This past month I moved into an apartment closer to my new job. It’s the first time that I’ve ever lived totally alone without a even a cat to keep me company, and to be totally honest it feels more than a bit strange. So what better way to make a mostly-empty apartment feel like home than to fill it with the smell of baked goods? I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for ages and this seemed like the perfect time to try it out. And come on, who wouldn’t want to wake up to coffee and chocolate bread?
Adapted from this Smitten Kitchen recipe
- 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- Zest of 1 small lemon or half an orange
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup water
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup room-temperature unsalted butter
- Sunflower or other neutral oil for greasing
- 4 1/2 ounces dark chocolate
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- Optional: a handful of almonds, pecans, etc.
- 1/3 cup water
- 6 tablespoons sugar
That is …. a lot of ingredients. Here are the current contents of my fridge and pantry: hummus, sriracha, raw almonds, a bag of dry-roasted wasabi edamame, greek yogurt, this bag of Indonesian mystery candy that I have yet to muster up the courage to try, coffee, caramel macchiato-flavored coffee creamer, and alcohol. Clearly there is a large shopping trip in my immediate future.
It’s incredible how daunting building a pantry from scratch can be, especially for someone not particularly well-versed in the culinary arts to begin with. Is it going to ruin everything if I buy salted butter instead of unsalted? (Which, spoiler alert: I did.) Can I just use a small grater instead of a dedicated zester? What the hell is a “neutral” oil? Why is some cocoa powder “dutched?” How exactly does one go about dutching things?? After an agonizingly time-consuming shopping trip I was more or less ready to tackle this beast.
Step 1: Make the dough
- Combine flour, sugar, yeast, and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Yeah, I couldn’t find a zester at the grocery store and I certainly wasn’t going to make a separate trip to another store for just one tool. I bought a grater with small holes and called it good; if the zest is too chunky I daresay I’ll survive.
- Add eggs and ½ cup water, mixing with the bread hook attachment until combined. Add the salt and then butter and mix on medium speed until the dough is relatively smooth and pulling away from the sides of the bowl.
Catastrophe number one: my spatula gave up and died, snapping in twain the first time I tried to “scrape down” the bowl like the recipe advised. That reduces my current spatula supply by one third, but if this attempt results in delicious chocolate bread then the sacrifice will have been worth it
- Coat a large bowl with oil. Place the dough into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise overnight.
I went into this expecting same-day baked goods, and the realization that this was a two-day process was a terrible blow. I mean, okay fine: a lot of that disappointment could have been mitigated if I had done more than briefly skim the instructions. But I had this glorious vision of waking up tomorrow morning, pouring a cup of coffee, and slicing off a chunk of babka, and this reality check pushed back my dreams by one day. TRAGEDY.
Step 2: Make the Filling
- Melt the butter and chocolate together, then stir in the cocoa, powdered sugar and cinnamon. Mixture should form a spreadable paste.
I used Lindt 70% cocoa dark chocolate; not my favorite chocolate in the world but mehh, it was on sale. Each bar is 3.5 ounces and I definitely overshot it with the one-and-two-thirds bars I threw in the saucepan, which might be why my mixture ended up as more of a soup than a paste. Viscosity issues aside it still tasted pretty great.
Step 3: Assemble your loaves
- Grease two loaf pans ...
Two loaf pans. AHEM. One of many important details that I skimmed over before embarking on this project. The thing is, I only own one loaf pan. Considering the fact that every single piece of cookware I own was acquired in a massive Target purchase three days ago I’m kind of impressed that I even have that. At any rate I wasn’t about to run out to buy another loaf pan so I got creative with what I had. One normal babka loaf and one giant cinnamon-roll-style monstrosity? Sure, why the hell not.
- ... line the bottom of each with a rectangle of parchment paper.
Oh hey, another thing I don’t have. I guess I’ll live dangerously and take my chances with cooking spray and a dusting of flour alone.
