I often hear devoted bakers say cheesy things like “the secret ingredient is love”.
“With enough butter, anything is good,” said Julia Child, and I agree.
Especially when I’m the baker.
Certainly there is joy in making something for someone special, and a real sense of accomplishment when they enjoy it (and it turns out right – that’s when I really experience joy). Baking can also have a real zen effect on some individuals and help them cope with stress or mental illness. The rest of us end up breaking down and sobbing on the floor like a toddler, with brown paste on our faces and flour on our clothes. So why do I do it? I have yet to answer that question.
With Christmas morning alarmingly close, and the foreknowledge that there will be more bodies in my house than my house can comfortably accommodate (but we’re family right?), I’m editing my baking “wish list” and focusing on the items that I most want to provide (and a few that Eldest Son requested…most of his favs are non-bake so much, much easier). That included chocolate babka.
I first attempted this sweet, braided bread or cake last year. It originated in the Jewish communities of Poland and Ukraine. It literally translates as “grandmother” in Polish. Made with yeast and enriched with loads of butter, it is truly a labour of love. Or at least serious “like” because making it is a commitment! It takes 2 days.
Is it worth it? Yes. Yes it is!
Step one was making the actual dough and I used my mixer and dough hook. Normally, I opt for kneading by hand, but this time a dough hook is my best friend. Why? Because the dough is super sticky. Once it’s on your hands, it will require intense scrubbing, the kind your grandma invoked when she washed your face after dinner, leaving your skin burning and red.
Judging how long to mix the dough required some intuition, something that long been established is not my strong suit. The recipe simply said “until the comes away from the bowl” about 10 minutes. Having made bread in the past, I know what that looks like, but Hubby challenged my abilities, creating doubt. He’s not the bad guy, however, There is such much butter that the dough never really “comes away”. In fact, when you scrape the sides of your mixer bowl, the dough just kind of smears like…well butter. Eventually I made the call. I oiled it, wrapped it in plastic wrap and tucked it in the fridge for the night.
Sunday afternoon, I hesitatingly pulled it out. As it started to warm up, I set about making the filling.
The first task was chopping my bittersweet chocolate…8 ounces of it! Again, this recipe said to chop it medium fine, which led to a family discussion about what constituted medium. I knew it was going inside the dough, so I wanted it to be at least as small as my fingernail. But I wasn’t the one chopping, so we compromised and I moved on the second task: The Chocolate Mixture.
The filling is a mixture of sugar, cocoa, cinnamon and more butter. I decided to use my hand mixer because my stand mixer bowl was in a pile by the sink waiting to be washed, the edge cemented in in yellow dough. Within seconds, I was enveloped in a brown cocoa cloud. On the plus side, my hair now smelled like cinnamon, but my lungs were complaining. Even though the butter had been sitting on the counter for more than 24 hours, it was still firm. Using my creativity, I carefully draped a hand towel around 3/4 of the bowl and prayed that the towel wouldn’t mix with the beaters, and that the butter would mix with everything else.
Rolling out the dough went smoothly and I started to feel optimistic once again. It’s also a great upper body workout.
Sure my rectangle wasn’t quite a perfect rectangle, but it was close. This wasn’t baseball. It was more like horseshoes or handgrenades.
Now for the fun part – spreading my chocolate mixture on my dough. It proved to be both a difficult and messy task because the dough was super soft. It was kind of like trying to spreading diaper cream on a squirming toddler. Funny I should mention toddler, as the chocolate mixture was firm yet sticky, and brown like poo. I started having flashbacks, and not good ones.
I sprinkled my
questionable medium blocks of chocolate, rolled that dough and stuck it in the freezer. Unlike last year, they looked like squat and rotund, but it was too late.
I preheated my oven. I lined with loaf pans with silicone mats…because I was too lazy to carefully cut parchment paper to fit.
And after 15 minutes, I sliced my beautiful babies in two and twisted them together. Hubby helped me
shove manhandle slide the maimed loaves in the pans and I tucked them into the oven to become soft, flaky deliciousness.
I should have read the instructions more carefully. Something that should be posted in large red letters in my kitchen. Once the loaves were baked (Yes Hubby, I was sure), I pulled them out to cool on the rack. Mistake! They started to fall apart. They’re supposed to cool in the pan for awhile before poking them and pouring over a sugar syrup. Instead I poked and syruped on the rack, with a cookie sheet underneath for drips. I can learn from my mistakes!
As soon as they were cool and before the wolves descended, I wrapped my babkas and they are now sleeping with the fish sticks. The kitchen is a disaster. There’s flour, chocolate, cocoa and cinnamon on every surface, and I may never remove the cement from my mixing bowls. My cookie sheet is covered in a pool of sugar and I have to bake more shortbread cookies because they’re all gone.
But I can proudly display my striped babka turds on the dining table, assuming all of Hubby’s boxes are removed, at Boxing Day brunch. I’m sure it tastes better than it looks!
It will go great with a well-deserved cup of tea!