If Ina Garten is my spirit guide, then Deb Perelman of the wonderful blog (and cookbook!) Smitten Kitchen is my favorite tenured professor, the Department Chair of Food Blogging. Her writing voice speaks to me in soothing tones – reminding me that it’s just cooking – no lives hang in the balance. If the outcome is delicious then it’s cause for celebration, if the results are less than amazing, then hopefully you learned something and the recipe is one step closer to the dish you dreamed. Cooking is about trial and error, experimentation. The fact that her recipes are so well written and specific inspires confidence, which brings me to the point: Better Chocolate Babka.
I took a 5 day bread baking class last February at the International Culinary Center where we learned the ins and outs of yeast, temperature, rising time, shaping, and baking all under the guidance of bread expert Chef Johnson. You would think that once we made our way through the dozens of loaves I brought home after class the scent of freshly baked bread would constantly waft from our apartment. Um, not so much. I’d like to blame it on hot summer weather, but it’s not like I didn’t use the oven for other things. Really, I was still intimidated. Frightened to go out on my own and tackle a yeast-based recipe without a net. Except, I have a secret weapon: Deb and her coterie of dedicate commenters to see me through.
In the grand scheme of things nothing will get me into the kitchen like the promise of a decadent baked good. Naturally, I chose a bread recipe that involved deep, dark, bittersweet chocolate – why go the healthy route with a loaf liberally loaded with pepitas and flax seed when what really motivates me is sweets! I’ve presented Deb’s recipe faithfully with just a few of my own observations and recommendations. I hope you’ll find it inspires you to tackle yeasted dough, but be forewarned: one taste of this and you’ll find yourself scheming new reasons to make it again and again. There's a reason Jerry and Elaine wanted that babka!
Deb Perelman’s Better Chocolate Babka (yield: 2 loaves)
4 1/4 cups (530 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast*
Grated zest of half an orange
3 large eggs
1/2 cup warm water, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons extra, if needed
3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (150 grams or 5.3 ounces) at room temperature
Sunflower or other neutral oil, for greasing
4 1/2 ounces (130 grams) dark chocolate, recommend semi or bittersweet
1/2 cup (120 grams) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (50 grams) powdered sugar
1/3 cup (30 grams) cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon [optional]
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar
Mix the Dough: Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the eggs and 1/2 cup warm water, mixing with the dough hook until it comes together; this may take a couple minutes. It’s okay if it’s on the dry side, but if it doesn’t come together at all, add the extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass.
With the mixer on lowest speed, add the salt, then the butter, a spoonful at a time, mixing until it’s incorporated into the dough. Then, mix on medium speed for 10 minutes until dough is completely smooth; scraping the bowl down periodically with a rubber spatula. If after 10 minutes, the dough doesn’t begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl add 1 tablespoon extra flour to help this along.
Before removing the dough, check the gluten development by taking a small piece of the mixed dough and spreading it apart gently with your fingertips. If it stretches without tearing and forms a thin, translucent membrane (think bubblegum) it’s ready.
When the dough is developed, coat a large bowl with oil (or turn the dough out onto the counter and oil the mixing bowl) and place dough inside, cover with plastic and refrigerate. Leave in fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight. (Dough will not fully double, so don’t worry if it doesn’t look like it grew by more than half.)
Prepare Filling & Shape Loaves: Melt butter and chocolate together until smooth. Stir in powdered sugar and cocoa; mixture should form a spreadable paste. Add cinnamon, if desired.
Next, brush the bottom and sides of two 9-by-4-inch (2 1/4 or 1kg) loaf pans with oil or butter, and line the bottom of each with a rectangle of parchment paper.
Divide the dough in half, leaving the half you aren’t working with in the fridge. Roll out the first portion of dough on a well-floured surface to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches.
Spread half the chocolate filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up into a long, tight cigar and seal the dampened end onto the log. Transfer the log to a lightly floured baking tray in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes to make it easier to cut cleanly in half. Repeat the steps with second portion of dough and filling.
Final Assembly: Gently cut the log in half lengthwise and lay the halves next to each other on the tray, cut sides up. Pinch the top ends gently together to form a V. Lift one side over the next, forming a twist – think braiding – and try to keep the cut sides facing out so they’ll be visible when the loaf is baked. This might be a little messy, but just transfer the twist as best as you can into the prepared loaf pan. The dough will fill in any gaps by the time it’s done rising and baking, so don’t worry if there is extra room in the pan.
Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise another 1 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. Repeat process with second loaf.
Bake and Finish: Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Remove towels, place the pans on the middle rack of your oven. Bake for 30 minutes, checking for doneness at 25 minutes. A wooden skewer inserted into an underbaked babka will feel stretchy/rubbery inside and may come back with dough on it. When fully baked, you’ll feel almost no resistance. If you babka needs more time, put it back and re-test at 5 minute intervals. If the top is browning too quickly, cover it with foil.
While babkas are baking, make the finishing syrup. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside to cool a little. As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush the syrup all over each. It will seem like too much, but will taste just right — glossy and moist. Let the babkas cool about halfway in pan, then turn out to finish cooling on a wire rack.
Note from Deb: Babkas keep for a few days at room temperature, but will freeze and defrost really well.
*Note on Yeast from Laura: Active Dry Yeast and Instant Yeast are two different ingredients, so read the packages in the store carefully. If you can only get Active Dry Yeast, then “proof” it by adding 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 packet) to the 1/2 cup warm water (80-90 degrees) called for in the recipe with a small pinch of sugar. Allow the mixture to sit for 5-10 minutes at room temperature then add it at the same time you add the eggs to the flour mixture. The rest of the recipe remains the same.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes and no. Yes, if you have a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook capable of handling bread dough, or if you are up to the physical challenge of mixing and kneading dough by hand. You’ll also need a medium mixing bowl, scale, liquid measuring cup, rubber spatula, two 9x5” metal loaf pans, one sheet pan, a rolling pin, and sharp knife or bench scraper. Parchment paper and a pastry brush for preparing the pans round out the list.
Deb is a genius.
I could just leave it at that, but for the sake of posterity I’ll continue. If you like brioche and pain au chocolate then Better Chocolate Babka is a glorious combination of the two. The baked dough is lovely and soft, rich with butter and just a hint of orange zest. The chocolate swirls so elegantly revealed are deep and dark taking this bread out of sticky-sweet breakfast loaf territory and into a more elegant realm. Bring it as a hostess gift to your favorite friends, have a slice with morning coffee, or a piece after dinner with a spoonful of whipped cream for dessert, this bread is welcome on my table at any time of the day.