- Take half of dough from fridge and roll out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-12 inch rectangle.
First of all, if you have the kind of dough control that can produce a precisely-sized rectangle I salute you. I poured out about four cups of flour onto my counter which, why yes, I do believe counts as “well-floured.” After brushing the vast majority of that flour to the side I plopped my dough down and immediately realized that I didn’t have a rolling pin. Improv time! A floured collins glass more or less did the trick.
- Spread half of the 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 and seal the dampened end onto the log. Repeat with the second half of the dough.
Okay, so there was an addendum to this recipe noting that the chocolate layer traditionally includes a smattering of pecans. Do I currently have pecans stockpiled? Of course not. What I did have was almonds, so I chopped up a handful in the food processor and sprinkled them over the layer of chocolate. Dark chocolate and almonds are generally a magical combination so I’m feeling pretty confident about this freestyle move.
- Transfer the logs on a lightly floured baking tray and place in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Remove from the freezer and trim the last 1/2-inch off of each end of both logs. Gently cut each in half lengthwise and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. For each pair pinch the top ends gently together, and lifting one side over the next form a twist with the cut sides facing out.
Haaaaaaaah. So much easier said than done. I wrestled the dough into submission the best I could and, to put it generously, ended up with something vaguely resembling the pictures in the recipe. For the second batch I just sort of wound the strips of dough into a spiral, cut sides up, and placed the whole thing into a standard cake pan.
- Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise another 1 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature.
Whaa? More waiting? (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻
Step 4: Baking time (FINALLY)
- Heat oven to 375°. Remove towels, place each loaf on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
Maybe it’s just my oven or my cookware but thirty minutes was about five minutes too long, resulting in a well-done-bordering-on-burnt bottom and sides. Next time I make it I would definitely pull it out at twenty five.
Step 5: Make the glaze
- About 10 minutes before the bread is done baking combine water and sugar in a saucepan and simmer until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the loaves are out of the oven brush the syrup over each.
I simmered until the sugar dissolved as directed and ended up with …. hot sugar water? Am I really supposed to brush piping hot sugar water over my painstakingly crafted chocolate bread? I am probably the last person on earth who should be trusting their baking intuition but I did it anyway, continuing to simmer the sugar water until a slightly thicker syrup formed. It didn’t seem to ruin anything, so that’s something at least.
I didn’t have any sort of brush to deploy here, so I used a slotted spoon to drizzle the glaze on bit by bit. After about thirty seconds I got impatient with how long it was taking (short attention spans ftw) and just went ahead and poured the rest of it on straight from the pan.
Step 6: Turn out onto a baking rack and allow to cool before slicing
LOL just kidding, you know you’re going to paw into it like an animal while it’s still hot. Or is that just me? At any rate I don’t even own a cooling rack (shocking, I know) so I just left it on a clean cutting board to cool, pulling a chunk off to snack on at approximately ten minute intervals. The recipe notes that this babka freezes and defrosts really well, so for my own good I left a slice out for breakfast and then portioned out the rest of the bread and threw it into the freezer.
- Too many chunks of babka pulled off for snacking in lieu of eating an actual dinner, one slice reserved for breakfast, and twelve individually frozen portions for later enjoyment.
- A hastily scrawled list of cookware that you still need to buy. (Who could’ve foreseen the immediate need for a basting brush? Not I.)
- An apartment that smells incredible.
This bread is something of a colossal pain in the ass to make, but hot damn is it delicious. More importantly it’s labor-intensive enough to temporarily distract the baker from the fact that they may or may not be internally freaking out about being alone in a new apartment in a whole new city. If you have the time, the cookware, and the perseverance to craft this majestic chocolate babka the rewards will be well worth the effort.
Nicole T (street name: Barkspawn) lives in California and still has enough babka in her freezer to feed a small army. You can find her on Twitter @ser_barkspawn, contact her here, and read more of her articles here.
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