A Jewish babka is a dense, yeast-risen twisted loaf filled with chocolate or cinnamon sugar. I am a girl who has eaten a lot of babka in her time and believe me, there are a lot of wonderful babkas out there. Even a mediocre babka is still pretty good. However! In my experience, it’s hard to find a truly great, traditional, no-frills chocolate babka on the cheap. The best babka I’ve had in Manhattan in the past few years was tiny and cost twenty dollars, which is wild.
Through trial and error, mixing and matching existing recipes, I’ve worked out a good, simple babka recipe. I will be honest: the first time I tried making babka, I fucked up so badly I felt like I’d brought shame on several generations of my family. A year later I was finally ready to try again. My family, tired of schlepping to the Lower East Side for babka, was delighted.
It isn’t as hard as I assumed, which is great news for anyone else looking to make this. It is a yeast dough, which means you’re going to have to allot some serious time to just letting it sit. There isn’t actually a ton of actual labor involved, and you can pretty much work in 20- to 30-minute bursts and do your own thing the rest of the time. I made the dough, ran a bunch of errands I’d been meaning to take care of for months, made the filling and compiled the rugelach, and then let it sit for two hours while I watched The Flash before baking it.
This babka is moist, satisfying, and has thick sections of rolled chocolate pecan filling and a crumbly streusel top. I’ve made it fairly traditionally, but there are many different variations you can try! (Note: This recipe was largely adapted from David Lebovitz’s recipe for babka.)
1 packet Yeast (about 2 teaspoons)
2 cups flour, plus ⅓ cup flour
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup milk, lukewarm (I microwaved mine for 10-15 seconds)
6 tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
Scant cup sugar
3-4 ounces bittersweet chocolate — most dark chocolates also work!
Overflowing ¼ cup cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon
About ½ cup chopped pecans, walnuts, any other filling option you choose
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
To make dough:
This is a fairly quick process. I used a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, but I believe this could be done by hand.
Mix yeast with milk, initial ⅓ cup flour, and sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. If it looks like there are some chill bubbles on the surface, your yeast is probably working. After 10 minutes, mix in the butter cubes, and stir for a few minutes with a dough hook. Add in eggs and salt and mix. Add flour slowly, so you never have too much unincorporated. At this point I scraped down the sides of the bowl since the dough hook didn’t seem to be reaching the sides.
Let the dough hook do its thing at a medium-high speed for 5 minutes. By the end, all of the dough should have pulled away from the sides of the bowl and will be fully part of the dough ball in the center.
Turn the mixer off and pull the dough off the hook. I kneaded the dough a few times, just to check on the consistency. The dough should be soft and stretchy, but hold a shape. Put the dough back in the bowl and cover with a dish towel. Put it in the fridge and let it chill for at least 6 hours. You can also let it chill overnight.
[Clean up! Run some errands! Finish reading The Raven Cycle! Nap!]
To make filling:
Make your filling right before you’re ready to roll out your chilled dough. Again, there are a million recipes and philosophies out there about filling, but I think you really can’t go wrong. Unlike the hard science of a yeast-risen dough, babka filling is mostly about taste and personal preference. I made cinnamon chocolate pecan filling, but if you don’t like chocolate, there are cinnamon raisin babka recipes out there. There’s also the option of nutella babka, which is amazing but a little trendy for my purposes. I like to go with a melted, spreadable filling — it’s messy, so be ready for that (I put down aluminum foil to cover most of the countertop). Unlike more delicate pastries, messiness doesn’t detract from a great babka!
Break baking chocolate up into 1-2 inch pieces. Melt the butter in a pot on the stove over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add sugar. (I don’t worry if the sugar fully melts or not; it all works out when all is said and done.) Stir the sugar and butter mixture for roughly a minute and remove from heat. Take the baking chocolate and add to the pot, stirring until the chocolate is all fully melted. Add the cocoa powder and cinnamon. Let cool.
If you’re using pecans or walnuts, chop by hand or in a tiny chopper contraption or just put the pecans in a ziplock over newspaper, cover in a dishtowel, and hammer them.
To assemble and bake:
Before assembling the babka, butter your 8-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper. To do this, take a pat of butter in a paper towel and cover the entire pan in butter. Then cut parchment paper into two pieces, one to roughly the length of the pan, and one to roughly the width. They should be long enough to hang over the sides. This will make taking the finished babka out of the pan extremely easy and stress-free.
These instructions are for what I would consider to be a classic babka structure. I’m going to emphasize again how messy the filling is once you’ve rolled this, so make sure you don’t have to touch a phone, or computer, or literally anything in your kitchen until after you’re done and can wash your hands.
Flour countertop. Roll out the dough into a rectangle until it is roughly a half-inch thick. You are going to work more with this after this first roll, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Pour the filling onto the rectangle of dough. Using a spatula or knife, spread evenly across. I like to leave at least a 2-inch clean margin around all sides — it’s all right if you don’t, it just becomes harder to work with. Sprinkle chopped pecans/nuts/etc. over the top, evenly.
Starting at the long side farthest from you, start rolling dough towards you. You will IMMEDIATELY regret using a melted spreadable filling, but the taste is definitely worth it, trust me. Keep rolling until done. Try pinching the ends closed. If you don’t have any success, don’t worry about it, it’ll all be fine.
Roll the log very gently back and forth, starting in the middle, to extend the length until it is about a foot and a half. Twist the dough into your best approximation of a figure-8. I got the best results when I twisted the dough around itself at least two and a half times, and then tucked the ends back into the roll twist. Since you will be smushing this whole thing into the pan anyway, and babkas are inherently kind of messy, each one will look different but will definitely be great.
Lift the dough and smush so it fits into the loaf pan. Cover with a sheet of saran wrap and a towel. Leave for 1.5 hours to rise. Thoroughly clean your kitchen and anything you might have accidentally gotten flour/chocolate on. You can peek in on the dough to see how it’s rising, which I always find exhilarating. Thirty minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Make the streusel topping! With a spoon and then your hands, mash all the ingredients together until they’re in small crumbly pieces. Bam, you’re done. Uncover the babka and cover with streusel. I would recommend doing this over a sink or a sheet of aluminum foil since the topping will want to roll off the risen dough.
Put the babka in the oven for 35-40 minutes. Turn around halfway through. When the babka is done, let it cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes, probably more. Use the parchment paper hanging off the sides to lift it gently out of the baking pan.
You have a babka!! Typically it’s best to wait until the loaf is fully cooled to cut into it so it does not fall apart, but honestly, this is great really warm and I ate it pretty much right after it came out of the oven. The babka will last a few days wrapped in foil.
I was really pleased with this. It looks vaguely impressive, tastes great, has an extremely high and pleasing filling-to-dough ratio, and cuts cleanly enough that you can eat small pieces off of it before you realize you’ve eaten half on your own. This was also a big hit in my family, and on a purely aesthetic level my several Instagram followers seemed to like it, so I’m calling it a win.
All photos by Jackie Friedman.