In an old “Seinfeld” episode, Jerry and Elaine stop at a bakery on their way to a dinner party, intending to buy a chocolate babka as a hostess gift. But they’re thwarted by the couple ahead of them, who buy the last babka — and are headed to the same party! What to do?
The bakery’s other options — carrot cake, Black Forest cake, a Napoleon — are rejected with Seinfeldian logic. (You don’t make carrots into a cake. I’m sorry.) Finally, Jerry states the unavoidable truth: “You can’t beat a babka.”
Babka generally is known as a Jewish or Eastern-European bread, rich with egg yolks and butter and enclosing various fillings, the best of which is chocolate enhanced with cinnamon. Variations abound. There are cinnamon-sugar fillings, and fillings further embellished with dried fruit (think cherries or raisins), or nuts (think chopped almonds or pecans). Some bakers use Nutella, and even peanut butter. Some babkas come topped with a crumbly streusel, and there are always a few who dust theirs with powdered sugar.
But honestly, you can’t beat cinnamon and chocolate.
Even better, a babka is one of those wonders of the kitchen that deliver bang-up results through deceptively simple techniques. The supple, buttery dough is a joy to knead, not the sticky glob that makes people fear dealing with yeast. Melted chocolate is spread over the dough, which then is rolled up like a jelly roll.
You can quickly twist and double this strand before placing it in a loaf pan, or use a Bundt pan for a circular bread.
The most spectacular babka is the ingenious Kranz cake variation, in which the strand is split down the middle, opened to reveal the chocolate, then crisscrossed to make a braid.
However you shape it, the goal is the same: a slice of rich bread coursing with veins of dark chocolate.
Turns out the show about nothing was on to something: You can’t beat a babka.
Chocolate cinnamon babka
Note: This recipe offers two shaping techniques: for a free-standing babka in the Israeli Kranz cake style, or the more conventional loaf. The basic dough recipe is from “Artisan Breads Every Day” by Peter Reinhart. Roasted cinnamon (McCormick offers this) boosts the flavor, but regular cinnamon is fine, too. The dough improves in flavor by resting in the refrigerator overnight, making baking day even easier.
For the dough
2 tbsp. instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
6 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
3 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
For the filing
1 cup dark chocolate chips or chunks
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 tsp. cinnamon, preferably roasted
1/3 cup powdered sugar
Whisk the yeast into the lukewarm milk until dissolved, then set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together the 6 tablespoons butter and sugar until smooth. If mixing by hand, beat vigorously with a wooden spoon for about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla to the egg yolks and whisk to break up yolks. Add to sugar in four parts, mixing well after each addition. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 2 minutes (same if by hand) until the mixture is fluffy. Scrape down the bowl a couple of times.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt, then add to the butter mixture. Pour in the milk and yeast mixture. Continue to mix for 2 to 3 minutes, until the dough comes together in a rough ball.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 2 or 3 minutes more. This is a pliable dough, barely sticky, which makes it easy to knead. Resist adding too much more flour. Knead until dough feels soft and supple and has a golden sheen.
Form dough into a ball and place top down in a large, lightly oiled bowl, then flip upright so entire surface is oiled. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature to rise for about 2 hours. It will swell, but not double in size.
You can proceed with shaping the babka at this point, or place the dough in the refrigerator overnight, to be rolled out the next day.
When you’re ready to shape the babka, first make the filling by melting together the chocolate, 4 tablespoons butter, cinnamon and powdered sugar. This is best done using the double-boiler method:
Combine the ingredients in a medium bowl, then place the bowl over a saucepan filled with an inch or two of water; the water shouldn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the water to simmering, stirring the chocolate mixture until it melts. You can also do this in a microwave oven, but watch carefully, melting it in 15-second increments. Set aside to cool slightly while you roll out the dough.
To shape the dough: For a loaf shape, grease a 5- by 9-inch loaf pan or line with parchment paper.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 15- by 15-inch square, lifting the dough occasionally to keep it from sticking to the surface. Spread the melted chocolate evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch-wide border at the top and a ½-inch border on the remaining three sides. Beginning with the bottom edge, roll up the dough jellyroll-style.
With the seam side down, roll it back and forth to seal the roll and extend its length to about 18 inches. Carefully begin twisting the log a few times until the seam appears as a gentle spiral down the length of the log. Bring together the two ends, pinching them together to seal, then give the doubled loaf another twist to make a figure 8 shape before placing in the pan, tucking under the pinched end.
Cover with a cloth and let rise at room temperature 1 to 2 hours or until the babka looks puffy and fills the pan.
For a Kranz cake shape: Proceed as above to the point of rolling up the dough and extending its length to about 18 inches. With a sharp knife or metal scraper, cut the log down the middle lengthwise and carefully turn each piece cut side up. Place one piece over the other in an X, then crisscross the strands to make a braid, pinching together each end and tucking it beneath the babka.
Carefully place the braid on a sheet pan that’s been greased or covered with parchment paper. Cover with a cloth and let rise at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours or until the braid looks puffy.
To bake: For either shape, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes. Once baked, let the babka rest for 5 minutes before removing from the pans to a wire rack to cool. Babka is best served at room temperature after the chocolate has had time to set.
Makes 1 large loaf.
Nutrition information per 1 of 18 slices: Calories: 240; Fat: 11 g; Sodium: 140 mg; Carbohydrates: 31 g; Saturated fat: 6 g; Calcium: 30 mg; Protein: 4 g; Cholesterol: 58 mg; Dietary fiber: 2 g