Inadvertently, this has become Festivus week on Smitten Kitchen, wherein I air my grievances at past recipes and exhibit what I hope can be passed off as “feats of strength” in reformulating them for modern times. Still, nobody could more surprised than I am that of all the recipes in the archives, it’s Martha Stewart’s decadent chocolate babkas from seven years ago that have ended up in this queue, because at the time we found them beyond reproach: rich, buttery, crumbly and intensely chocolaty. They were precisely what we’d remembered getting from the store growing up, but better, I mean, I’d hope they’d be. Clocking in at 3/4 pound of semisweet chocolate and almost a cup of butter per loaf, the recipe in fact uses triple this (2.25 pounds of chocolate! 1.25 pounds of butter!) for three loaves. And not unlike the chicken pot pies, this, along with the messy, complicated prep, became the problem. Despite repeated requests from our families every holiday, I’ve probably only made it once since, if that. It’s all too much.
This high holiday season, however, I decided to audition a different chocolate babka — the stunning, twisty, glossy chocolate krantz cakes that I imagine have tempted anyone that’s opened Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook. Although I was curious, I knew there was no way they could be as good. How could they be, what with only 2 1/4 ounces of dark chocolate and just over 1/2 cup of butter per loaf? It was going to taste abstemious, and wrong. Abstemious chocolate babka is wrong, wrong on a moral-ethical level, as far as I’m concerned.
But it didn’t. It tasted incredible. It looked amazing. It caused an Instagram ruckus. Nobody even remembered the old babka, they just wanted more of this one, as soon as possible. I almost stopped there but a couple things had nagged at me during the prep, so, for the next holiday, I made them again. They were easier, but I felt they could have been simpler still, and so, woe is me, for this thing I pass off as a job (sheesh), I was forced yesterday to make my fifth and hopefully final (um, for the hips and all that) loaf of babka in a three week’s time. And on this one, I feel the kinks were finally worked out and it’s as easy as it can be. The loaf fits in the loaf pan with minimal smooshing. The spiral doesn’t fan open when you cut it. And I even figured out how to make it in one day, if you wish, which is important for the sort of people who see the above photos and think WANT. MUST. NOW. Not that we know anyone like that (cough).
One year ago: Lazy Pizza Dough + Favorite Margarita Pizza
Two years ago: Pancetta, White Bean and Swiss Chard Pot Pies
Three years ago: Cumin Seed Roasted Cauliflower with Yogurt
Four years ago: Apple and Cheddar Scones
Five years ago: Quiche Lorraine
Six years ago: Best Challah and Mom’s Apple Cake
Seven years ago: Arroz con Pollo (we still love this dish SO much; it’s a fall/winter staple.)
Eight years ago: Lemon Pound Cake
Better Chocolate Babka
Adapted from the Chocolate Krantz Cakes in Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
So, each time I’ve made this, it’s been kind of a mess; it never looks like the pictures in the books or the pretties I’ve seen online. And each time it’s come out of the oven and been brushed with that sugar syrup, it looks like I meant to do whatever I did. It’s nearly impossible to make these look bad, trust me. And it’s unequivocally impossible to make them taste bad. Whatever you do, don’t even think about making bread pudding or French toast with the leftovers. Nothing good will come from it.
Yield: 2 loaf-sized chocolate babkas
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 1 small lemon or half an orange (our preference)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup water (cold is fine) and up to 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 (or approximately 3/4 cup chocolate chips)
1/2 cup (120 grams) unsalted butter, cold is fine
Scant 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
Make the dough: Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer. Add eggs and 1/2 cup 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 extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass. With the mixer on low, 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; you’ll need to scrape the bowl down a few times. I usually found that after 10 minutes, the dough began to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it doesn’t, you can add 1 tablespoon extra flour to help this along.
Coat a large bowl with oil (or scrape the dough out onto a counter and oil this one) 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 fret if it doesn’t look like it grew by more than half.]
