Great British Bake Off fans may remember the chocolate babka from one of the technical challenges a couple of years back. Prue Leith got into trouble for saying Paul’s was better than the ones she’d tasted in New York. It’s a braided brioche loaf that originated in Eastern Europe.
I wasn’t particularly tempted by it, as I’m not a massive fan of chocolate in bread or pastries. But I recently joined a French sourdough group on Facebook which has been an absolute eye-opener in terms of the amazing things you can do with a jar of starter. Someone posted a babka they’d made with a cinnamon-flavoured frangipane as a filling. I was definitely up for that.
Warning: you will need to arm yourself with patience for this recipe. It’s a minimum two-day process if you start with a lively starter. An enriched dough like this will take time to rise, and you definitely don’t want to undermine all your work by being too hasty. Give it all the time it needs. After the first rise, you can fit it to your schedule by putting it in the fridge for as long as necessary, up to 24 hours. Also, if you don’t have a stand mixer be prepared to wear yourself out kneading by hand! It needs to be very thoroughly kneaded and the butter worked in bit by bit.
This is my translation and slight variation on the recipe: I added some finely diced apple and a few sultanas to the filling. Of course the filling can be whatever you fancy: chocolate, Nutella, praline, mincemeat, even cheese … one person did a version with a prune purée which I rather fancy, especially if you were to soak the prunes in brandy first.
210 g sweet starter (see below: 60g live starter + 60 g plain flour + 60 g water + 30 g sugar)
500 g plain white flour
2 large eggs
8 g salt
160 g milk, room temperature
80 g caster sugar
110 g softened butter
* 80 g melted butter
* 40 g soft brown sugar
* 60 g ground almonds
* 40 g egg (one small one)
* 2 tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
* Optional: half an eating apple, finely diced, and a few sultanas
Icing sugar or sugar syrup (see below)
Your sourdough starter needs to have been refreshed the previous day or a few hours before, so that it is lively. Put 60 g of it in a clean pot or bowl and add 60 g lukewarm water, 60 g plain flour, and 30 g sugar. Stir well, cover, and put it somewhere warm, preferably around 26C, to double in size. This will take about four hours but may take longer if your spot isn’t warm enough. I find on top of the Internet router is a good place. Meanwhile take the butter out of the fridge to give it time to soften.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, stir together flour, sugar, and salt. Then add all of the sweet starter you made in step 1, the milk (lukewarm or room temperature), and the eggs. Mix on slow speed with the dough hook for 15 minutes; the dough should be quite smooth and glossy. Cut the butter into dice and add one at a time with the mixer running, giving it time to absorb each one before adding the next. Once all the butter is in, continue to mix for 10 minutes. Then pull the dough into a ball, cover the bowl with clingfilm or put it in a plastic bag, and put it somewhere warm to rise. Again, it needs to be around 26C. My new combi microwave has a dough proof function that works perfectly for this. Another option is to put the bowl in the switched-off oven with a bowl or jug of boiling water. Just make sure no-one comes and switches the oven on. Do a stretch and fold of the dough after 30 minutes, and another one 30 minutes later. Then leave the dough to rise. It will take at least two hours; it doesn’t have to double, but it does need to increase in size by at least 30%.
End of day 1! Put the covered bowl in the fridge for up to 24 hours.
Take the dough out of the fridge and tip it onto a lightly floured surface. Give it 20-30 minutes to warm up a little; it will be quite solid because of the butter. Meanwhile make the filling: melt the butter over a low heat, allow to cool a little, and then stir in all the other ingredients except for the apples and sultanas. Set aside.
Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectangle about 30 x 48 cm. If it starts resisting, leave it for 10 minutes to relax before continuing. Spread the filling evenly over it and sprinkle on the apples and sultanas if using. Then roll it up lengthways, i.e. so that you end up with a roll 30 cm long. Seal the seam with your fingers and neaten up the ends. Put the roll back in the fridge for 20 minutes or so, because it’s easier to cut when it’s cold.
Have ready a buttered loaf tin about 28 x 12 cm. Now take a large knife and cut the roll in half lengthwise, pulling the two sides apart. Twist these two strands over each other to make a plait, turning them so that the cut side is up. Tuck the ends under at each end. Now transfer the roll to the loaf tin. Cover and place in a warm place to rise; it will again take 3-4 hours depending on how warm it is. It needs to almost double.
To bake, finally! Preheat the oven to 170C. Bake the babka for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, till it feels springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool for five minutes in the tin before unmoulding onto a cooling rack. You can either sprinkle it with icing sugar or make a syrup from 50 g of sugar and 50 g of water and brush it over the top. Leave to cool completely before slicing. Bon appétit !