This recipe for a lemon, poppy and cream cheese sourdough babka is a bit of work, but well worth it for the rich, sweet result. You will need to start by building your levain. But if you are intimidated to try making babka using the sourdough method, you could also use the filling recipe along with any babka dough you prefer.
Building a levain, sometimes called a preferment, is common in many sourdough recipes, and it’s incredibly useful. Building a levain allows you to maintain a small amount of starter and use a portion of it to inoculate a larger quantity of flour and water for a specific recipe.
Levain builds can vary widely in their hydration depending on the final dough. This not only makes for a very manageable amount of starter, but because it uses such a small quantity, the sour flavor is restrained and mellow—ideal for sweeter, enriched doughs. Since all sourdough starters are unique, the maturation time varies widely—anywhere from 6 to 12 hours—so keep an eye on it the first time.
And timing is everything. Generally, I like to feed my starter first thing so I can build my levain early in the day. This allows me to mix a dough in the evening and give it a few hours at room temperature before transferring it to the fridge overnight. The next morning, I can shape and bake. To figure out what timing will work best for you, get familiar with your starter’s growth times and work backwards from when you’d ideally like to enjoy the final product. This formula appears in multiple enriched recipes in this book, and you can easily refer back to it.
For the levain build: (Makes enough for one 9-inch (23 cm) loaf recipe, or 210 grams of levain)
- 1⁄4 cup plus 2 tsp (70 ml) room-temperature water
- 1/4 cup (50 g) active sourdough starter, 100% hydration
- 2/3 cup (90 g) bread flour
For the dough:
- 1 levain build, doubled in size
- 21⁄2 cups plus 11⁄2 tbsp (325 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 stick (114 g) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
- 1⁄4 cup (50 g) granulated sugar
- 2 large whole eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 Tbsp plus 2 tsp (24 ml) whole milk, at room temperature
- 1 tsp kosher salt
For the filling:
- 8 oz (226 g) cream cheese
- 1 cup (120 g) powdered sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- Zest of 2 lemons
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp (30 g) poppy seeds
For the glaze:
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) water
- 1⁄4 cup (50 g) granulated sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon
For the levain build, in a small mixing bowl, combine the water and the active sourdough starter.
Add the bread flour and bring the mixture together, kneading by hand if necessary, until uniform.
Transfer the mixture to a clear jar or plastic container, 16-ounce (480 ml) capacity or larger. Cover and set the container in a warm spot to double in volume, at least 6 hours and up to 12 hours.
Use a rubber band or piece of tape to mark the starting volume and watch its progress. When itʼs doubled in volume, itʼs ready to use.
- In the bowl of a mixer, using the dough hook, combine the levain, flour, soft butter, granulated sugar, whole eggs, egg yolk, milk and salt. Knead on low speed for 25 to 30 minutes, stopping the mixer and scraping it down every 10 minutes or so until the dough comes together in a smooth ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
- Transfer the dough to a large bowl coated very lightly with neutral nonstick cooking spray.
- Cover and set in a warm spot, letting the dough proof for 4 hours at room temperature. It may not rise much this first proofing; that’s OK!
- Gently fold the dough over itself, cover and transfer to the fridge to ferment overnight, 12 to 14 hours.
- For the filling, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, egg yolk, lemon zest and salt in a mixing bowl. Cream together until smooth.
- You can make this just before shaping the dough up to 1 day ahead of time. If you make it in advance, keep it refrigerated and bring it up to room temperature 2 hours before rolling the babka.
- When the dough has fermented for about 12 hours, spray a 9 x 4 x 4-inch (23 x 10 x 10-cm) loaf pan with neutral nonstick cooking spray. Remove the dough from the fridge and gently turn it out onto a floured work surface. Dust the top of the dough lightly with flour and gently roll it out into a 10 x 20-inch (25 x 51-cm) rectangle, with the short end of the dough facing you. Spread all the filling over the dough in an even layer.
- Dust evenly with the poppy seeds.
- Roll the dough up starting with the short edge to form a 10-inch (25-cm)-long spiral. Cut the roll down the middle the long way, creating two 10-inch (25-cm)-long strips. Place the middle of one half on top of the middle of the other half—forming an X—then twist the strips around one another. Place the twisted dough in the pan, tucking in the ends. Spray the top of the babka lightly with a nonstick spray and cover loosely with plastic.
- Place the babka in a warm spot and proof again, until it increases in size by about a third and is light and puffy in appearance, 3 to 4 hours. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the center.
- When fully proofed, transfer the babka to the oven and bake until a deep golden brown on top, 45 to 55 minutes.
- For the glaze, while the babka bakes, bring the water, sugar and lemon zest to a boil in a small pot.
- Boil for 2 minutes and reduce slightly, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.
- Remove the babka from the oven and immediately pour the glaze over the top, using it all.
- When cooled to room temperature, gently unmold, slice and serve.