Chocolate babka: the stuff that dreams are made of. At least my dreams. Even if the last stray slice gets stale after hanging around for too long, it toasts beautifully and morphs into a warm, oozy, slightly crunchy piece of wonder. Babka toasted on a panini may be my favorite way of eating babka. When I first began baking babkas a few years ago, I loved them. But I also sensed that there was room for improvement, and consequently immersed myself in a baking frenzy from which I have only recently drawn back. I’m indebted to all my friends and family who have eaten one or another version on my journey towards this recipe: the babka of my aforementioned dreams.
My main sticking point with babka is that it can run a bit dry. Pouring a simple sugar syrup onto the finished and still hot babka helps eliminate at least some of this dryness. Poking holes in the dough helps distribute the syrup; but because it is a yeast dough, the syrup nonetheless tends to collect in some areas more than others. I love these unexpected moist pockets of sweet goodness, even if they were surrounded by much drier pockets. Still, I was not satisfied with the dry pockets, so I started playing around with a basic brioche dough recipe. I replaced some of the butter with oil, four tablespoons of traditional flour with potato flour, and even went so far as to incorporate tangzhong. During my prior experimentation with tangzhong in the recipes of other baked goods, I’d previously concluded that a shorter knead time improves the final product. But with brioche dough, unfortunately, a long knead is necessary for the full development of the gluten. To make tangzhong work in a brioche dough, I recommend a long knead before adding the tangzhong mixture, followed by a shorter final knead before resting the dough. All of this, you might be wondering, just to eliminate some dryness? For me, it’s worth it.
A thank you to pastry chef Ciril Hitz for his cook book, Baking Artisan Pastries and Breads. I was fortunate enough to attend a few of his pastry and bread baking classes at King Arthur Flour, where I learned some of the basic techniques surrounding enriched doughs. His recipes for sweet brioche doughs proved to be the perfect launching point for my babka journey.
Another thank you to Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer for their beautiful cookbook, Golden, which I received for Christmas from my son, Tyler. It is one of those rare cookbooks that inspires me with its unusual recipes and creative ideas… I love receiving gifts that feel meant for me. The babka filling used for this recipe is adapted from one of Srulovich and Packer’s own. And on the topic of filling, this filling takes a slightly adult slant. But if you’re looking for something more child-friendly, then swapping out the bittersweet chocolate for its semisweet counterpart should do the trick.
The babka-making process involves a lot of steps; the end result, however, makes it all worth it. Here are some pointers to help avoid pitfalls:
Give yourself a couple of days, because as you’ll soon see, this recipe is not short on preparation!
Enriched doughs—which contain oodles of butter, eggs, and sugar—have a hard time rising (the sugar takes water away from the yeast, etc). To give the dough an extra boost, I use Instant Osmotolerent yeast (see here). Regular instant yeast may be substituted, but that requires a longer rising time.
When measuring the flour, be sure to measure accurately (preferably by weight, or with the scoop and fill method which I describe here). The correct quantity of flour is crucial.
When making an enriched dough, the temperature shouldn’t go above ~78°F. Due to the long mixing time, I prefer to rest the dough for ~10 minutes in the refrigerator before adding the tangzhong; this protects your machine from overheating, while simultaneously reducing the dough’s temperature.
As an additional safeguard against overheated dough, I use cold eggs and milk. Cold butter when making brioche dough is also instrumental in lowering the temperature. The cold butter should be beaten flat with a rolling pin so that it is thin and pliable; this allows it to incorporate itself more easily into the dough.
I always use European butter when making brioche because it has a higher fat content (82% fat versus the ~80% of most US butters).
If you have made brioche dough before, be aware that some of the stages in this recipe are untraditional, due to some ingredient substitutions as well as the addition of tangzhong.
The dough needs to mix with a dough hook for quite a while at a relatively high speed (on my 300-watt bowl-lift Kitchenaid mixer, for example, speed 5 or 6 works well). When beating dough at a high speed, be aware that the mixer tends to “walk” off the counter if left unattended. Your mixer will be working hard during this entire process, so give it rest intervals whenever it feels hot in order to safeguard against overheating. The dough is finished when it is fully developed. The gluten window test, which consists of taking a small piece of dough and slowly stretching it until a transparent window is formed, is a good gauge of this.
