Chocolate Babka Loaf {ModBak}

The first of my two “official” blog posts for the Yeast-Risen Specialties section of the Modern Baker Challenge is a delicious recipe, Chocolate Babka. This bread is Eastern European in origin, most likely Russian. The dough is enriched with milk, butter, egg yolks, and sugar, and filled with bittersweet chocolate and nuts.

I began by heating the milk, then mixing in the yeast, butter, sugar, salt, egg yolks, and vanilla. I stirred in half the flour with a rubber spatula, then mixed in the rest, one-half cup at a time, with the electric mixer. After all the flour had been added, I mixed the dough for two minutes, rested it for 10 minutes, then mixed for another two minutes.

I scraped the dough, which was very slack, into a buttered bowl, then put it in the refrigerator. It was supposed to chill for an hour and a half, but I had some errands to run, so it stayed in the fridge for about three hours. I don’t think the long, cold fermentation hurt the dough, but when I scraped it out onto the bench, it was still very slack.

I sprinkled the board with flour, but should have floured it more heavily. I should also have floured the top of the dough a bit. I patted out the dough, but it was so sticky, it was hard to manage. After pressing it out into a rough rectangle, I sprinkled the dough with the bittersweet chocolate mixture (chocolate, dark cocoa, sugar, and cinnamon) and chopped nuts.

I had quite a time rolling the dough, as it wanted to stick to the mat, my hands, and itself. It wasn’t pretty, but I finally got the dough rolled into a rough loaf shape, which I cut in half, then wrestled into two loaf pans.

The loaves proofed for about two hours, until the dough crested the tops of the pans. I baked the loaves for 45 minutes at 350°.

I took the bread out of the oven, cooled it in the pan for 10 minutes, then removed the loaves and finished cooling them on their sides so the loaves wouldn’t collapse.

What this bread lacked in appearance and manageability, it more than made up for in taste. The bittersweet chocolate was delicious, and the cinnamon gave it an additional depth of flavor.

The next time I make this bread — and there will certainly be a next time — I’ll flour the board and dough more heavily to make it easier to handle. But even with the difficulties I had, this bread was definitely worth the effort.

A Big Day for Peter Reinhart

When I was at Notre Dame Law School, I visited the office of Professor Charlie Rice. Among his many travels, Prof. Rice had been to Rome, and he had a picture of himself with the Pope hanging on his wall. When I commented on the photo, Prof. Rice said, “Oh, yes. It was a very big day for His Holiness.”

I would like to think that last Monday, June 21, was similarly a big day for Peter Reinhart. He came to the Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson, Ohio, to teach three classes from his new book, Artisan Breads Every Day. I was fortunate to be able to attend the first class on Monday evening.

Peter signed books and talked with participants before and after the class and was very engaged throughout the evening. He had three assistants, two ovens baking, and countless hearth breads, sticky buns, babkas, rolls, challahs, and crumb cakes going into and out of the ovens the whole time, yet he never lost focus or seemed the slightest bit distracted.

As I mentioned above, Peter was demonstrating recipes and techniques from his new book. Among these techniques is the use of minimal dough handling (i.e., no long kneading sessions) and retarding, or holding the dough in the refrigerator to develop flavor and allow you to bake on your own schedule.

In the picture above, Peter is demonstrating a stretch-and-fold, which is where, rather than kneading the dough, you stretch it out and fold it over itself several times at timed intervals. This works surprisingly well at mixing the ingredients and developing gluten.

We sampled three different kinds of sticky buns:  Philadelphia sticky buns, honey almond sticky buns, and creamy caramel buns with dried cranberries and pecans. Having grown up in Eastern Pennsylvania, I know a thing or two about sticky buns. All three recipes were fantastic. The Philadelphia buns tasted just like what we used to get in Lancaster County. The caramel buns were delicious, especially with the crunch of pecans and slightly tart sweetness of cranberries. But I think my favorite were the honey almond buns.

 

I don’t recall ever having had babka before this class. Peter’s ingredients were great — how can you go wrong with chocolate and cinnamon? But it was the technique that really impressed me. He pressed out the dough, spread it with the filling, and rolled it up, like you might with cinnamon-swirl bread. Then, using what is known as the kranz shaping method, he cut the loaf lengthwise, turned each half so that the cut side was facing up, and twisted the two pieces together. The effect was beautiful.

He also demonstrated two-, three-, four-, five-, and six-strand challah braids. Here is the two-strand:

As you can probably tell, I had a great time meeting and learning from Peter Reinhart. He is a world-class baker, a natural teacher, and a down-to-earth guy.

And he makes a mean sticky bun.