Jewish babka as we know it originated in the early 1800s, when housewives would spread extra challah dough with jam or cinnamon, roll it up, and bake it alongside the bread. “Unlike the butter-rich, non-Jewish babka, Jewish versions were usually kept parve by using oil,” which meant they were “firmer and slightly drier than brioche.” What they lacked in richness they made up for “with the delightful swirls,” and the inclusion of chocolate was a mid-twentieth century American Jewish invention. Its name (though not necessarily the dish itself) may be related to a type of Easter cake popular in Poland and Ukraine known as baba or the diminutive babka, which means “grandmother”, related to the Yiddish bubbe. The Jewish babka was mostly unheard of outside of the Polish Jewish community until the latter part of the 20th century. European-style bakeries started to offer it in late 1950s in Israel and in the US. In addition to chocolate, various fillings including poppy seeds, almond paste, cheese, and others became popular, and some bakers began to top it with streusel.
I have a sweet tooth and have been baking babka for at least 10 years. The results were uneven, labor-intensive, and took almost all day. As with focaccia, the breakthrough for me came with the realization that leaving the dough in the refrigerator overnight both broke up the process into 2 days and improved the final result. I use the bread machine for much the same reasons, less effort and a more consistent result. I have said this before, but I will repeat, use weights instead of cups with a scale and sift your flour.
½ cup (114 g) half and half (or heavy cream)
2 tablespoons (24 g) granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon (4 g) salt
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons (42 g) unsalted butter – (chopped)
2½ cups + 1 tablespoon (308 g) bread flour
¾ teaspoon (2 g) instant yeast
Lately I have noticed the “large eggs” are small. If you notice the same thing, consider using 3 eggs. You can substitute all purpose flour and milk if you need to, though it will not be as rich.
⅓ cup (76 g) unsalted butter
2.5 ounces (70 g) bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon (44 g) powdered sugar
3 tablespoons (15 g) Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon – optional
1 large (44 g) egg
1 tablespoon (14 g) water
pinch table salt
¼ cup (50 g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (57 g) water
Place all ingredients for the dough (in the order listed) ½ cup cream (1/2 cup heavy cream), 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, ¾ teaspoon salt, 2 large eggs, 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, 2½ cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, and ¾ teaspoon instant yeast into the bread machine pan. Select the DOUGH cycle and press start. Be sure to sift the flour.
Open the lid during the first minute and check that the paddles are engaged and the dough clumps. If the dough is not clumping, you have likely mismeasured something.
After 15 minutes, check the dough for consistency. Add flour one tablespoon at a time if the dough is too wet. Add water one teaspoon at a time if the dough is too dry. The dough should stick to the sides of the pan, then pull away.
Place ⅓ cup unsalted butter and 2.5 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on 50% power for 2 minutes until completely melted. Stir together in circles until smooth.
Add ⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa, and ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon to the melted butter and chocolate mixture. Stir until smooth. Set aside to cool. If the mixture seems too soft to spread, whip it by hand to soften it. If you add liquid, it may become too soft and hard to manage.
Combine 1 large egg,1 tablespoon water, and a pinch table saltin a small bowl. Whisk until smooth.
Combine ¼ cup granulated sugar and ¼ cup water in a small microwave-safe bowl. Don’t stir. Microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved.
Shape the Dough:
When the DOUGH cycle finishes, remove the dough from the bread machine pan to a greased bowl. Compress the dough by hand. Cover. Chill for at least 30 minutes or overnight. Overnight is definitely preferred.
Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it into a 26 x 16-inch rectangle or as thin as possible without making holes. This is the key bit, every other recipe I have used calls for a much smaller rectangle. Making the dough thinner means more chocolate layers. Spread the chocolate filling to the edges on all but the short side farthest away from you. An offset knife or small silicone spatula will help spread the chocolate evenly. I personally add more mini chocolate chips on top at this stage.
Begin with the short side closest to you and roll the dough like a jellyroll. Again, rolling the short side vs the long side gives more layers and makes the finished braid short enough to fit in the 9 inch pan. Roll the dough tightly but don’t stretch the dough. Once rolled, pinch the seam to seal. Place the roll into the freezer for 10 minutes to make the next step easier. (If you are using a silicone mat, use it to hold and transfer the roll to the freezer.)
Remove the roll from the freezer. Use a pizza cutter or large knife to slice the roll in half lengthwise. Try not to backtrack.
Place the halves parallel to each other and side by side with the cut surfaces facing up. Pick up one half and drape it across the middle of the other half. Take the half underneath and drape it over the top.
Continue twisting as you work towards each end. Try to keep the overall result at 9 inches. Place the twisted dough into a nonstick or greased 8½ x 4½ loaf pan. If it is too long, compress the twisted dough from each end to make it fit.
Cover with a cheap shower cap or greased plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place for 60-90 minutes. I like the oven with a pot of hot water for 90 minutes. It should look alive and puffy but may not double in size. To test if your dough has proofed long enough, gently poke it. It should feel soft and supple, and your finger should leave an indent in the dough. Personally, I have never had a better rise than this with any recipe.
Preheat your conventional oven to 350 °F (180˚C) about 15 minutes before you think the bread will be ready to bake. Brush on the egg glaze. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 195-200 °F. (90-93˚C). Brush with sugar syrup immediately after removing the bread from the oven.
Let stand in the pan for 30 minutes and transfer to a cooling rack for another hour before slicing. If you remove it from the pan too soon, it will lean as seen above. Even so, look at the number of layers, best I have ever made!