July 5, 2017

Chocolate and almond paste babka

Is it odd to try to make something that you've never actually eaten before?  I know I find myself doing that sometimes, as in the case of this babka.

I'd say I barely knew what a babka was (my husband is the Seinfeld fan in the family so I didn't even have that reference) until a year or so ago when it seemed to pop up everywhere.  Serious Eats called it a "babka renaissance" and rightly so because you started seeing these loaves of twisted bread, often swirled generously with chocolate, seemingly everywhere.  
That was all well and good but I can't say I was much drawn to making or eating babka until very recently when I saw a recipe for a marzipan & chocolate babka from Sweet Paul.  Right away, I thought about my almond buns - a spin off of another recipe from Sweet Paul where I add grated almond paste and chocolate as a filling to the small-batch cinnamon roll dough I use (it's delicious!).  So my brain immediately went to a babka filled with grated almond paste and chocolate.  I prefer swapping almond paste for the sweeter marzipan.  There is just something about a recipe using almond paste that gets me running into the kitchen!  Even in July, approaching a busy holiday weekend...
So I experimented and thought I'd give this babka idea a try.  I started by learning a bit more about what a babka was and how it was supposed to taste and be.  Babka translates into "little grandmother" and is an Eastern European yeast bread-cake that's similar to brioche.  The bread is somewhat dense, itself slightly dry, that's often paired with a moist chocolate spread filling (though there are ones with other fillings like cinnamon, nuts, and fruit...plus now we have almond paste!).  The mix of sweet eggy bread with a chocolate filling is its very appeal.

My imprecise/untraditional loaf is a blend and adaptation of two recipes: Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe for making babka dough via Smitten Kitchen and the filling inspiration from Sweet PaulThe Sweet Paul recipe was almost too simple and I felt I needed to follow more precise instructions. What resulted was a sweet bread that was dense yet light, slightly dry yet moist. The almond paste adds extra chew and a great almond flavor and fragrance, which I love; my only regret was maybe not using a bit more of it!  

I think 3 oz. of dark chocolate is a fairly modest amount for the filling, and you could use more if you want to be more indulgent.  You often see far more intense chocolate swirls in a babka loaf.  They are also often brushed with a sugar syrup or topped with streusel.  I like that, at home, I can practice some relative restraint, and this was flavorful and moist enough for us.  When it comes to the chocolate, using a deep, flavorful one you enjoy (Scharffen Berger 62% in my case) will give you more mileage. 
It was fun making this babka!  Aside from needing to plan ahead and set time aside for an overnight rest, the yeast dough was surprisingly easy to handle and the steps were not difficult to tackle at all.  My family and I enjoyed having "babka for breakfast" and I still have a few slices tucked away in the freezer to enjoy another day.  All in all, it was a very rewarding baking experience.

I divided the babka dough recipe I used in half to make one loaf, with a few adaptations.  I find it's more manageable to make a single loaf and it's enough for my family of 3.  

The stand mixer with the dough hook does the hard work.  Similar to brioche dough, be patient and incorporate the butter (I used 5 tablespoons) into the dough thoroughly until you have a smooth ball.  Then, cover it up and let the dough chill in the fridge overnight.  
It's time to get to the fun part of the filling, which inspired this babka-making endeavor to begin with for me!  I used a rounded 1/2 cup of grated almond paste for one loaf, or about 2 ounces.  Looking back, I would have used a little more so aim for about 2 1/2 ounces or so.  The almond paste will be very easy to grate if you freeze the almond paste for 10-15 minutes before doing so.  I use the small opening of a box grater.
A tablespoon of butter, the grated almond paste, and 3 ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate are simply what I used as the filling.  You can also add some chopped almonds if you want but I liked the idea of more of a smooth filling for the babka.
The rested dough was easy to roll out and I did so, making it about 10 inches wide and 12 or so inches long (away from me).  I smeared the softened butter over the dough, leaving about a 1/2 inch border.  Then I distributed the almond paste and chocolate evenly over that.  Moisten the border farthest away from you with water and roll the dough up tightly into a tube or log.  Seal it using that moistened end.  
Trim off the uneven ends, about 1/2 inch or so, from both sides of the log. Now, taking a deep breath, take a sharp knife and cut the log down the middle lengthwise. Lay them side-by-side, filling side up.  If you have time, freezing the logs for 10 minutes or so helps you make a cleaner cut.
To braid, first pinch the upper ends together.
Then, lift one side over the other, forming a twist, keeping the cut sides facing out as much as possible.
Gently transfer and set the braided loaf into a prepared loaf pan (greased and the lined with a piece of parchment paper on the bottom).  Cover with a damp cloth and let sit at room temperature for a final rise - about 1 1/2 hours - before baking.  
My loaf took about 35-40 minutes to finish baking...begin checking yours early and if it seems to be browning too much, tent it with foil like I did in the last 10 minutes or so.  When the loaf is done, you should not see any sticky raw dough from a cake tester and the loaf should sound a bit hallow when tapped.
I opted out of brushing my babka loaf with a sweet syrup.  I liked how the almond paste crisped up on top into something of a streusel-like topping on the crust.  But inside, the almond paste adds moisture and chewiness. From the side view, you can see the swirls and how the dough expanded during the final rise to fit into a loaf shape.
All you need is to cut yourself a slice and grab a cup of coffee!
Here's to the grandmothers who baked babka for their family and brought an extra dose of sweetness into their lives!  I'm glad babka had its renaissance and we can all enjoy its sweetness, in all its creative forms both traditional and untraditional.  


