You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted to believed in. Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
You wonder if it’s possible to rewind all the clocks, revise in reverse. Rewind the tape and like that. Because lately you realize that’s what you’ve been doing — practicing nostalgia, talking about the past as if it were a record on the gramophone, a projector churning out old movies. Convinced that no one sees the world the way you do save for those who have lived through it. You talk about slipping quarters into payphones, photostats and fingers stained purple from the ink, negatives and film, cameras flannels and Doc Martens, Nirvana, Under the Bridge, rollnecks, Daria, Alf, Jeremy, dollar drafts, that other recession, that other George, televisions where you had to get up to change the channel, and a time when no one used a computer. Everyone passed notes. Everyone practiced diction: pedantic, punctilious, pugnacious. Everyone read real books. This was before the dawn of mediocrity, the era of we celebrate just your best, a time when anyone with a computer could call themselves a writer. The pill, it’s bitter to the tongue. Hard to swallow.
You tell stories because all time has a way of erasing things, and you’re left with a photocopy of the original, and there’s a moment when you wonder if it’s possible to get any of it back. Because there was something real and beautiful and honest about the years. Or maybe it’s you romanticizing on a time that doesn’t invite romance, thank you very much. So you focus on shedding the years like dead skin. You burn all the photographs and cut the negatives because you’re starting to realize that there is no compass for what lies ahead. There is only you with a little light, tumbling forward into the dark, to a new time, a new life, on the other side.
The first time I made chocolate babka cake was three years ago and I nearly sliced off a finger and set fire to my kitchen. Funny how time sorts things. Because what is lovely, beautiful, honest and true about the here and now is age, experience. And while I may not be the fanciest baker on the block, I feel humbled to know that I can make a damn good loaf of bread. This is one of the surprises that I hadn’t anticipated. Who knew that a teenaged girl who mixed in hardboiled eggs into brownie batter could make something like this. You can’t understand how proud I am of this babka and the years it took me to get to a place where I could say that.
Perhaps we need to forget the tape. Veer off the road.
INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
For the Dough
4¼ cups (530g) all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
½ cup (100g) superfine sugar
2 tsp (1 package) fast-rising active dry yeast
grated zest of small lemon
3 extra-large free-range eggs
½ cup (120ml) water
¼ tsp salt
⅔ cup (150g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into very small cubes
sunflower oil, for greasing
For the Chocolate Filling
½ (50g) confectioner’s sugar
⅓ (30g) best quality cocoa powder
4½ oz (130g) good quality dark chocolate, melted
½ cup (120g) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (100g) pecans, chopped
2 tbsp superfine sugar
Baker’s Notes: Superfine sugar is the equivalent of caster sugar (not quite icing not quite granulated, but somewhere in between). If you don’t have access to caster, I would put your granulated sugar in a food processor and grind to fine. Also, I loathe nuts of any variety in breads so I went without the pecans. Finally, I used large eggs instead of extra-large, as I rarely ever use extra-large in baking.
DAY ONE: For the dough, place the flour, sugar, yeast and lemon zest in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the eggs and water and mix on low speed for a few seconds, then increase the speed to medium and mix for another 3 minutes, until the dough comes together. Add the salt and then start adding the butter, a few cubes at a time, mixing until it is incorporated into the dough. Continue mixing for about 10 minutes on medium speed, until the dough is completely smooth, elastic and shiny. During the mixing, you’ll need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times and throw a small amount of flour onto the sides so that the dough leaves them. You probably think that a dough this sticky will never get elastic? DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF YEAST, MY FRIENDS.
Place the dough in a large bowl brushed with sunflower oil (you can also use cooking spray, as I did), cover with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge for at least a day, preferably overnight. This is your first rise and the dough will double in volume.
DAY TWO: You’ve survived the first rise! A brief confession on my part — I actually had the dough in a chilled counter, by accident, and it came out delicious so don’t freak out if this happens. But I digress. Grease two 2¼-lb/1kg loaf pans (9x4inches) with oil or cooking spray and line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper. Divide the dough in half and keep one-half covered in the fridge.
Make the filling by mixing together all of the ingredients listed to achieve a spreadable paste. Roll out the dough in a lightly floured surface into a rectangle measuring (15×11 inches). Trim the sides to make them even, then position the dough so that a long side is closest to you. Don’t freak out if this isn’t exact. DO YOU SEE ME WITH A RULER IN THE KITCHEN? NO WAY, NO DAY, KIDS. Use an offset spatula (or a butter knife works just fine) to spread half the chocolate mixture over the rectangle, leaving nearly an inch of a border around. If you’re using the pecans, sprinkle half on top of the chocolate, and then sprinkle 1 tbsp of superfine sugar.
Brush a bit of water along the long end farthest away from you. Use both hands to roll up the rectangle like a roulade, starting from the long side that is closest t you and ending at the other long end. Press to seal the dampened end onto the roulade and then use both hands to even out the roll into a perfect thick cigar. Rest the cigar on its seam.
Trim about three-quarters of an inch off both ends of the roulade with a serrated knife. Now use the knife to gently cut the roll into half lengthwise, starting at the top and finishing at the seam. Basically you’re dividing the log into two halves with the filling visible. With the cut sides facing up, gently press together one end of each half, and then lift the right half over the left half. Repeat this process, but this time lift the left over the right, to create a simple, two-pronged plait. Gently squeeze together the other ends so that you are left with the two halves, intertwined, showing the filling on top. Carefully lift the cake into a loaf pan. Cover the pan with a wet towel and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour to an hour + a half. The cake will rise 10-20%. Repeat the process with the second cake.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F and bake your cakes for about 25-30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Rest the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then feel free to remove.
AND THEN PROCEED WITH THE TEARS.