the three-day odyssean journey (with failures along the way): chocolate babka

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Note to self: read a recipe twice and then a third time. You have to know that I spent two hours last night making the PERFECT Danish pastry dough. I was ecstatic, triumphant. There might have even been a Breakfast Club-inspired fist pump. Yet, something gnawed at me when I went to bed last night, but I ignored it and fell into a blissful slumber.

Until 5AM this morning, when I woke with a start and realized that I had misread “freeze” for “fridge,” and my babka dough had started to rise in the fridge overnight. Normally, for other kinds of dough (e.g. brioche, cinnamon bun dough, etc) this would have been a good thing, but not for babka. At 5:08AM this morning, I re-read the recipe, raced to the fridge, and witnessed one dough rising. Believe me when I say that I nearly CRIED. When you nail pastry dough, it’s absolutely cruel to know that your babka could be ruined because you’re the moron who couldn’t follow directions.

But I digress.

Luckily, one batch of dough failed to rise, so I immediately stored it in the freezer, praying that it can be salvaged tomorrow, as I know that my attempt to bake babka today, 12 hours early from a bad proof, will be a hell only Dante could have conceived. I’m anticipating a failure of cataclysmic proportions, but I plan to bake both loaves and reveal the results in subsequent posts. I also plan to start over in a few days as I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

Since I tend to bake dough better in the evening, I couldn’t get great pics of the process, so I snapped some key interior photos from the cookbook, which was my crucial guide in understanding how things should look. I’ve never tried this technique before, and while it looks daunting, it’s actually not all the difficult. I took it really slow (you know, before I misread a critical step in the process), and the dough came out to perfection. If you have any questions about the Danish dough process, please let me know. Of note, I didn’t need a “tapered rolling pin” (I don’t have one), so I just used my standard and was gentle.

Learn from my mistake: read the recipe thoroughly, twice, and a third time, before starting any dough. One word can completely ruin all your hard work. I thought about not writing about this, but I came to the conclusion that sharing failures, especially in the kitchen, is paramount to becoming a better baker. You don’t become truly good at what you do if you never fail. Samuel Beckett was right, Fail again. Fail better.

RESULTS: WHOA. This babka is DAMN TASTY. A few thoughts, however. While the pastry is definitely light, aerated and “croissant-like,” it’s missing the crunch and of classic babka. I can see how the additional proof day + freezing benefit the dough. Personally, I would have dialed down the chocolate to four ounces instead of six, as I found it overwhelmed the almond cream. Overall, this is pretty damn good for a botched dough. I’ll let you know how the other dough makes out tomorrow.

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INGREDIENTS FOR DAY ONE: Recipe adapted from Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, with slight modifications. If you’re a baker, I implore you to get this cookbook. I got it on a lark based on other cookbooks I’ve purchased, and there are so many terrific recipes in this book for the nascent to advanced baker.
I. For the Danish Pastry: you will only be using 1/2 of the dough for this recipe.
For the détrempe
.75 ounce (1 packed tbsp plus 1½ packed tsp) compressed yeast or 2¾ tsp active dry yeast
2 tbsp granulated sugar
⅔ cup whole milk
1 large egg plus 4 large egg yolks
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean or use 1 tsp of vanilla extract
2⅔ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
¾ tsp fine sea salt
4 tbsp (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into tbsps, well softened

For the beurrage
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into tablespoons
2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour

Directions for the Danish dough: Day One
Make the dough at least 2 days before using. To make the détrempe, finely crumble the yeast into the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer. Add the sugar and let stand until the yeast gives off some moisture, about 3 minutes. Whisk well to dissolve. Stir in the milk. (If using dry yeast, sprinkle the yeast over ⅓ cup warm, 105° to 115°F, milk in a small bowl. Let stand until the yeast softens, about 5 minutes. Whisk well to dissolve. Pour into the mixer bowl, then add the sugar. Add the remaining ⅓ cup cold milk.)

Add the egg, yolks, and vanilla seeds and whisk to combine. Attach the bowl to the mixer and fit with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed, and add 2 cups of the flour and the salt to the bowl. Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft, sticky dough that almost cleans the sides of the bowl. Do not overmix, as the dough will be worked and absorb more flour during the rolling and folding processes. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface, knead a few times to smooth the surface, and shape into a ball. The ball should hold its shape, but it will widen slightly upon standing.