Chocolate and Almond Paste Babka
Babka dough adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi via Smitten Kitchen; filling inspiration from Sweet Paul

- Makes one 9x4 inch loaf - 

For dough:
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (265g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 large eggs
1/4 cup water (cold is fine) and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon extra, if needed
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

For filling:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
Heaping 1/2 cup (about 2.5 ounces) grated almond paste*
3 ounces (1/2 cup) dark chocolate, finely chopped

* Freeze almond paste for 10-15 minutes, then grate using the small opening of a box grater

Make the dough: Combine flour, sugar, and yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  Add eggs and 1/4 cup water, and mix until dough comes together.  If dough does not come together after a couple of minutes, add additional water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until dough forms a mass.  On low speed, add salt, then the butter, about a tablespoon at a time, until fully incorporated into the dough. On medium speed, mix dough until completely smooth, about 6-8 minutes. Scrape the bowl down a few times as needed.  At the end of this mixing process, the dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl (you can add 1/2 tablespoon flour if that's not happening by this point).  

Coat a large bowl with oil and place dough inside.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half a day, preferably overnight.  

Assemble babka with filling: Grease a 9x4 inch loaf pan with oil or butter and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper.  Remove dough from the refrigerator.  On a floured surface, roll dough about 10-inches wide (the side closest to you).  Roll it out (away from you) thinly, to about 12 inches long.

Spread the softened butter evenly over the rolled dough, leaving a 1/2 inch border all around.  Top evenly with grated almond paste, then the chocolate.  Brush the end farthest away from you with water.  Roll the dough up with the filling into a tight log. Seal the dampened end into the log.  (If you like, you can place the rolled log onto a floured baking sheet and freeze for 10-15 minutes so that you can make a cleaner cut when you slice it.)

Trim about 1/2 inch off the ends of the log.  Gently cut the log in half lengthwise with a sharp knife.  Lay the two halves next to each other, cut-sides up.  Pinch the top ends gently together, then lift one side over the other, forming a twist, and trying to keep the cut side up.  Gently place the braided loaf into the prepared loaf pan.  Cover the pan with a dampened tea towel and let it rise at room temperature for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 

Bake babka:  Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Remove the tea towel and bake the loaf in the middle rack for about 30 minutes.  When done, the top should be browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf should not come out with any wet dough. Check on the loaf as it approaches the half hour mark.  If the loaf is browning too fast but not yet done, tent the top with foil and continue baking until done (mine took 35-40 minutes).

Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack.  Let cool for about 10 minutes, then remove the babka from the pan and let cool completely.  


  1. One of my favourites! Chocolate and marzipan are fantastic together.

    1. My husband and I are huge fans of the combo.

  2. Outstanding! Once again you and I are drawn to the same baking experiences. Babka has been on my list forever but I've never actually eaten it. I am inspired and your loaf is absolutely gorgeous! Great recipe - love that almond paste and combined with the chocolate it must be fantastic. Thank you so much Monica!

    1. Thank you - I'm honored we might be thinking along the same lines. : ) I have miles to learn whereas I'm confident you would make a stunning rendition of a babka. And there does seem to be so many ways to go about it. I just loved the idea of incorporating almond paste/marzipan so it was the push I needed to try it out. Really fun. You should definitely go for it! It'll be a breeze for you.

  3. You know, the first time I made babka, I don't think I had ever had it before either!! I never ended up posting to my blog (I didn't love my finished product), but am excited to make a pumpkin spice one in the fall. Your finished product looks awesome and I bet it's super delicious with a nice cup of coffee :)


    1. That's funny. Good luck with your pumpkin spice version...sounds great.

  4. Congratulations for your babka! I haven't eaten it for ages...

  5. I have eaten a lifetime of babka (as long as there are no nuts in the filling) and I speak with that eater's authority when I say without a doubt, that your babka is beautiful! You tackled a recipe for something you had never made or eaten, a recipe involving yeast even, and excelled. Awesome job, Monica! The only thing I don't understand, is how you have the restraint to put a few slices in the freezer for another day!?! :)

    1. Your stamp of approval certainly means a lot to me given your babka expertise! Yay! I'm so happy you think it passes as a decent babka! Funny about the freezing...it was almost too easy to possibly finish the loaf during a single breakfast! But we restrained ourselves and we were going out for breakfast the next day and there was ice cream and other things to eat so I thought I'd preserve the leftovers. ; ) I hear it freezes well.

  6. I have heard and seen babka but have never had though. Yours look so pretty and has perfect swirl too!

    1. Thank you, Bal! It was fun to experiment and give it a try.

  7. This babka looks like something that should be in a bakery shop. Love the swirls of deliciousness.

    1. I don't know about that but it was nice that it worked out and the dough was pretty easy to roll and handle. : )

  8. I've never tried a babka before either and only knew about it from Seinfeld too and I think you totally nailed it! It looks perfect and SO beautiful! Wishing I had some right now with my cup of tea :)

    1. I've seen babka on tons of food blogs, with many twists and turns to them. Plus, I was surprised when I saw them at Trader Joe's not long ago once. I really wanted to make some with almond paste. You know, any excuse to bake with it and eat it! It was fun. : )

  9. Hi Monica, Love babka but never have mustered up the nerve to make it myself, looks perfect with just the right amount of chocolate. Hope you are having a great summer.

    1. You could definitely do it so maybe the urge or desire will strike one day. : ) Enjoy the summer and all the sunshine!

  10. This chocolate and almond paste babka looks so pretty and delicious, Monica. I love babka but I have yet to make babka at home, and your recipe sounds perfect to start. I wish I could have this right away.




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