I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so it’s rare that I get very excited about a dessert. But chocolate babka, a yeasted, eggy hybrid of brioche and challah, with a thick swirl of cinnamon and dark chocolate in the middle, is an exception. Though its origins are in Eastern Europe, every Jewish deli worth its (kosher) salt has a babka they swear is the best. Well guess what: this babka is in fact the best.
The recipe I’ve adapted it from is by my colleague Tori Avey. When she posted this recipe on her blog last May, I immediately tried it, and found it to be extraordinary. Since then, it’s become my go-to dairy dessert. I’ve tinkered with it a bit, as we food writers are wont to do, and have made a few adjustments and additions that suit my taste. The sweet all-butter egg dough is made with brown sugar instead of white, which yields a rich caramel flavor that goes very nicely with the chocolate-cinnamon mixture, and the streusel top gets a light sprinkling of flaky, crunchy sea salt, which makes the flavor of the rich chocolate pop like crazy. It’s to die for.
I have made several variations of this babka, and learned quite a bit in the process. It is possible to make it pareve using vegan/pareve chocolate and margarine or shortening (I tried it with Spectrum Organic Shortening in the dough, filling, streusel, and it was very good), though, of course, there’s just no way to mimic the richness of real butter. I have also made it using 1/3 whole-wheat flour, which yielded a nutty, slightly denser babka. It was a bit more rustic, but still excellent. I also recently made it using gluten-free all-purpose flour (I used the King Arthur brand) though it was a bit more like coffee-cake than regular babka, all the flavors were there and it was very good (and, incidentally, gluten-free flour makes a wonderful streusel, since it gets very crisp when it bakes).
However you make your babka, serve it in thick slices with coffee, tea, or milk. Then sit back, relax, and let the rave reviews come forth.
Chocolate Brown Sugar Babka
For the dough:
1 packet active dry yeast
2/3 cup whole milk or half-and-half, warmed (but not hot)
7 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 egg yolks (reserve 1 egg white for egg wash)
3 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
For the filling:
2 cups finely chopped, good quality dark chocolate
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/3 cup unsalted butter, diced, chilled
For the streusel topping:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, diced, chilled pieces
flaky sea salt (like Maldon)
Gently whisk the yeast into the warmed milk or half-and-half and let sit for 5-10 minutes, until foamy on top (this means the yeast has activated).
Meanwhile, cream the butter and brown sugar. Beat in the vanilla and egg yolks until completely incorporated.
Give the yeast-milk mixture a stir, then stir it into the yolk-butter-sugar mixture. Stir in the flour and salt. Continue mixing until a soft dough forms.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a floured board a few times.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for 1 hour (alternately, you may let the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight, just make sure to let it come to room temperature before going on to the next step).
While the dough is rising, make the chocolate filling by using your hands to mush together the chocolate, cinnamon, and butter (this may also be done by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor). It should have a chunky texture. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Make the streusel by combining the brown sugar, flour, and butter in a bowl and using your hands to mush together until combined (this may also be done by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor). It should be very crumbly. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Roll the risen dough out on a floured surface into a 14-inch x 18-inch rectangle.
Sprinkle the prepared chocolate filling all over the surface of the dough, all the way out to the edges.
Starting at the long side, roll the rectangle up tightly so you have an 18-inch tube. Roll the log back and forth several times, gently spreading it out until the length of the log is about 20 inches.
Twist the dough into a figure-eight and pinch the ends together, tucking them under the twist.
Line a 9×5 loaf pan with parchment paper (or spray well with non-stick cooking spray).
Nestle the twisted dough into the loaf pan. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour, or until the dough twist fills the loaf pan completely.
While the dough rises, whisk together the reserved egg white with 2 tablespoons milk, half-and-half, or water. Set aside.
Once the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Use a fork or the pointy end of a skewer to poke holes all over the top of the dough (this ensures no air bubbles form during baking).
Brush the top of the dough with the egg wash, and gently press the prepared streusel all over (some of it will fall off—this is OK). Sprinkle a few light pinches of the flaky sea salt over the top of the streusel.
Bake the loaf for 25 minutes.
Turn the loaf 180 degrees, and bake for another 25 minutes. The babka should be golden brown, and should sound hollow when tapped.
Let the babka cool in its pan for at least 10 minutes, then carefully slide it out, slice with a serrated knife, and serve (the babka may also be served at room temperature).
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Pronounced: PAHRV or pah-REV, Origin: Hebrew, an adjective to describe a food or dish that is neither meat nor dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)