All the babka in my life

Babka and I go way back, starting with my Jewish husband. He loved a good, dry cake. Both Don and his father Frank were of that persuasion.  Cake was best when it was dry,  crumbly like desert sands and bought at a deli bakery, of course.

The deli in West Palm Beach sold Don’s ultimate babka. We would stand in early bird lineups at 5 p.m. with my in-laws, demoralized to be part of what we jokingly referred to as “the blue rinse hour” for dinner.  

My mother-in-law Ethel wasn’t a cake eater.  Diabetic, she approached eating with cautious deliberation.  

“I like it bland,” she often said.    

Needless to say, food didn’t play a pivotal role in the Nausbaum family as it might in many other Jewish households. Celebrations were also kept minimal. Ethel used to mail Don a modest birthday check or a boxed shirt from Target.  One year she uncharacteristically asked her adult son what he would like to receive for his birthday and Don didn’t miss a beat.

“I want a babka from your deli, Ma.  It’s too good to be true.”

“What? A babka. That’s ridiculous, Don.”

“Ma, I want a babka. I want a babka from your deli. Fed Ex it to me.” 

I’m not sure what bothered Ethel more, the price of an overnight courier from West Palm Beach to Toronto or her son’s unbridled decadence. But she caved.  He was her only son (and a charmer, to boot).   

“How was the babka? Did it arrive?  Did you like it?” she asked on his birthday.  

“Did I like it?” he scoffed, “Ma, this babka is unfriggin’ believable. I’m going to get another slice right now and eat it while we talk long distance.”  

“Don’t. I can’t stand listening to you eat and talk at the same time.”

“But it’s my birthday!”

Don chuckled,  his mouth crammed full of babka. The crumbly streusel topping sprinkled all over his goatee. He’d already given up on a knife and was ripping the cinnamon-scented, cakey interior apart, moaning in appreciation and smacking his lips loudly.  

“You like it too much,” Ethel said. She was disgusted.  “I’ll never ever Fed Ex you a babka again!” 

She kept to her word and Don’s babka delivery landed squarely in my lap. But I was a Canadian goy who knew nothing about babka baking. Sure, I had done a little food research, happily trailing alongside Don to  Jewish delis in Florida, Long Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan but not once had I set eyes on a Toronto babka until Don brought home a specimen from the Harbord Bakery. 

He ate one slice, winced, then threw the remainder out.

“It’s up to you, Mado,” he sighed.

Earlier in our marriage, I’d attempted chicken liver spread and was defeated.  Before that, it was the world’s oily-est latkes. Now I had to bake some dry, tasteless coffee cake?  I turned to one of the first cookbooks dedicated to Jewish baking and made a listless facsimile. 

“Inedible” said Don after the first bite.

So babka became a family joke.  A reverie about Ethel and  a guffaw over the Seinfelt segment where Constanza sweats bullets tugging a stolen babka into his apartment window with a rope and pulley.

Then, as beloved things often do, babka came back. Don passed away and left a big piece of babka in his son’s pulsing heart. It helped, too, that Nick’s stepsister Emma is a gourmet sleuth. She found (not a Sahara version) but a sinfully sweet and gooey chocolate babka at Toronto’s Pusateri’s bakery. Somehow she knew that Nick would want that for his birthday. In no time at all, babka was forefront on our mother-son baking list and Rosha Shanna 2020  seemed an apt moment to create Don’s cake.  

When Nick and I bake, I always learn something.  I start off as Mom Expert and he quietly models a better alternative. Like parchment paper. Babka demands it and I was eager to try cookbook author Mairlyn Smith’s technique: Cut a large swath, run it under water, scrunch it up, wring it dry and fit it into the pan. Yes, this technique moulds around the insides of a loaf pan but Nick’s idea was better – cut vertical and horizontal panels to fit the pans. Not only does  it look more professional, but if you allow for a few inches of overhang, you’ve got handles to lift out your cake effortlessly.     

A beautiful babka means whirls of marbled dough, twisting and turning before your hungry eyes. To achieve this, challah dough is rolled out into a rectangle and spread with a yummy interior of melted butter, dark chocolate and a LOT of freshly ground cinnamon. You roll it up as tightly as possible, take a deep breath and do the unthinkable: cleanly cut this pliable, warm, puffy roll of dough in half, lengthwise. I was certain a serrated knife would do the trick but no sooner did I execute this cut then it caught, pulled and messed up the chocolate spread’s definition. 

THREE CHOCOLATE CINNAMON BABKAS

A batch baker by trade, I won’t develop a recipe for less than 2 loaves. This one comes with a  bonus babka! Not dry at all, these glossy beauties are made moist by a special ending in which you lavishly baste with a sweet, wet syrup as soon as they come out of the oven — an unthinkable flourish to Don and his father Frank. Makes 3 loaves.

Challah Dough

2 1/4 cups   milk, warmed in microwave (at high, 1 min)

1 TBS   instant yeast

3   eggs

5 TBS   vegetable oil

4 TBS   honey

1 TBS   vanilla extract (we used a vanilla bean, sliced it lengthwise and scraped the seeds in)

8 cups/ 2 lbs 6 oz   organic unbleached bread flour

.6 oz   salt

Put warmed milk, yeast, eggs, oil, honey and vanilla in mixing bowl and blend with whisk attachment until frothy.

Add flour and salt into mixing bowl and knead with dough hook for 8 min. or until the dough pulls away from the bowl and creates a smooth ball. This is a sticky, enriched dough.  If it pools around the bottom of the bowl it may need extra tablespoons of flour during the last two minutes of the mix to ensure the dough pulls away from the bowl.

