Mexican Chocolate-Inspired Babka
If you’re a fan of “Seinfeld,” you know what happens when the bakery runs out of chocolate babka: you have to take home the other babka. Or, enterprising home cooks, you can simply make your own chocolate babka — it is a super satisfying project, longer than it is complex, really, and worth every bit of the effort.
Try to find the origins of the word “babka,” and you’ll bump into a cake. Babka is derived from babcia, the Polish word for grandmother. It translates to “grandmother cake” — and it can refer either to a panettone-like Easter cake that’s made in a fluted Bundt pan or the rich, braided Jewish bread we’re making here. Indeed, the name might have been inspired by the Bundt pan, which looks a bit like Granny’s full skirts. In any case, the name is all these two sweets share.
According to recent food histories, the babka we know and love harkens back to 19th century Poland and Ukraine, where housewives would make extra challah dough, fill it with jam or cinnamon sugar, and bake it alongside the bread — a sweet treat for the kiddos. Chocolate babka only came about when the bread emigrated to New York with its bakers. And the innovations have just continued: nowadays, you can find babkas filled with everything from pumpkin butter to pizza toppings.
Although they’re not traditional or pareve, we like brioche babkas — they’re light and airy and have a buttery richness that’s absolutely irresistible. So that’s what we’ve used here. We’ve put our own spin on the chocolate filling, too, by infusing it with spices inspired by Mexican hot chocolate: cinnamon, cayenne, and ancho chile powder. We love how the outside of the babka bakes up shiny and crisp, while the crumb inside stays tender. And, oh, those pockets of fudgy, mildly spicy chocolate.
Brioche is a forgiving sort of bread, but we do have a couple of tips for you. First of all, it takes a fair amount of mixing to get the dough to come together and the butter to incorporate. Trust the process: if you just keep mixing and scraping down the bowl as needed, it will form a nice, smooth ball. And second, we’d recommend making the dough the day before you want to bake it — and letting it rise, slowly, in the refrigerator. That will give the yeast more time to express itself, and you’ll get a deeper, more complex flavor.
Servings or yield: 2 loaves
Mexican Chocolate-Inspired Babka
To make the dough: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the milk until warm but not hot. Whisk in the yeast and a pinch of sugar, and let sit for 10 minutes, until foamy.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour, ⅓ cup sugar, salt, orange zest, and nutmeg.
In a liquid measuring cup, combine the eggs and vanilla extract. Lightly beat to combine.
Attach the dough hook and mix on low speed. Pour in the warm milk and eggs, and mix until the dough just comes together, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add half the butter and mix until the dough appears soft and smooth, about 4 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add the remaining butter, 1 Tbsp at a time, and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, 10 to 12 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the dough no longer sticks to the bottom of the bowl and appears shiny, 1 to 2 minutes.
Grease a large bowl with cooking spray. Turn the dough onto the counter and roll it into a ball. Place the dough in the bowl and roll it around to coat it in oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until it’s grown 1 ½ times in size, 1 to 2 hours.
Press the dough down with your fist to deflate it, re-cover the bowl with plastic, and refrigerate it for 4 hours or up to overnight.
To make the filling: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the sugar, espresso powder, cinnamon, ancho chile powder, cayenne pepper, a pinch of salt, and the heavy cream. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook for 30 seconds.
Transfer the hot cream to a bowl and stir in the chocolate, unsalted butter, and vanilla extract until the chocolate and butter are melted and well combined. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing the top of the plastic against the surface of the filling, and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes.
When ready to bake the babka, spray two loaf pans with cooking spray and set them aside. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using a knife, divide the dough in half.
On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the halves into a 9x17” rectangle. Evenly spread half of the chocolate filling over it. Starting with the long side, roll the dough into a tight coil, pinching the long edge of the dough to seal it.
Wrap the coil in plastic wrap and place it in the freezer to set for 10 minutes. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Slice one coil in half lengthwise to expose the filling. Twist these halves together as if you were braiding them. Fold the braid in half, twisting it around itself, so it’s about 9” long. Place the loaf into a prepared pan, cut side up. Repeat with the remaining coil.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and water until well combined. Brush the egg wash over the exposed dough, reserving the remaining egg wash in the refrigerator.
Loosely cover the loaves with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until they have grown almost double in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Using the remaining egg wash, brush the exposed dough again.
Transfer the loaves to the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before serving.
Recipe adapted from: New York Times Cooking