Although it may sound as if a stand mixer is necessary when making a fully developed dough - it is possible to knead the dough by hand using a slap and roll technique; however, be prepared for a bit of a time commitment and hard work.
This dough takes quite a while to rise, so allow for plenty of time. In a cool house, expect 5-6 hours of rising. Do not attempt to speed up the rise by putting it in an extremely warm place; butter melts at ~82°F, at which point the butter actually starts to leak out of the dough.
I prefer rolling the cold dough into a large rectangle on a table (I set up a folding table for this), rather than on a kitchen counter, because standing at the table end (rather than at the side of the counter) makes it easier to achieve the full 30” length.
The recipe quantity is designed for a 12 cup tube pan. Alternatively, the dough can be split between two 5”x10” loaf pans. If your pans are 4½“x8½”, you may want to sever the ends of the rolled log (and bake those separately as the cook’s treat!). The pans should be well buttered and lined with buttered parchment paper. I use a donut shaped parchment paper ring to do this. When twisting the cut pieces of rolled babka dough, I try to minimize the chocolate filling touching the bottom and sides of the pan in order to safeguard against burning.
Tangzhong Chocolate Babka
7½ tablespoons bread flour - 2 ounces
1¼ cups water - 10 ounces
4½ cups + 2 tablespoons bread flour - 19.7 ounces (divided) - (see note on accurately measuring flour here)
4 tablespoon potato flour - 1.6 ounces
⅔ cup granulated sugar - 4.75 ounces
2 whole large eggs + 1 yolk - ~4 ounces
3 tablespoons olive oil - 1.4 ounces
1 ⅔ teaspoons kosher salt - 0.35 ounces
5 tablespoons whole milk - 2.5 ounces
7 ounces European butter
9 tablespoons butter - 4.5 ounces
¾ cup + 3 tablespoon granulated sugar - 6.5 ounces
3.8 ounces 70% dark bittersweet chocolate - chopped
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder - 1.9 ounces
1½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ heaping cup hazelnuts (optional) - 2.8 ounces
⅓ cup + 2 tablespoons water - 3.7 ounces
¾ cup granulated sugar - 5.25 ounces
Make the tangzhong: In a saucepan, whisk together 2 ounces flour (7½ tablespoons) with 10 ounces water (1¼ cup) until smooth. Heat and continue whisking until the mixture is thick and gelatinous (this happens at 150°F, but I recommend heating until it bubbles in order to assure that the mixture has reached the necessary temperature). Switch from a whisk to a rubber spatula if necessary. Stir continuously; you want a smooth mixture without any lumps. Place tangzhong mixture in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap (pressing down onto the top of mixture to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate for at least a few hours or overnight.
Make the dough: Place 2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour in a bowl with potato flour, instant yeast, and salt; stir. Add the eggs, oil, milk, and sugar to the bowl of your stand mixer; stir, then add the flour, potato flour, yeast and salt mixture, continuing to stir until combined. It will be quite clumpy at this point. Place the remaining 2 ½ cups of flour aside in a separate bowl (this flour will be added gradually during the mixing process).
Using the dough hook, start to mix the dough at a low speed. While mixing, remove the butter from the refrigerator and pound it with a rolling pin to flatten it out, making it a bit bendy. Add a small piece of pliable butter (~½ ounce or 1 tablespoon) to the mixture in the bowl and beat on medium to high speed (speed 6 according to my mixer) until the butter fully incorporates. Follow this up by adding ~2 tablespoons of the reserved flour. Repeat with more butter and more flour. (Note: I find that it’s easier to turn off the mixer when adding ingredients.) It takes about 1-2 minutes on medium/high speed for the butter to fully incorporate. When adding the flour, I mix on a low speed, gradually increasing in order to avoid a flying flour mess. Continue until all of the butter is added. Continue adding the flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until all but ~ 1-½ cup of flour has been added. This entire process takes ~20-30 minutes. The proceeding process of adding butter and flour is merely a guideline, add the butter and flour in increments that work for you. Continue beating the dough for an additional 8 minutes on medium/high speed. Scrape the bowl and dough hook occasionally with a rubber spatula to assure all of the dough is equally worked. At this stage, the dough should more closely resemble a cookie dough than a yeast or brioche dough (see my picture above). The dough has been worked fairly hard by this point, so refrigerate the bowl for ~10 minutes, in order to rest the dough as well as the mixer.