Dust a half-sheet pan with flour. Place the dough on the flour and cut an X about 1 inch deep in the top of the ball to mark it into quadrants. Sprinkle with flour on top and refrigerate.

Immediately make the beurrage. Clean the mixer bowl and paddle attachment. Add the butter to the bowl and beat with the paddle attachment on medium speed until the butter is almost smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and continue beating until the mixture is smooth, cool, and malleable, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and press any remaining lumps of butter out with the heel of your hand, and shape the butter into a 4-inch square. Place the beurrage on the half-sheet pan with the détrempe and refrigerate together for about 15 minutes. The détrempe and the beurrage should be the same consistency and temperature after this slight chilling.

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Flour the work surface again. Place the dough on the work surface with the ends of the X at approximately 2, 4, 7, and 10 o’clock positions. You will notice four quadrants of dough between the crosses of the X at the north, south, east, and west positions. Dust the top of the dough with flour. Using the heel of your hand, flatten and stretch each quadrant out about 2½ inches to make a cloverleaf shape with an area in the center that is thicker than the “leaves”. Use a tapered rolling pin to roll each “cloverleaf” into a flap about 6 inches long and 5 inches wide, leaving a raised square in the center. Using the side of the rolling pin, press the sides of the raised area to demark the square.

Check out the photos above, as they’ll give you a very detailed view as to how the dough should look and be formed throughout the process. These visuals will take you through the 24 hour freezer proof.

Place the butter square in the center of the cloverleaf. Gently stretch and pull the north-facing flap of dough down to cover the top and the sides of the butter square, brushing away any excess flour. (This dough is very extendable and stretches easily; be careful not to tear it.) Now stretch and pull the south-facing flap of dough up to cover the top and sides of the butter square. Turn the dough so the open ends of the square face north and south. Repeat folding and stretching the north- and south-facing flaps of dough (originally the east and west flaps) to completely cover the butter square, making a butter-filled packet of dough about 6 inches square.

Dust the work surface with flour. Turn the dough over so the four folded flaps face down, with the open seam facing you. Dust the top of the dough with flour. Using a large, heavy rolling pin held at a slight angle, lightly pound the top of the dough to widen it slightly and help distribute the butter inside the dough. Roll the dough into a 17 by 9-inch rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds, like a business letter, brushing away excess flour. This is called a single turn. Roll the rectangle lightly to barely compress the layers. Transfer to a half-sheet pan and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.

Dust the work surface with flour. Place the dough on the work surface with the long open seam of dough facing you. Dust the dough with flour. Roll out the dough into a 17 by 9-inch rectangle. Fold the right side of the dough over 2 inches to the left. Fold the left side of the dough over to meet the right side. Fold the dough in half vertically from left to right. This is a double turn (also known as a book turn). Roll the rectangle lightly to barely compress the layers. Return to the half-sheet pan and refrigerate for another 20 minutes.

Repeat rolling and folding the dough into a final single turn. With the long seam facing you, cut the dough in half vertically. Wrap each piece of dough tightly in plastic wrap, then wrap again. Freeze for at least 24 hours or up to 4 days. The night before using the dough, transfer the frozen dough to the refrigerator and let thaw overnight, about 8 hours. Once the dough defrosts it will begin to rise, so be sure to roll it out immediately or it could develop a yeasty taste.

INGREDIENTS: At least 24 hours later
For the streusel
⅔ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tbsp superfine sugar
2 tbsp light brown sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted

For the almond cream
4 tbsp (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp superfine sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp almond paste, finely chopped
⅓ cup (1¼ ounces) sliced almonds, toasted and finely chopped
½ tsp dark rum (I opted not to use this)
½ tbsp pure vanilla extract

For the babka filling
1 tbsp superfine sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Unbleached all-purpose flour, for rolling out the dough
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 large egg, well beaten with a hand blender
2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted, for decorating
Softened unsalted butter, for the pan
Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
To make the streusel, combine the flour, sugars, and cinnamon in a bowl. Gradually stir in the butter and mix, squeeze, and break up the mixture with your hands until it resembles coarse crumbs.

To make the almond cream, beat the butter and sugar together in a small bowl with a handheld electric mixer until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 2 minutes. Beat in the yolk. Add the almond paste and beat well until the mixture is smooth (the almond paste will take some time to break down), about 1 minute. Add the almonds, rum, and vanilla and mix until combined.

