Yom Kippur break-fast as it is at a brunch spread for a bris.
Chocolate babka is more of a mid-20th-century invention, purported to be descended from chocolate-making Spanish Jews who fled Spain around the time of the Inquisition. My baker's instinct favors another possibility: that baking in central Europe collided with France, because to me, chocolate babka has a strong connection to pain au chocolat. Of course, these days beyond the cinnamon-babka-vs.-chocolate rivalry (the "Seinfeld" Dinner Party episode comes to mind), there's poppy seed, cheese, almond, prune and Nutella. But I digress.
Happily, all Jewish baking seems to be getting a new glance. Clearly, the style of babka that inspired swoons was the chewy, sticky, dense, impossibly sweet one you can get only at some bakeries. Where I live, the best babka, bar none, is made at Montreal's kosher Boulangerie Cheskie. And that is where this particular babka adventure took off.
Can you make Cheskie's babka? a friend asked. It's the best.
I bought one to do reconnaissance in my own kitchen. Hefty and redolent of industrial baker's cinnamon (i.e., sweet and hot), Cheskie babka is sold by the hunk - that is, by weight - at about $6 per pound. It features multiple coiled layers and is indeed sweeter than a typical babka, dense with so much cinnamon or chocolate schmear that you have to sit down to savor it. (Also at Cheskie: a Russian babka, cut into squares, that comes in a cheese variety, too.)
A Cheskie babka rarely makes it home untouched; people tug and pull at it in their cars. There isn't a pervasive sense of butter in this yeasted loaf because it's pareve, a.k.a. dairy-free. But the texture is remarkable and the sheer heft is impressive. Leftovers - mostly a result of my studying the loaf scientifically at my house - lasted for a week without going stale. I considered it a testimony to the shellacking of baker's sugar syrup, not to mention the cinnamon schmear bonding both interior and exterior of the luscious pastry.
Begrudgingly, I conceded that it was different from my babka. And maybe better. I like them both, though, and love a challenge. After all, I invented Matzoh Buttercrunch and figured out a way to re-create Montreal-style bagels and New York's H&H bagels. I could make this babka.
I called Cheskie and explained my quest. The woman I spoke with generously invited me to the crew's early-morning baking to watch and learn, albeit with one condition: "No recipe."
Fine by me; intel on the bakery's technique was what I was after. Upon arrival, I spent a good half-hour waiting, perusing the cases filled with black-and-white cookies, giant sprinkle cookies, Danish, challah, strudel and other mouthwatering goodies. The employee - whom I'll call Ms. Cheskie, honoring her request for anonymity - came out at last and told me politely: no. They had rethought the idea and would not grant me access to the production area. But she said she would offer a few technical notes.
"First, roll it thin on the sheeter," she said.
A sheeter is a huge, standard commercial bakery machine that makes phyllo dough out of anything. That thin. A sheeter? That was news.
"Yes, on the sheeter."
Ms. Cheskie carefully folded a nearby paper envelope on the counter in half, maybe once more and showed me. It was about 1/8 inch, maybe less.
Then I asked: A cold rise or what, an hour or 90 minutes, egg wash and bake? "No," Ms. Cheskie said. No rise."
On a yeast bread! That also accounted for the dense texture. Truth is, Cheskie babka has swirls upon swirls of schmear. The layers are not especially bready and are almost compressed; I counted 12 to 14 of them.
The bakery notes paid off, and I am delighted to share the results. The accompanying babka recipe is the outcome of attempts that took more than 10 pounds of unsalted butter to produce. I'm sure it could still be even more exact, but it's pretty darned close to Cheskie's. (If you want yours to be pareve, by the way, you'll have to use oil or shortening.)
Mine is not pareve or non-dairy; original babkas most likely were butter-based as well. It has a few components: a sugar (simple) syrup, streusel crumbs and either a cinnamon or chocolate schmear. Overall, though, the recipe's easy, and less time-consuming to make than a bready babka because of that "no rise." I'm thinking that the dough, rolled out so thin, would be a perfect vehicle for almond paste or my leftover hamantaschen fillings. But that's another story.
OLD-FASHIONED CINNAMON BABKA
Serves 16 to 20 (Makes 3 small loaves, 2 medium loaves or one very large loaf) The rolled doughs won't look like they are big enough to fill the pan, but they will bake up to a nice size.