[To make this on the same day, see my fourth note below.]
Make filling: Melt butter and chocolate together until smooth. Stir in powdered sugar and cocoa; mixture should form a spreadable paste. Add cinnamon, if desired. [If you’re wondering what happened to the pecans and granulated sugar, see my third note below.]
Assemble loaves: Coat 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. Take half of dough from fridge (leave the other half chilled). Roll 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 half 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. I found that transferring the log to a lightly floured baking tray in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes made it much, much easier to cut cleanly in half. Repeat with second dough.
Trim last 1/2-inch off each end of log. Gently cut the log in half lenghtwise and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. Pinch the top ends gently together. Lift one side over the next, forming a twist and trying to keep the cut sides facing out (because they’re pretty). Don’t worry if this step makes a mess, just transfer the twist as best as you can into the prepared loaf pan. In one batch, mine was long enough to “S” inside the pan and I nested the trimmed ends of the log in the openings. Even if you don’t (and choose to bake them separately in a little pan, as I did in other batches), the dough will fill in any gaps by the time it’s done rising and baking, so don’t worry.
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 cakesL Heat oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove towels, place each loaf on the middle rack of your oven. Bake for 30 minutes, but there’s no harm in checking for doneness at 25 minutes. A 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, 5 minutes at a time then re-test. If it browns too quickly, you can cover it with foil.
While babkas are baking, make syrup: Bring sugar and water to a simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside to cool somewhat. 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 cool about halfway in pan, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way before eating (an adorable suggestion from Ottolenghi — don’t worry, we know you’re going to eat it warm).
Do ahead: Babkas keep for a few days at room temperature. Longer, I’d freeze them. They freeze and defrost really well.
A whole bunch of notes:
- I made a few ingredient changes: I used granulated sugar instead of the superfine suggested, because it’s hard to get it doesn’t seem essential here. Unsure of what “fast-rising active dry yeast” was, I used active dry yeast the first time and it barely rose; I used rapid rise or instant yeast the second and third: voila. You should use this. I had large eggs instead of extra-large; this wasn’t a problem. I also increased the salt in the dough and add a little optional cinnamon to the chocolate filling. Oh, and we preferred orange zest over lemon in the dough.
- The next set of changes was structural: I found the amount of syrup to be way too much and halved it in my second and third batches; it will still seem like a lot, but it’s just right once it sinks in and glosses up. I found that rolling the log out from a 15-inch side made too long of a twisted rope to fit a loaf pan; a 10-inch width fit better. I got a cleaner cut from transferring the rolled log to the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes before splitting it.
- Pecans and sugar: In the original recipe, after you spread the chocolate paste filling over the rolled-out dough, you sprinkle it with pecans and sugar, and if you’re me, you might mix a little cinnamon into that sugar. However, I found that these dry ingredients on top of the paste made it harder to assemble the final twisted shape — after the log is split, they make the layers fan open and hard to manage. I made one loaf (not photographed) without them and it was much, much easier to manage. Between that and the fact that my family doesn’t like nuts in baked goods, I’ll skip it going forward. If you’d like to add them, however, you’ll want to toast and chop 1 cup (100 grams) pecans and have 2 teaspoons sugar ready. Sprinkle half of each over each chocolate-slicked babka dough before rolling.
- To make this a single-day recipe: One thing I tried that wasn’t terribly successful was skipping the overnighting part of the recipe. While you can let it rise at room temperature instead (you’ll need 3 full hours for it to almost double), it’s not to your advantage because the buttery dough is much much easier to roll out and form into a log when it’s cold. If you want this to be a single-day process, however, once your dough is done rising, put it in the fridge for 30 before rolling it out. Trust me, letting the fridge firm up the dough helps tremendously.
- Without a stand mixer: This dough can be made, but the part where you need to beat and mash the butter into the tough dough will be tricky, quite an arm workout. It can/will eventually come together, however.