Generously butter a 9 by 5-inch metal loaf pan. Sprinkle about half of the streusel inside the pan and tilt to coat the pan. Tap the excess streusel back into the bowl of remaining streusel. Set the pan and the bowl of streusel aside.

Mix the sugar and cinnamon together; set aside. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the Danish dough (remember, you will only need HALF for this recipe) into a 14 by 8-inch rectangle. Spread the dough with the almond cream, leaving a 1-inch border at the bottom. Sprinkle the cream with the drained raisins, then the chopped chocolate and cinnamon sugar. Starting at the top, roll down the dough. Brush the empty border of dough with the beaten egg, and pinch the long seam closed. Roll the dough underneath your hands to stretch to 18 inches. Fold the dough in half into a curve, with the front length 3 inches longer than the back length. Using the side of your hand, dent the dough at its bend (figure 1). Fold the longer length of dough over the back length twice to make two humps (figure 2). Twist the dough to create a third hump, and tuck the two open ends under the loaf (figure 3). You should have a loaf about 9 inches long with three humps.

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Transfer to the prepared pan, being sure that the open ends are well secured under the loaf. Brush the top with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the reserved streusel. Don’t worry if some of the streusel falls into the corners of the pan. Place the babka, in the loaf pan, on a half-sheet pan.

Choose a warm place in the kitchen for proofing. Slip the babka on the pan into a tall “kitchensized” plastic bag. Place a tall glass of very hot water near the loaf pan. Wave the opening of the bag to trap air and inflate it like a balloon to create “head room,” being sure that the plastic does not touch the delicate dough. Twist the bag closed. Let stand until the dough has risen about 1 inch over the top of the pan, about 1½ hours.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325°F.

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Remove the glass from the bag, then the loaf pan on the half-sheet pan. Bake until the babka is deep golden brown, the dough in the crevices looks fully baked, and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the babka reads at least 195°F, 45 to 50 minutes. If the loaf threatens to burn, cover the top loosely with aluminum foil. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Carefully unmold the babka from the loaf pan onto the rack, and let cool completely. I ran a knife around the pan and turned it out gently onto a rack and it still broke in places, which may also be a result of my botched dough. Drizzle the melted chocolate from a silicone spatula over the top of the babka, and let cool until set. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the top. When serving, slice the babka with a serrated knife.

Photo Credits: Cookbook interiors from Sarabeth’s Cookbook. The remaining photos are mine.

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13 thoughts on “the three-day odyssean journey (with failures along the way): chocolate babka

  1. A babka made with a danish pastry? Anything with “difficult” in the title makes my fingers itch, so once we get over this bout of humid heat wave-y weather I will give this recipe a go. And freeze the dough.

    Sarabeth’s book is on my wish list, but am hesitating between it and Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet.

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  2. For some reason when I read your blog via feedly I get a disturbing message that states: please stop stealing my content.
    In no way am I doing that and when I visit your page that goes away just on feedly
    As I like to follow your blog sometimes on feedly I email it to read the post later. Please email me abbyherlin@gmail.com if something is up.

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    1. Abby,

      I’m so terribly sorry to hear this! A few people have been re blogging and stealing my content and I put in code to manipulate the first few pictures. I didn’t realize that was showing up in RSS readers. I’ll look into this today, and thanks for bringing this to my attention.

      Cheers, Felicia

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

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  3. This is my biggest problem. I skim read recipes, dive in and then discover the thing I’m meant to be serving for dinner is meant to rest in the fridge for two days. The babka looks fantastic though!

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  4. Chocolate babka – okay, a fat slice please. Thank God this stuff takes so long to make or I’d be doomed. I’m always impressed when people take on multi-day food projects. On another note, I’m curious about your no reblogging policy. When people reblog our stuff they only take the first paragraph, then everyone gets sent to our blog. Ergo, more traffic. Isn’t that what we want–or am I missing something? thanks. Ken

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    1. Hi Ken,

      Thanks for the note. My objective for this blog isn’t traffic (I’ll never monetize this space, nor am I interested in numbers), and I’m uncomfortable with people taking my photos + text and using it on their site without my expressed permission.

      Glad you enjoyed the babka recipe!

      Cheers, Felicia

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      1. Your last pic with the drizzle and crumbling loaf looks exactly like the babka I buy from a bakery out of New York. I’m no expert but I think you nailed it! Because it’s expensive, I want to make a special meal out of the bread so I make french toast out of it. My kids love it. I wish i had your patience and skills.

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