Place in a large plastic, oiled tub or covered bowl and let it rise until doubled at room temp, aprox 2 ½ hrs. (Or simply refrigerate immediately and leave to rise overnight or up to 48 hrs)

Babka filling

4 1/2 ounces (130 grams)     dark chocolate, Callebaut, 55%

1/2 cup (120 grams) one stick        unsalted butter, cold is fine

Put in a glass bowl and heat in microwave (1 – 1 1/2 min.)

1/2 cup (50 grams)       icing sugar

1/4 cup (30 grams)       ground cinnamon

Add to melted chocolate.

Line loaf pans with parchment, like Nick does.

Divide dough into 3 pieces.

Roll one piece out on a well-floured counter 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 one-third of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log.

Cut the log in half lengthwise with a metal bench scraper, like Nick does.  Lay one piece over the other, cut sides up, at the mid-line, creating an “X” then gently twist the ends. Gently place the twist into a loaf pan, doubling it over itself if necessary. Repeat 2 more times. Cover all the pans with oiled plastic or a towel. Let rise until doubled, about one hour.

Heat oven to 375°F 30 minutes before the bake. Beat an egg in a small bowl. Baste babkas with egg just before baking. Place loaves in the middle of the oven and bake 30 minutes. 

While babkas are baking, make syrup,

1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar

Heat in microwave

As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush with syrup. Use it all up, as this creates a glossy, moist finish.  Let cool about halfway in pans, then transfer to a cooling rack.

 

 

 

The Power of Challah

I bake and give away a lot of freshly baked bread. I’ve been baking bread weekly, sometimes daily, for many moons and my floury perspective has offered insight on what Joe Eater likes best in the bread department. And it’s challah, hands down.

Essentially, we bread lovers eat with our eyes first. Appearances matter.  Just the sight of one of my golden, glossy braids is enough to bring most of my beneficiaries to their knees. Sprinkle on some sesame or poppy seeds (or both) and you’ve got a bagel hybrid that screams for a slathering of cream cheese,  followed by an unabashed crescendo of jam.

“What’s not to love?” my Long Island New York mother-in-law used to ask.

Ethel, of course, would only take a sliver of a slice, knowing full well that the honey, milk, butter and eggs that enrich and enliven challah were the kiss of dietary death for a diabetic like her.  But that wouldn’t stop her from kveln about my challah.

My friend Danny, on the other hand, used to scrunch and contort her mien whenever she came face to face with one of my challahs.

“No! No, you can’t do this to me!” she’d wail, tossing the gift loaf back into my hands like a hot tamale.

Turns out she was an addict.

Then there was Don. He ignited my baking passion and passed the challah gene down to our offspring.

I’d find him drooling and star struck, gazing with deep longing at my just-out-of-the-oven golden, glossy loaves.  I’d start wielding my bread knife, slashing it through the air, marking the end of each word with a vicious swipe   “Don’t you dare” Slash, slash, slash!  “devour it all!”  He’d feign to cower then leave only crumbs in his wake.    

Oh, the allure, the gloss and glimmer of a challah’s golden crust, twisting and turning seductively before our hungry eyes. Blessedly for us bakers, it is a no-brainer of a baking feat. Sure, you need to have the larder well stocked with milk, honey, eggs and butter, but you’ll find the braid an easier dough trick than your average high hydration, Tartine-style boule.

What’s more, this is a bread recipe that will make you a baking icon among friends and family. You don’t have to capture wild yeast for 10 days to make this baby rise and if you practice this just once, you’ll soon be a baking pro worthy of  Zoom coverage at the socially-distanced table.

But before you plunge into this bake, let’s talk flour:  Seriously good flour, that’s local, freshly ground and can be delivered to your door. 1847 Stone Milled Flour https://1847.ca  produces a variety of organic stone milled flours in Fergus, Ontario that bring this challah out of the land of white bread and into a world of healthy, rich flavour.

1847 Challah, Sponge Technique

Despite the name, this challah recipe doesn’t date back to 1847. I created it  recently to feature 1847’s Red Fife and Daily Grind, but both of these whole grain flours can be substituted with other brands.

Sponge

2 cups warm milk

4 eggs  lightly beaten

¼ cup   honey

9 oz/2 cups     1847 Red Fife

4.8 oz/ 1 cup   PC Organic All purpose, unbleached flour

1 tsp                instant yeast

Final Dough

¼ cup               melted unsalted butter

.6 oz/1 TBS      salt

10 oz               1847 Daily Grind (whole grain multi-purpose flour)

12 oz               PC Organic All purpose, unbleached flour

1                      egg, beaten

¼ cup               sesame seeds

Combine all the Sponge ingredients in the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer using the paddle attachment until just mixed. Cover and leave at room temperature for 2 hrs or until the surface is covered with small holes, just like a sponge.

Add butter, salt, Daily Grind and all-purpose flour to the sponge.  Using a dough hook, mix for 8 min or until the dough balls up around the hook. Add a tablespoon or two of flour during the last 2 min of the mix if the dough is not pulling away from the sides of the bowl.

Transfer to an oiled plastic bin with cover for a bulk ferment (or proof) of 2hrs. (Alternately, slow down the ferment and put it in the fridge overnight for 8-12 hrs)

Line two baking sheets with parchment. Place the room temperature or refrigerated dough on a lightly floured surface. Use a dough scraper to cut in half.  Cut each half into thirds. Roll out each piece to create six long ropes. Make two simple braids with three strands each and place on baking sheets. Cover with a clean dish towel or oiled plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 25-30 min or until internal temperature reaches 190 F