I’ve been working on babka for a while to be honest… I feel like the loaves you get in bakeries tend to be dry, sad affairs, with a few chocolate bits here and there. I mean… sure, they still taste good, but they could be better. (And our taste buds deserve better!)
Now if you don’t know what a babka is, it’s a beloved sweet yeasted bread with Eastern European roots, arguably made famous by a Seinfeld episode at Zabar’s Market in New York.
I took babka (& working with yeast) for a spin a few times to get a feel for it, in the name of research of course— the soft, enriched dough is lovely to handle, and it’s like assembling a cinnamon bun all the way up ‘til the dough is filled and rolled into a log. I found that some of the fillings out there are crumbly, others quite smooth, but regardless of the filling, when it comes to the twisting part… it’s the most ridiculously satisfying thing ever.
In the past month or so, I have made this babka five times. Over that time, I have slowly adapted the recipe until I was happy with how it worked in my kitchen (and until the filling to dough ratio was spot on). Here are some tips I picked up along the way:
If you have a stand mixer, then by all means use this for kneading the dough. Because this recipe uses such a small amount of flour, kneading by hand isn’t nearly as tough or awful as it sounds though. But, and here is the but… the dough is very sticky initially and it will take about 15 minutes to turn it into a smooth ball if kneading by hand. (Quite good for stress relief though… not like I’d know or anything 😋)
While the recipe asks for room temperature butter, I’m totally the first person to forget to take the butter out of the fridge. That being said… I’m happy to report that the recipe works equally as well with melted butter.
Make sure the babka can proof somewhere warm (especially since this recipe has a very short first rise). If your kitchen is anything like mine, it’s probably too cold, and the proofing times will be off. One way I get around this is by letting the dough rise in the oven. Preheat your oven to 150°F, then turn the oven off after preheating. Place the loaf pan inside and shut the oven door. (Ta-da! Warm environment)
If you find yourself short on time, you can prepare the babka dough (steps 1 and 2) and then cover and refrigerate the dough overnight. Take out the dough and pick up where you left off at step 3 the next day!
Do you have a favorite babka recipe? What’s your favorite filling? I’m ecstatic with how this babka turned out, but would love to (& plan to) try more variations!
Chocolate Hazelnut Pecan Babka
By Michael Johnson
This chocolate hazelnut pecan babka is made with a buttery, fluffy brioche dough swirled with a rich chocolate hazelnut filling and layered with toasted hazelnuts and pecans.
Makes: One 9-inch loaf
For the dough:
For the filling:
For the syrup
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the yeast with milk and sugar and 1/3 cup of the flour. Cover loosely and let rest until small bubbles appear and break the surface, about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Mix in the butter, egg, and salt. Gradually add the flour until it’s incorporated. If using a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, knead for approximately 5-7 minutes on medium speed until the dough is perfectly smooth and no longer sticky – alternatively, turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until it is perfectly smooth and no longer sticky, this should take around 15 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 30 minutes.
- While the babka dough is resting, prepare the filling. Melt the 6 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved or almost completely dissolved. (It’s okay if there are grains of sugar visible – they’ll melt later.) Remove from heat and add the chopped dark chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Stir in the Nutella, then the cocoa powder, cinnamon, and toasted nuts. Set aside.
- Butter a 9-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper leaving overhang on the two long sides (which will help you remove the baked babka later).
- To assemble the babka, place the dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out to a 12×16 inch rectangle. If the dough contracts and resists when rolling it, roll it out partially into a rectangle, let it sit 5 to 10 minutes, then continue to roll it out to the final dimensions once it’s relaxed. (Don’t worry if the edges are a bit uneven – no one will be able to tell once the babka is baked!).
- Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush, then add the filling and distribute it as evenly as possibly all the way to the edges – careful not to tear a hole in the dough while you spread the nuts.
- Roll the dough so that the seam is facing downwards. With a sharp knife or a pastry cutter, cut the roll in two halves along the long side. Turn the dough slightly to ensure the cut sides are facing upwards on both pieces. Pinch the ends together on one side then gently twist the two pieces of dough two or three times, pinching the other ends together as well. Carefully push on both ends to compress the twisted strands of dough until they are about the length of your loaf pan. Using both hands, carefully place the babka into the prepared loaf pan. Cover and let proof somewhere warm for about 60 – 90 minutes, or until risen and puffy.
- While the dough is rising, make the syrup by bringing the water, sugar, and honey to a boil in a small saucepan. Let boil for 4 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface with a spoon. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 375°F and bake the babka on the middle rack of the oven for 25 – 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center (in a part where there is less chocolate filling), comes out clean of dough. There may be some chocolate clinging to it, which is normal.
- Immediately spoon the room temperature syrup over the babka (you may not need all the syrup) and let cool completely before lifting the babka out.
- The babka should keep 3-4 days at room temperature.