Chocolate Babka


Babka is good.  If you have a piece of the crumbly, yeasty, cinnamon-y bread/pastry you might think, “oh, it’s kind of like an oversized Rugalach or a coffee-cake-meets-brioche. Nice.” But Chocolate Babka is more like crack cocaine. (This explains the shaky pic I took of the above early version.)  Once you have it, you may need to have it again, against your better judgement, and you might do something sketchy to get it. As if to prove my point, it seems every time  I mention Babka to anyone, they bring up the infamous Seinfeld Babka episode. In it, Jerry and Elaine become highly agitated in line at the bakery when they have to settle for the “lesser Babka” (the cinnamon) because the woman just ahead of them buys the last chocolate one in the bakery.


In trying to make chocolate babka I embarked upon a slippery slope to agitated madness because I grew up eating Babka from genius Hungarian bakers in the Bronx, during a time when the Bronx was filled with such bakeries that catered to the large Jewish and eastern european population there. Also, last holiday season, I’d had babka from Zadie’s of Fair Lawn, NJ whose secret family recipe may be producing the last great Babka being made in America.


When Sarah Simmons, the culinary and creative force behind the NYC culinary salon, City Grit invited me to be a guest chef and cook up a modern Shabbat dinner last month, I knew before I worked on the menu with my son, Max and his girlfriend Theresa (both CIA grads and working at the time at Per Se in NYC…more on their move to Napa Valley and The French Laundry in another post), that I wanted to feature chocolate Babka for dessert.


I had images of Babka Parfait, or Babka Creme Brûlée, or a Babka Ice Cream or a Babka Ice Cream Cake dancing around in my head. But I realized quickly that the first order of business was to get the Babka right, and after multiple sessions using and tweaking several different recipes, I decided a pilgrimage to Fair Lawn and Zadies was needed for research. The very next Friday morning, I made the hour and a half drive to the unassuming strip mall location and got on the back of the long line that snaked out of the door and into the parking lot. I hoped to convince one of the owners and defenders of the Zadies legacy, Adam Steinberg, to give me the recipe or to allow me to observe the baking of the Babka. Fat chance. “I’d be happy to discuss the Babka with you, as long as it’s nothing about the recipe, the ingredients or how it’s made,” he said to me with a look that was a mix of pity and menace. He wouldn’t budge even as I offered to swear on a stack of Challahs (and there were many stacks of them awaiting the pre-Sabbath crowd), that I wouldn’t publish or share the recipe. I just needed wanted it for my self research. Rejected, I found solace in buying 12 of Zadies’ “break-away” chocolate Babka, a more compact and dense version of the cake which led me to thinking about the gorgeous little disposable bakeware I recently received from Welcome Home Brands and how amazing a mini Babka would be for my City Grit dinner.


Now, I won’t lie to you. Babka is not an easy, quick recipe. Babka is no cupcake. It’s a yeast bread to begin with, so it requires making the dough and then proofing it (letting it rise) multiple times, then rolling it out, filling it, rolling it up, and twisting the thing around and back on itself like a sopping wet towel. The technique creates all these chocolaty layers and yeasty caverns within the final product. It is a project, but it is a worthwhile one. I was so engrossed in this process and determined to do it, I forgot to take pictures, but here is one pic of the first round results of making them in the Welcome Home bakeware. I was thrilled with the bite-sized Babkas.


And here are the final mini Babkas (in checkered Welcome Home Brands bakeware) that were expertly made by Theresa Rice and  that went out that night at City Grit, paired with a Chocolate Egg Cream Float with Toasted Marshamallow Topping. (More on that night next time!)




Chocolate Babka

For the dough:
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (about 1/2 packet)
1/3 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1 large egg yolk plus 1 whole egg
1 3/4 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for brushing

For the filling:
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest (optional)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsweetened dark cocoa
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the streusel topping:
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg, beaten

  • Make the dough: Combine the yeast and 2 tablespoons warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer; set aside until foamy, 5 minutes. Add the milk, sour cream, egg yolk and 1/2 cup flour; beat with the paddle attachment on medium speed until combined. Gradually beat in the remaining 1 1/4 cups flour, scraping the bowl as needed, to form a wet dough, about4 minutes. Increase the speed to medium high; add the whole egg, sugar, salt and vanilla and beat until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time; beat until incorporated. The dough will be very wet.

  • Brush a large bowl with butter; transfer the dough to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in size, about 1 hour, 30 minutes. Stir the dough to punch it down; cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 3 hours or up to overnight.

  • Generously dust a sheet of parchment paper with flour. Pat the dough into a square on the parchment, then roll into an 11-by-15-inch rectangle. Transfer the dough and parchment to a baking sheet and brush off the excess flour. Cover and chill until firm enough to shape, 1 to 2 hours.

  • Meanwhile, make the filling: Pulse the almonds and sugar in a food processor until fine. Add the butter, egg, rum, vanilla, cinnamon, orange zest, cocoa powder and almond extract; pulse until smooth. Cover and chill 1 hour.

  • Make the streusel: Mash the sugar, flour and butter in a bowl with a fork to make clumps. Cover and chill until ready to use.

  • Butter an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan.  Bring the chilled dough out of the fridge. Spread the coco/almond filling over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border; sprinkle with the chopped chocolate. Starting from a short side, use the parchment to lift and tightly roll up the dough, brushing off the excess flour. Pinch the ends of the roll, then twist the entire roll of dough several times (like wringing out a towel, sort of). Fold the twisted roll in half so the ends meet. Twist the folded dough a couple of turns and place in the loaf pan.  Cover with buttered parchment; let rise in a warm place until puffy, about 2 hours. (Note: To make my babka more dense, like the Zadies Break-away, I omitted this final rising time and just went straight to adding the streusel and baking.)

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the loaf with the beaten egg, then sprinkle with the streusel. Bake until the bread is golden and springs back when pressed, 1 hour to 1 hour, 10 minutes. Loosen with a knife, then let cool in the pan, 1 hour. Unmold onto a rack to finish cooling.