kite blowing in the breeze

I’m not going to ask where the time went. That’s what everyone says, halfway through summer, after the fireworks and before back-to-school, when we’re finally settled into the heat and humidity, when our arms are bronzed and our long-daylight days have begun to seem commonplace, when we’re looking at the calendar and saying, July 20? July 20! More than halfway through 2010? I am just getting used to it not being 2009! and we think of all the things we still want to do and we think of all the people we want to do them with, and our hearts start to race a little bit. OK, hang on.

How about instead of rushing ahead we just stop, right here and now, and take a look at this day, this July 20, this Tuesday we have and will never get again, and appreciate what’s brought us here?

I’ll start. With chocolate babka.

braided chocolate babka


Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: It’s true I tend to count my blessings in terms of food, but usually not just in food. While I loved spending last Saturday creating a yeasty dough and filling it with a blend of dark chocolate, butter and cinnamon, for example, the smells in my kitchen better than any bakery, I’m not kidding, that wasn’t all I loved. There is the fact I can buy groceries, for one thing—the fact that in spite of venturing out into a new career plan, my needs have been provided (and for those of you keeping up with those changes, I got another steady client! starting in August!). There is the time I now have to do things like make babka—the Friday afternoon to run to the store, the wide-open weekend afternoon to put together ingredients, the way my life feels like my own again, instead of chained to a particular office.

And, mostly, there is the man I was making babka with, one I’ve been getting to know very well these last seven months of 2010, ever since I met him in Nashville in January, because of this very blog. Not only has he been teaching me more about food than I never knew before, but he’s been teaching me about a lot of other things as well, like how to spend almost 100 hours on the phone in a few months (when you thought you hated talking on the phone) or the value of speaking truth to other people or, even, how to parallel park a car.

I wanted to tell you about him sooner, but you know, you all are pretty important to me, and I wouldn’t bring just anyone to you.

Then we made babka.

rolling chocolate babka dough

It was his idea. Aside from that old Seinfield episode where Elaine tries to get one at the bakery, I’d never heard of babka, have you? What’s more, I’d never tasted it. I knew it was a kind of soft bread, braided like challah, filled with a rich chocolate filling. I’d seen a version of it in Good to the Grain and on Smitten Kitchen.

Saturday, I learned the following: Chocolate babka is rich and dessert-like, more like a coffee cake than a bread. Making it is an all-afternoon process of proofing yeast, mixing dough, letting it rest; punching dough, rolling it out, filling, rolling, braiding and brushing with an egg wash; topping with crumble, letting rest again; baking for around an hour.

elastic dough

The dough, which we made with spelt flour (although not having soaked it first, which I’d like to try), is moist and elastic, exactly the way you’d imagine a perfect dough to look. It rolls out easily onto a floured surface, flattening as thin as a Neapolitan pizza.

chocolate filling

The filling, two-and-a-half pounds of dark chocolate blended with two full tablespoons of cinnamon, butter and coconut oil, may look like a pile of dirt from the garden, but it is absolutely one of the best things I’ve mixed together—ever. We had some leftover, which I’ve since eaten with ricotta and straight out of the bowl with a big spoon.

three babkas

And the results, two golden loaves and one enormous freeform braided bread with added blueberries, were beautiful creations I was proud to pull out of my oven. I can’t compare them to any previous babka experience, but I can tell you this: making them was a great way to spend a Saturday. (Of course, babka or not, what isn’t a great way to spend a Saturday when you have the right person by your side?)

babka filling

That’s what I’m finding and that’s why, at least around here, July 20 means a lot to be thankful for.

Chocolate Babka
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Note that the original recipe says the babka can be prepared up to step 8 and frozen for up to a month before baking–just remove from freezer when ready to bake, let stand at room temperature for about 5 hours and bake.

Makes 3 loaves (but we made two loaves and one freeform)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups warm milk, 110 degrees
2 (1/4 ounce each) packages active dry yeast (we actually used 3)
1 3/4 cups plus a pinch of Sucanat
3 whole large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 cups spelt flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, room temperature, plus more for bowl and loaf pans (we substituted coconut oil for 1/4 cup of the butter in the filling)
2 1/4 pounds dark chocolate, very finely chopped*
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Streusel topping (below)

Directions:
1. Pour warm milk into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and pinch of Sucanat over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

2. In a bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup Sucanat, 2 eggs and egg yolks. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine spelt flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Change to the dough hook. Add 2 sticks butter, and beat until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, and a smooth, soft dough that’s slightly sticky when squeezed is formed, about 10 minutes.