You'll need three 8-by-4 1/2-inch pans (for small loaves); two 9-by-5-inch pans (for medium loaves); or one 12-by-5-inch pan (for the large loaf, available via KingArthur.com and other commercial bakers' suppliers online). Use a conventional, not convection, oven.
Marcy Goldman uses a combination of different ground cinnamons: Saigon, cassis and Costco brand.
See the chocolate schmear VARIATION, below.
MAKE AHEAD: Wrap the baked babka in wax paper and place it in an untied plastic bag; store at room temperature for up to 5 or 6 days. The babka (unbaked or baked) can be frozen for up to 3 months; defrost the unbaked babka overnight in the refrigerator.
For the cinnamon schmear
- 2 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
- 1 cup confectioners' sugar
- 5 tablespoons ground cinnamon (see headnote)
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 large egg yolks
- Regular or low-fat milk, at room temperature, as needed
For the simple syrup
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup water
For the butter crumb topping
- 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
- 1/2 cup King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the dough
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast, preferably SAF brand
- 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, or more as needed, plus more for the work surface
- 5 large eggs, plus 1 beaten egg for brushing
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks
- 1 1/3 cups regular or low-fat milk, at room temperature
For the cinnamon schmear: Combine the granulated and confectioners' sugars, the ground cinnamon, butter and egg yolks in a food processor; puree for 1 to 2 minutes to form a soft paste. If it's too thick to spread easily, add the milk in small increments, as needed, and pulse to incorporate. Transfer to a bowl.
For the simple syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cook for 3 minutes without stirring. Let it cool.
For the butter crumb topping: Whisk together the confectioners' sugar and flour in a mixing bowl. Use a fork or your clean fingers to work the butter into the flour mixture until it is clumpy or has the consistency of a rough crumb topping, with big and little pieces.
For the dough: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stack two rimmed baking sheets, then line the top one with parchment paper. Generously grease the loaf pan(s) with cooking oil spray and line with parchment paper, if desired, then place the pan(s) on the top baking sheet.
Whisk together the water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cover completely with 2 cups of the flour, then add the eggs, granulated sugar, salt, butter, milk and half of the remaining flour. Beat on low speed to form a thick, sticky mass, then switch to a dough hook. Beat on the lowest speed for 6 to 8 minutes, adding enough of the remaining flour to form a soft, sticky dough.
(You'll have used about two-thirds of the flour by this point). Let it rest for 10 minutes in the bowl.
After it rests, beat again on low speed for 6 to 8 minutes, adding the remaining flour as needed to form a smooth, elastic dough that holds together and mostly gathers around the dough hook.
Generously flour a work surface. Divide the dough in half. Roll out one portion to a very thin, almost strudel-like square measuring 20 to 24 inches on all sides.
Check the spreadability of the cinnamon schmear; if it has firmed up, stir in enough milk to make it easy to spread. Gently spread half of the schmear evenly over the rolled-out dough, to the edges. Very carefully, as if you were tightly rolling up a sleeping bag, begin pushing the edge of the dough that's closest to you, jelly-roll style; you're aiming for 12 to 14 rotations. Repeat with the remaining portion of dough and the remaining schmear.
Use a very sharp knife to cut each long roll into the number of portions appropriate for to the pans you are using: 6 equal sections for 3 small loaves; 4 equal sections for 2 medium loaves or in half for 1 large loaf. Cut each section lengthwise almost all the way through. Twist each pair of rolls (per loaf pan) and fit them into the pan(s). Or shape each roll into a horseshoe, twist each roll slightly before placing in the pan; the dough will be squished in but that's okay.
Brush the top of each babka with the beaten egg, then scatter the butter crumb topping evenly over the tops. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes (for small loaves); 55 to 65 minutes (for medium loaves) and 75 to 90 minutes (for the large loaf), until the bread is well browned and seems solid to the touch. A tester inserted into the center of the babka might have soft cinnamon on it but should not have unbaked dough on it.
Brush or drizzle the simple syrup over the warm babka(s); let rest for 1 hour before dislodging from the pan to slice or store.
VARIATION: To create a chocolate schmear, combine 1 cup of semisweet chocolate chips, 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of unsalted butter at room temperature, 1/2 cup of confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 large egg yolk in a food processor. Puree to form a soft paste; if it's too thick to spread, add the milk (as directed above).
Nutrition: Per serving (based on 20, using low-fat milk and 6 1/2 cups flour): 590 calories, 8 g protein, 89 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 120 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 54 g sugar