It’s really weird how my mind works, especially as it relates to food and pop culture. A couple weeks ago, for some random reason, the Dinner Party episode of Seinfeld popped into my head. Do you remember that episode? The four friends are on their way to a dinner party and split up so that Jerry and Elaine are responsible for buying a chocolate babka and George and Kramer are put in charge of wine. Of course, hilarity/shenanigans ensue and the couple right in front of Elaine and Jerry (who happen to be attending the same dinner party) buy the last chocolate babka.
They don’t know what they’re going to bring to the dinner party when Jerry spots something he doesn’t recognize and asks the clerk what it is. The clerk tells him it’s cinnamon babka. Jerry tells Elaine they have to get the cinnamon babka but Elaine argues that, since the couple in front of them is bringing chocolate, she and Jerry will be bringing “the lesser babka.” Oh, Elaine, you are so misguided!
Jerry: “I beg your pardon? Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka! People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, “Oh, this is so good. What’s in it?” The answer invariably comes back, “cinnamon!.” Cinnamon! Again and again. Lesser babka? I think not.”
I totally agree with Jerry. Don’t get me wrong. I love, love, love chocolate. But, even when I am in a restaurant and ordering dessert, I only go for the chocolate dessert about 5% of the time. I am a sucker for cobblers and crisps, tarts and cheesecakes, profiteroles and doughnuts. And, as far as I am concerned, anything with cinnamon and walnuts (or pecans) has to be good.
Here’s the thing. I’ve never had babka. Truth be told, I didn’t really even know what a babka was…but I knew I needed to have one. So I googled it and I was right. I did, in fact, need babka. And just as I was thinking this, I cruised through my Google Reader to see a Slate article about babka of all things. I took it as a sign.
So, for those of you who (like me) don’t know exactly what babka is, it’s something of a cross between a cake and a bread. The bread is sweet and brioche-like and it’s filled like a coffeecake would be. I used a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, and it came out great. However, next time, I do not plan on making the pinwheel cuts before placing them in the pan and baking. Instead, I’ll just cut the cylinder into two equal parts and then twist them and stick each in a loaf pan. The slices made the top of the cake look pretty but ultimately, they were more time consuming and allowed more of the filling to drizzle out, causing a bit of a caramelized crust on the sides that wasn’t quite as pretty.
This is something best made on a weekend, or when you have two consecutive days off. I didn’t get a chance to make it the last two weekends and wanted to use my sour cream within the next few days, so I did it on a Monday and Tuesday. Bad idea. It wouldn’t have been SO bad, but I didn’t realize the dough needed to rise a second time for 2.5 hours after it was rolled/cut (let this be a lesson to read instructions fully before making anything). So, it didn’t even make it into the oven until about 9:45. I had to put it away still warm because I was too tired to wait for it to cool completely. I did sneak a slice before bed (of course! I mean, I had been waiting for it for two days!) and it was so great warm. Mmm.
Cinnamon and Walnut Babka
Makes 2 loaves
5.5 cups all purpose flour, divided
1 package (2.25 tsp.) instant or rapid rise yeast
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1/4 cup water
4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened but still cool, and cut into tablespoons (16 pieces)
1.5 cups packed brown sugar
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup raisins
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. water
In a bowl, whisk together 4.5 cups of the flour and the yeast. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the sour cream, granulated sugar, eggs, water, vanilla and salt. Turn off the mixer and add the flour. Using the dough hook attachment, knead the mixture on low speed until the ingredients are evenly combined, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-low and knead until the dough becomes smooth, about 8 minutes longer.
With the mixer on medium-low, add the butter one piece at a time, leaving about 15 seconds between each addition. Once you’ve added all the butter, scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to knead until the dough forms a soft ball, adding the remaining flour 2 Tbsp. at a time until the dough is no longer wet and clears the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft and sticky and you may not need all the flour (I didn’t use it all).
Scrape the dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10-24 hours (the dough will only rise slightly). Go to bed dreaming sweet thoughts of your babka.
Spray 2 loaf pans with cooking spray and line them with overhanging parchment paper. Set aside.
Turn the cold dough onto a lightly floured surface. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into an 18×24″ rectangle, about 1/16″ thick.
In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients for the filling. Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough. Then, roll a taut cylinder with the dough, pinching the end to seal it shut. Cut the cylinder into about 32 slices, 3/4″ thick (this is what I would skip next time) and then, line the loaf pans with 2 rows each of the slices, next to one another. Cover the pans loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for another 2-2.5 hours or until nearly doubled.
Adjust your oven rack to the middle lower part of the oven, and preheat to 450.
Make the glaze by beating the egg with the water in one bowl, and combining the cinnamon and sugar together in another bowl. Brush the breads lightly with the egg wash, and then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar.
Place the pans in the oven and then reduce the heat to 350. Bake the loaves for about 50-60 minutes (mine only took about 45 minutes and probably should have been taken out a minute sooner), turning once during baking, until browned and a thermometer inserted on the side registers at 190 degrees.
Transfer the pans to cooling rack and cool for 15 minutes. Using the overhanging parchment paper, remove the loaves from the pans and allow to cool completely on the racks before slicing.