4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few turns until smooth. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

5. Place chocolate, remaining cup Sucanat and cinnamon in a large bowl, and stir to combine. Using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in remaining 1 1/2 sticks butter (and/or coconut oil, if substituting) until well combined; set filling aside.

6. Generously butter two loaf pans, and line them with parchment paper. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper for the freeform loaf. (Alternatively, use three loaf pans.) Beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon cream; set egg wash aside. Punch back the dough, and transfer to a clean surface. Let rest 5 minutes. Cut into 3 equal pieces. Keep 2 pieces covered with plastic wrap while working with the remaining piece. On a generously floured surface, roll dough out into a 16-inch square; it should be 1/8 inch thick.

7. Brush edges with reserved egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of the reserved chocolate filling evenly over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border. Refresh egg wash if needed. Roll dough up tightly like a jelly roll. Pinch ends together to seal. Twist 5 or 6 turns. Brush top of roll with egg wash. Carefully crumble 2 tablespoons filling over the left half of the roll, being careful not to let mixture slide off. Fold right half of the roll over onto the coated left half. Fold ends under, and pinch to seal. Twist roll 2 turns, and fit into prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining 2 pieces of dough and remaining filling. (For our freeform loaf, we rolled it up, twisted it and covered it with the egg wash and streusel, baking it on a large baking sheet. We also added blueberries and sea salt to the filling, which is obviously totally optional. I think nuts might be good, too.)

8. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of streusel topping over each loaf. Loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place 20 to 30 minutes.

9. Bake loaves, rotating halfway through, until golden, about 45 to 55 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake until babkas are deep golden, 15 to 20 minutes more. Remove from oven, and transfer to wire racks until cool. Remove from pans; serve. Babkas freeze well for up to 1 month.

* After chopping the chocolate into moderately sized chunks, I followed Deb’s example and used the food processor to pulse the rest of the chocolate in two batches to small bits. It saved a lot of time!

Streusel Topping
Makes 3 3/4 cups

Below is the original recipe; we halved it and still had some leftover, but you can adjust depending on how much topping you like.

Ingredients:
1 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups spelt flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Directions:
In a large bowl, combine ingredients, using a fork to mix until large clumps form.

Cooksnaps
Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Joanna

    Yay! I’m so happy that things are going well for you :) Maybe my brother and I will try to make this for the fam though next time I go home. It looks like something my mom would love.

  2. Lan

    oh how this post made me smile. i’ve had babka once, with a beautiful, gorgeous man who made me smile sincerely for the first time ever in my life. i don’t recall the taste of the bread but i recall that i was sitting next to this man and i was happy.

    so very glad that you shared your first babka experience with us!

  3. Jacqui

    long phone conversations. that’s when you know. and then you eat together. and then you REALLY know. :) so happy for all of your blessings, shanna! 2010 – best year EVER. and here’s to many more bests to come. (also, babka! how fun to say! looks delicious.)

  4. TJ

    The babka looks really good. I’ll have to try it. Cooking with someone you care about can be a really great experience. You have so much great news as of late!!! Good for you!

  5. Anastasia

    Just found your blog through MatadorLife’s “Five Recipe Blogs That Will Change The Way You See Food” – very happy that I found this place! I had challah for the first time in the beginning of the year, and I loved the taste. If this babka is like the dessert version of challah, then I’m in! ?

    Also, I’ve never even heard of Sucanat before reading this entry, so thanks for enlightening me! (I will definitely be looking for this stuff!)

  6. Kim

    Oh, Shanna, there are just too many wonderful things to count. I am adding this babka to my list of “things to do after we move.” And honestly? I think you should just publish a cookbook already, because I would love to have your recipes all bound and pretty in my kitchen (though I suppose since many of the recipes on this site are adaptations, you might run into copyright issues). I might just print a bunch out and put them in a binder called “Shanna’s Amazing Recipes – Please Make Them All” so that I can work through all the food you feature, Julie & Julia style.

