Saturday, April 15, 2006

Time to get down to (Easter) business!

As Easter Sunday quickly approaches, I decided it was time to stop futzing around and get to work on some holiday-appropriate treats. As has become my custom, I had been reading the Cook's Illustrated message boards, and a nice gal named Debby shared her recipe for babka (a brioche-like sweet bread/coffee cake of Polish origin). She worked with a Martha recipe for babka with a chocolate filling, but she swapped out a more traditional cheese and raisin filling for the chocolate. Both sounded yummy to me, so I gave babka a try...

Well, I had my three babka in the oven by 2am (yes, I am a nocturnal baker), but thank goodness that streusel hideth a multitude of sins! They looked nice, but Lord only knows what I'm going to end up with. What a nightmare! And it's all my own doing! First of all, I wanted to try both the chocolate version and the cheese one, so I made half batches of both fillings. But with three loaves, that doesn't work out right, does it? God help the math impaired! And there were other problems, too. First, there was the chocolate version. I chose, instead of the chopped chocolate that the recipe calls for that I'd just use chocolate chips (and not cut them up further). Bad idea! Trying to roll that tender dough over all those bumps just tore it all up. And forget about twisting it as the instructions demand! I just ended up mashing it into the pan in a bit of a rage. :-( Then there was the cheese cafuffle. I decided to use cream cheese instead of the farmer's cheese that Debby recommended. But then adding an egg yolk and sour cream made it pretty runny. I tried to get it to set up a bit in the fridge before spreading it on the dough, but it still gooshed out of the edges of the jelly roll. I probably have no filling left at all in that one! And for the last one, I had lost my will to care anymore, so I just threw the remainder of the chocolate bits on the dough and drizzled it with the remaining cheese filling and rolled the beast up! Now I never did get much of a twist going on, and for the last two, I ended up folding the barely-twisted logs in half and just tossing them into the pan like that. Heaven knows what will become of all this. I was anticipating a thousand dollars' worth of butter down the drain!

But there seems to have been an Easter miracle. So far, I have only sliced and sampled the strange chocolate-and-cheese hybrid, but it was lovely inside--sweet, tender, with a tight crumb, a dark, crusty exterior, and a delectably crumbly streusel topping. To say the very least, this is a very forgiving bread--hard to mess up, though I gave it my best try! ;-) Next time I make this (there will be a next time, and perhaps a new Easter tradition!), I will dutifully chop my chocolate, and I think I might just use the cream cheese filling from the King Cake that I made for Mardi Gras (just cream cheese sweetened with sugar) without the egg and sour cream that made this cheese filling so loose. In fact, truth to tell, this dough might also make a better King Cake (not as dry). Hmm...someone remind me that I need to try that next year! But I digress. What follows is the Chocolate Babka recipe, then the steusel topping, then Debby's cheese filling if you want to swap it out for the chocolate. You may also want to sprinkle on up to a cup of golden raisins over the cheese filling as Debby does, but I find all raisins to be wrinkled little abominations that ruin otherwise perfectly good food. But you do what you have to do. I won't judge you. ;-)

Chocolate Babka (a la Martha)

Makes 3 loaves
When shaping the babka, twist dough evenly throughout the length of the roll a full five to six turns. The babka can be prepared up to Step eight and frozen for up to a month before baking. When ready to bake, remove from freezer; let stand at room temperature for about five hours, and bake.

1 1/2 cups warm milk (110°)
2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups plus a pinch of sugar
3 whole large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, room temperature, plus more for bowl and loaf pans
2 1/4 pounds semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon heavy cream

1. Pour warm milk into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and pinch of sugar over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
2. In a bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup sugar, 2 eggs, and egg yolks. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Change to the dough hook. Add 2 sticks butter, and beat until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, and a smooth, soft dough that’s slightly sticky when squeezed is formed, about 10 minutes.
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few turns until smooth. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
5. Place chocolate, remaining cup sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl, and stir to combine. Using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in remaining 1 1/2 sticks butter until well combined; set filling aside.
6. Generously butter three 9-by-5-by-2 3/4-inch loaf pans; line them with parchment paper. Beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon cream; set egg wash aside. Punch back the dough, and transfer to a clean surface. Let rest 5 minutes. Cut into three equal pieces. Keep two pieces covered with plastic wrap while working with the remaining piece. On a generously floured surface, roll dough out into a 16-inch square; it should be 1/8 inch thick.
7. Brush edges with reserved egg wash. Crumble a third of the reserved chocolate filling evenly over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border. Refresh egg wash if needed. Roll dough up tightly like a jelly roll. Pinch ends together to seal. Twist five or six turns. Brush top of roll with egg wash. Carefully crumble 2 tablespoons filling over the left half of the roll, being careful not to let mixture slide off. Fold right half of the roll over onto the coated left half. Fold ends under, and pinch to seal. Twist roll two turns, and fit into prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining two pieces of dough and remaining filling.
8. Heat oven to 350°. Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash. Crumble a third of streusel topping (recipe follows) over each loaf. Loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place 20 to 30 minutes.
9. Bake loaves, rotating halfway through, until golden, about 55 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 325°; bake until babkas are deep golden, 15 to 20 minutes more. Remove from oven, and transfer to wire racks until cool. Remove from pans; serve. Babkas freeze well for up to 1 month.

Streusel Topping

Makes 3 3/4 cups. (This topping is the crowning glory of babka!)

1 2/3 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, and butter. Using a fork, stir until fully combined with clumps ranging in size from crumbs to 1 inch.

Debby's Cheese Filling

2 - 7.5 ounce packages farmer’s cheese
½ cup sugar
½ cup sour cream
pinch salt
1 egg yolk
zest of ½ lemon
3/4- 1 cup golden raisins (optional)

Put all ingredients (except raisins!) into a food processor and mix until smooth, about 1 minute. Debby recommends making a batch and a half, or even doubling it if your family REALLY likes a cheesy babka! The filling stores in the fridge up to a week and can also be used as a yummy crepe filling.

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