Saturday, January 10, 2009
In January, Jim and I always host Saturday morning open houses for our neighbors. We keep it very simple: coffee, tea, juice for the kids, doughnuts, and something that I make. (Last week I made espresso muffins, which I didn't bother to post about because they weren't very exciting). This week I made chocolate babka. That was exciting.
Apparently a lot of people who grew up somewhere other than northern Indiana have fond memories of their neighborhood bakery's babka. There was a bakery in our little town, but it sure never made babka. Neither did anyone else I knew. Like a lot of midwestern people, I first heard of babka in the babka Seinfeld episode. I first tasted Breadsmith's version. In fact, that was the only version I had ever tasted until I made this one. This babka, a recipe from epicurious.com, is softer, richer, and substantially more buttery and chocolatey than Breadsmith's. In fact, it bears about the same relation to "bread" as champagne bears to water. It is obscenely delicious but it wouldn't do on a long-term basis to sate your hunger.
The dough is very soft and sticky, with a lot of butter and eggs. It's so unlike a regular bread dough that you don't even make it with the bread hook attachment.
Although there are three teaspoons of yeast in the dough, it was a reluctant riser. It may have been the chilly January kitchen or the dough may just be so heavy that it doesn't like much activity, but it took longer to rise than the 90 minutes claimed by the recipe. That meant that I had to stay up past my bed time to get it shaped.
This was fun. For such a rich, buttery dough, it handled beautifully and rolled out into a 10 x 18-inch rectangle with no trouble at all. The dough rectangle is brushed with butter and sprinkled with chopped bittersweet chocolate (I think I might try grating it next time) and a few tablespoons of sugar.
After the dough is rolled up, you make it into a circle and then twist it a few times. It's supposed to look like a double 8. I couldn't really envision this, but I just twisted a few times, which is a little risky because the rolled-out dough is fairly thin and the chopped chocolate has sharp edges, so you could easily rip the dough, resulting in leaking butter and melted chocolate. Unless you're a master babka maker, there's no way to avoid a certain amount of leakage, but you'd rather not invite it. I believe this is why the recipe instructs you to prepare each loaf pan by lining it with two sheets of parchment paper. I didn't really like this idea--I thought that the weight of the bread would straighten out the paper, but it didn't work all that well, so you end up with a misshapen loaf.
At this point, I put the shaped loaves in the refrigerator, with instructions to Jim to take them out immediately when he got up. I was sure he'd forget, even though he left a giant note to himself to TAKE BREAD OUT OF REFRIGERATOR!!!. I was so sure he'd forget that I got up earlier than I wanted to so I could do it myself and chastise him for forgetting. He had remembered, however, so I was all at sixes and sevens because I was still sleepy and I couldn't berate him. Not a good way to start a weekend.
On the plus side, though, all I had to do was wait for the loaves to come to room temperature and pop them in the oven. Then came the only part that did not quite work out as planned. The recipe says to bake until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Do you see the problem with this method? You can't be doing any bread-bottom-tapping until you've already taken the bread out of the pan. And if it turns out that you've misjudged, the bread collapses. At this point, you can tap it and find out that it doesn't sound hollow, but a fat lot of good that does.
If I had made only one loaf, I would have been quite despondent at this point, but there was, fortunately, a second loaf, which stayed in the oven for another five or ten minutes. It got quite a bit browner on top, but it emerged in one piece when I took it from the pan.
There was only about ten minutes for the intact loaf to cool before guests started arriving, and, of course, the smell of bread and chocolate drew people into the kitchen. When they spotted the babka, they wanted some. This week, the doughnuts played second fiddle to the babka.