Afterwards, add the cold tangzhong mixture to the dough, together with the remaining 1-½ cup flour. Beat the mixture at medium/high speed for ~8-10 minutes, occasionally turning off the mixer (and pausing the timer) in order to scrape the bowl’s sides and the dough hook. During this mixing stage, the dough should adhere to the sides of the bowl. Resist any temptation to add more flour, as you want this dough to be as hydrated as possible. As the mixing progresses, the sides of the bowl will clear and you will hear a slapping sound. After 8 minutes of mixing time, test the dough using the gluten window test. If you can see through the dough without it ripping, it is done. If not, continue beating another minute, and test again. Continue until a window forms. (Note: do not expect the window to be as “strong” as those found in traditional brioche doughs.) I believe a shorter knead and a slightly weaker window works better for tangzhong-infused doughs. Once finished, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 8 hours, or preferably overnight.
Prepare the chocolate filling: Prepare the hazelnuts by toasting in a dry frying pan over medium heat. If the nuts have skins, place them in a dish towel and rub to remove. Coarsely chop nuts.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the sugar and stir for a few minutes. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. Allow a few minutes for the chocolate to melt, then stir. Sift cocoa powder into the chocolate mixture along with cinnamon. Stir again. The mixture will be grainy (see my picture of the chocolate filling above) - which is expected. Allow to cool slightly (~ 30-60 minutes) while rolling out the dough, but not too long, because otherwise it will become much harder to spread.
Assembly: Prepare pan(s) by buttering and lining with parchment paper.
Lightly flour table top and roll out cold dough to form a very large rectangle 11” wide x 30” long. Due to the high butter content in the dough, little flour is needed to prevent sticking. While rolling out the dough, it works best to start with a light sprinkling of flour, moving the dough often and continuing to lightly sprinkle the table during the entire process. The 30“ length is harder to achieve than the 11” width, so focus on rolling lengthwise (the width will mostly take care of itself - although the ends will need a little coaxing). Cool dough is easier to work with, so try to work quickly. (If making two loaf pans, cut the dough into two 11”x15” pieces.)
Spread chocolate mixture across the surface of the dough, leaving a small clearing along one long edge; brush that edge lightly with water. Sprinkle chopped hazelnuts (if using) evenly along the surface of the chocolate covered dough. Roll up, beginning with the long edge that is opposite the water-brushed one; pick up the dough slightly while rolling, so that the chocolate is rolled up rather than pushed along. Seal the end. If the dough is still cool and firm, continue onto the next paragraph; but (more likely) if the dough has begun to soften, refrigerate for ~20-30 minutes using a parchment lined cookie sheet to transport the dough.
After the dough has firmed up a bit, move to a cutting surface and cut roll in half lengthwise while keeping one end intact. Plait the halves over each other, being careful to always leave the exposed ends facing upward. Seal ends. Carefully place twisted chocolate dough into a tube pan (remember about keeping the exposed chocolate facing upwards). It’s important that you do your best to evenly distribute the dough within the pan; I recommend slightly overlapping the two thinner ends to accomplish this. It’s going to be messy, but don’t worry; the rising and baking process will smooth out most of these blemishes. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for ~5 hours (skip Day 3 note below), or refrigerate for later use.
Remove the dough-filled tube pan from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature and then rise. This should take ~6 hours. Don’t expect the dough to double in size… maybe ~60%-70%.
Later on Day 2 or Day 3:
Prepare simple syrup: Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool.
Bake: Preheat oven to 350°F and place oven rack in center of oven. Bake babka for ~40-50 minutes, or to an internal temperature of ~180°F-190°F. When the cake is finished, poke holes along the top of the cake with a cake tester or skewer. Pour the sugar syrup evenly over the top, allowing it to soak in before removing cake from pan.