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Baking novice or expert, babka bread should be your new winter treat

If you're looking to expand your holiday dessert menu past pies and sugar cookies, try making this delicious babka bread.  – Photo by Alice Militaru

December is, perhaps, the best month of the year, even if it is the busiest. Regardless of what you celebrate, it is time to come together with co-workers at semi-formal office parties or friends at secret Santa exchanges.

There's nothing like a warm slice of babka on a sub-zero day. While it does take quite some time and a little bit of effort to make, the result is worth the time spent. Each step of the process has its own charm and comes with its own small measure of joy.

Kneading bread, stirring ganache together and braiding chocolate-stuffed strands of dough are uniquely fun. In a modern kitchen, baking should be done for the joy that each step brings you, not just for the final product.

Which brings us to this recipe. From the dough to the filling, there are a million ways babka can go wrong. The yeast can fail to rise, the filling can be too heavy, the streusel can melt or burn. The white whale for many novice bakers, babka dough is notoriously difficult to master, which is why I’ve simplified it into challah dough.

Don't be daunted by the long list of steps and ingredients! I’ve detailed each step in detail to create the foolproof holiday babka recipe. This recipe is dear to me because not only is it the first that I’ve developed, but it is also one that is heavily influenced by cozonac, a Romanian dessert I grew up with.

A few baking tips to keep in mind for all projects:

  • All ingredients should be at room temperature.

  • All proofing of dough must be done in warm environments (like in an oven with the light on).

  • Recipes can often be mixed and matched. If you don’t like chocolate, fill your babka with something else.

This recipe is split into four sections of varying difficulty. Babka is essentially made up of dough, chocolate sauce (also known as streusel) and syrup. You will be working for approximately an hour, but the total time from start to finish is 4 hours. A mixer isn't necessary, but it can help.

Part 1: Challah dough 

Here are the ingredients you need for the dough:

  • 1 teaspoon yeast

  • 1⁄2 cup warm water

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 2 cups flour

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, like vegetable oil

  • Another 1 tablespoon honey, making 2 tablespoons total

  • 2 eggs (one whole and one yolk) at room temperature

Begin by dissolving honey as best as possible in warm water and add yeast. When bloomed, it should look like yeast rose to the surface or bubbled slightly, and it'll smell noticeably yeastier. Then, mix the dry ingredients and make a well in the middle of the bowl.

Put some flour on the side (approximately 1 to 2 tablespoons). The moisture of your dough  will vary depending on a lot of things, so it’s better to add in flour later than have a dry  dough right off the bat. Add your oil, egg and egg yolk to this well, and mix the eggs. The flour should be incorporated slowly until it becomes a “slurry” — a loose doughy thing (not all the flour will be used at this point).

Now, add in the yeast and honey mixture, and mix thoroughly using a wooden spoon or any other sturdy implement. You can use your hands, but they will get very messy very fast. Once the dough has somewhat come together, it’s time to knead.

Generously flour your work surface. The dough is very sticky at this point, so don’t get frustrated. Spill the dough onto the floured surface, and flour the top. Flour your hands and begin to fold the corners of the dough onto itself. Once it’s a little less sticky, begin to push and roll it on the table.

You will have to knead for at least 10 minutes, but it's better to spend 15 minutes. A stand mixer can also be used to make it easier. The dough should spring back when you poke it, and you should be able to stretch it thin enough to see the outline of your hand through the dough without any tearing.

Now, oil a bowl with neutral oil, and make a tight ball out of your dough. Place the dough in the bowl, turning it once or twice so that it is covered in oil. That way the surface of the  dough doesn’t dry out. Let it rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Part 2: Chocolate filling

Here's what you will need:

  • ⅔ cups of chocolate chips

  • ½ cup heavy cream

To begin, put your chocolate chips in a large bowl (you will have to stir, so make sure it’s big enough). Set heavy cream in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. There should be small bubbles on the edges of the pan, but make sure not to boil it!

Pour heavy cream over chocolate chips and whisk together. It will look terrible at first, almost broken, but if you keep stirring, the result will be a velvety smooth chocolate ganache.

Let the ganache cool until it’s a little thicker. If you let it cool too long and it solidifies, you can microwave it for 30 seconds at a time.

Part 3: Streusel 

  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

  • ½ cup flour

  • ½ cup chocolate chips

  • 2 teaspoons sugar

  • 2 teaspoons cocoa powder

Melt the butter in the microwave or in a saucepan. Add all the ingredients in at the same time. Make sure it isn’t very hot when you add your chocolate because the chocolate should not melt. Mix everything together until all the ingredients are coated in butter.

Part 4: Syrup 

  • 1 cup white sugar 

  • 1 cup water 

  • Rum flavoring (This can be replaced with orange zest if you're using jam filling)

Set water in a saucepan on the stove, and bring to a simmer. Add in sugar and flavoring, and turn off heat. Stir until completely dissolved.

Part 5: Putting it together

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and butter your bread pan. After 2 hours, take out the dough, put it on your work surface and punch it down so there’s no air bubbles. Cut the dough into two even pieces.

Roll out one piece until it’s a flat rectangle and spread chocolate ganache. There should be about 1 to 2 millimeters of chocolate ganache. The more you add, the less it will rise when you bake it. Roll the rectangle into a tight cylinder. The length of the cylinder should be the length of your loaf pan. Wrap in plastic, and let it rest in the fridge for 10 minutes. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Take out the two rolls, and using a sharp knife, cut down the middle halfway so that the layers are exposed but the roll is still intact. Twist these two rolls together to form a loaf.

Place loaf in a buttered bread pan. Sprinkle the streusel on top, and let it rest for 45 minutes or overnight in the fridge. Bake for at least 40 minutes and up to 1 hour. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

Poke some holes here and there with a skewer, and carefully pour syrup over the babka. A  pastry brush is useful here to dab some spots. You do not need to use all the — it depends on how moist you want the babka to be.

And there you have it: perfectly prepared babka bread! Be sure to try out this recipe on this coming winter break.

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