    Seriously, this post made my day, and I am just glowing with happiness for you. xoxo

  7. Amanda

    I almost can smell it now…the chocolate and yeasty goodness. What a perfect afternoon for you! The only thing that beats the pleasure of cooking itself is sharing it with someone else, right? So happy for you!

    Your new portfolio is gorgeous. I can sense the freedom and excitement this new journey contains for you. Glad to be watching it unfold, and reminded how God is writing each of our story…and though rarely the way we thought it might be, it turns out to be just right. Perfect.

  8. Megan Gordon

    O.k., sitting here with my first cup of coffee of the day and am smiling. First (I notice I tend to make lists when commenting on your blog), that portfolio rocks! You, go girl. Should I throw in a “damn” for good measure? Second, I’m so, so happy you’ve met someone. You are certainly on the right path and we can all see that unfolding. Congrats, my friend.

  9. Shannalee

    Caitlin, Aw, thanks! You’re so sweet to be excited with me. : )

    Jo, I wonder if you could make a gluten-free version of it for yourself? That would be awesome! Either way, it’s fun to make, and you’re super nice to want to do it for your fam!

    Lan, Thanks for sharing YOUR first babka experience with us! That sounds lovely.

    Maddie, I am trying to do just that! Thank you!

    Jacqui, Ha! : ) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about the way you said 2010 would be a great year. You were right! And it’s not over yet. Next up: YOUR WEDDING. PS – thanks for the kind words about the portfolio! Tim gets credit for the redesign, too!

    Heather, A gift indeed. Thank you!

    TJ, My cup overflows. Yes!

    Anastasia, Of course it’s fine to use sugar instead of the Sucanat, but I’ve cut all refined sugars and flours out of my baking/cooking. You can find Sucanat at Whole Foods – it makes a great sub!

    Heather, Ha! The only reason I didn’t use the Good to the Grain one was that you have to start it the night before. It did look gorgeous! Sounds like fate is pushing you towards babka. do it soon!

    Kim, You know, I have been thinking about a someday book for a while now, and the biggest issue is that I have so few of my OWN recipes. New goal. Thanks for the reminder and for your excitement, as always. : )

    Amanda, Aw, thanks for that sweet comment! I love the idea of watching things unfold, of knowing there’s a Great Author in charge, and you’re right: it always turns out to be just right.

    Megan, Laughed out loud at the mention of damn. So. Awesome. Thank you for your encouragement and happiness – I appreciate it so much!

  10. Joanne

    That Seinfeld episode is the first thing I think of when I hear the word babka…although I actually don’t think that association does yours justice…. This looks absolutely amazing! I love your writing…thanks so much for stopping by my blog! And congrats on meeting the boy through the blog…that’s a secret hope of mine…that eventually my prince charming will stumble upon mine and fall head over heels.

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  12. Shannalee

    Joanne, Ha! That’s awesome. You just keep right at it then! : )

    Angela, Oh, I’d love to meet you in person! Nashville is def a possibility, but right now it’s looking more like Nashville might come to me. We’ll see!

    Peggy, Ha! Thank goodness there are so many great recipes to go around!

  13. Aunt Lollie

    This looks absolutely delicious! I remember that epi of Seinfeld with the Babka and can’t help but think of Elaine in the bakery whenever i’m in a bakery staring at a babka. And now, i’m going to make my very own.
    Thanks so much for sharing your great recipes!

  14. Coleman

    I love your blog! The photos! the recipes! the organic! Today, 3 weeks after I made my first challah, I thought I was ready to try babka, and found your site. It was so helpful – especially the pictures, showing how things looked at different stages. My babka came out great, too, although it took longer to bake – the first time I pulled it out, it was a bit doughy in the middle. Any ideas where I went wrong? Thanks for all your help!

  15. Shannalee

    Thanks so much, Coleman! I love that you tried the babka, but that is a bummer about the center being doughy. With the extra time, it turned out though? I’m thinking maybe it’s just the differences between ovens or something? Glad it came out great in the end! Thanks for letting me know!

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