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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
That’s what I’m finding and that’s why, at least around here, July 20 means a lot to be thankful for.
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)
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)
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!
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.
1 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups spelt flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
In a large bowl, combine ingredients, using a fork to mix until large clumps form.