Of Babka and the Cold North

[Babka for Thanksgiving, November 2007.]

Poised on the last day of November for the quick slip-side into the madness of the season (for me, the true holiday period begins in December), it’s chilly here in San Francisco — we Californians would call it cold, even, though I know it’s not East Coast cold, or Norway-cold, or mountain-cold — not even close. But I wore my winter coat and scarf and wished for gloves all the same. At least it’s sunny, which feels sort of like a consolation prize.

Another consolation on a day when the temperature dips into the 30s (at least that’s where it hovered when I left for work early this morning) is a slice of chocolate bread (or, babka) and a perfectly sweetened cup of coffee with half-and-half. I don’t always get the ratio of coffee to cream to sugar just absolutely right, but I did today, and I am immensely grateful (to bottle up that knowledge and save for the future, now, that would be a fine trick). Also, it’s Friday, and I have grand plans to visit the Ferry Building market tomorrow morning, so I have no complaints on that front.

Back to the babka: Last year, my mom ordered two loaves from Dean & De Luca for the long Thanksgiving weekend — cinnamon and chocolate — and we nibbled at them when we weren’t indulging in all the other holiday-centric dishes. I think they made an appearance again at Christmas, which reinforced my feeling that perhaps those Seinfeldians were on to something (I haven’t yet had a marble rye, though, so I can’t verify that one), and thus forced me onto the back roads a bit more than usual to counter all that indulging. Babka is incredibly rich, buttery and chocolate-y, but it’s also a bread at heart, with a sweet, yeasty base; it’s almost challah-like, in a way — which is perfect for a typically non-breakfast-sweets eater such as myself.

[Babka, before the oven.]

So I found a decent-looking recipe for the chocolate variety (because, um, chocolate yes please) on gourmet.com, and planned to make up the babka Tuesday night before I left for Sebastopol. Probably my first setback was not reading the recipe properly through to the end (my usual predicament), where it clearly states that the second rise takes two hours. When I realized this, it was about 9.30 pm, I’d just finished scraping off the last bits of dough from my wooden cutting board — and I was done in. So I let it rise overnight in the fridge (I set my alarm for 6, so I could remove it and let it come to room temperature before baking), and as I was working from home until noon, I had plenty of time to bake, cool, and wrap, thank goodness. I also didn’t realize just how darn sticky the dough would be, and it caused me some angst because I worried it wouldn’t turn out OK in the end.

But it did. And even as I silently cursed the unwieldiness of it, when I was turning the dough all around in my hands and seeing it come together, I thought yes, this is what I love about cooking — and was grateful to remember it.

As I coaxed the babka into submission, I thought, of course, about the upcoming holiday, but also about Norway, and the wintry north. Now, I don’t think babka is a traditional Norwegian baked good, nor is it anything remotely close to resembling a staple (though lord knows they love their sweets — talk about piles of whipped cream). Still, as I smeared softened butter on the dough and folded in the chopped chocolate, I thought about the month I spent there a few years ago, split between a farmhouse along the southern coast, and a little wood-paneled, sod-roofed cabin in the mountains — mostly because a lot of my time was marked by baking.

Norway can get pretty gloomy in November (not February-in-Iceland– cold and grey, but often clouded over just the same), and it’s the kind of weather that makes you want to hole up in the kitchen making multi-grain bread and large pots of vegetable soups, watching a slate-colored sea toss and shake itself onto the rocky shore. It was an interesting time. Sometimes I’d do some writing, sometimes I’d read one of the many books I’d lugged with me from the States, sometimes I’d model for a painting, sometimes I’d even, when the sun struggled through, take a long walk through the deserted countryside. But more often than not, I’d be in the kitchen, trying to adapt my American recipes (with their very American measurements) to the Norwegian ingredients and tools at hand.

I suppose a reason I love to cook when I’m traveling anywhere, really, for any reasonable length of time, is because it makes me feel as though I’m a part of the place just for the while that I’m there. (Also not to be discounted: the money saved by not going out to eat.) If Greece now to me is roast chicken and vegetables and feta salads, Norway is many loaves of bread, vegan chocolate cakes, home made tortillas, an enormous Thanksgiving dinner thrown by we two Americans, and soups pureed by hand (the farm kitchen lacked a blender).

My enduring impression of Norway is that it is all beautiful mountains and trees and the Oslo Fjord cutting into the land. We went to little seaside towns through the rain for coffee and cake in the dark afternoons, and I marveled again at their penchant for sweets. The high mountains reminded me of Yosemite, with its lakes small and large, and I still dream wistfully of heated floors, cozy ‘hyttene’ (cabins), and long train rides. Oslo shone bright and clean in the deserted early morning streets, and we ate still more cake in front of fireplaces after helping to feed horses in the snowy fields out of town. Some nights the wind howled all around the buildings, and when we went down to the sea we would be nearly blown into it; the puppy kept close to my knee on our walks, and his eyes rolled up white to look at me nervously as the waves frothed and foamed.

[Oslo harbor, November 2005.]

Today’s Northern California chill comes nowhere near to what, I’m sure, the temperature is in Scandinavia right now — the early dark already come down, the dinner dishes washed and put away, and everyone tucked up in bed for the night. It’s good for me to remember this, when I stuff my hands into my pockets and shiver and wish for summer. There’s a long winter ahead.

I need to get baking.

Chocolate Babka, from Gourmet, 2006

Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s worth it. I recommend letting the dough rise in the fridge overnight and then baking the next morning after it’s returned to room temperature, otherwise you’ll be tethered to the kitchen all day waiting on the second rise. What I did was: made the dough the night before a day when I was working from home in the morning, so I set the alarm for 6a. Then I put it on the counter while I went back to bed for a few hours, and then baked it around 10a. Of course, an unplanned weekend could also lend itself just fine to making this…

(Makes 2 loaves, or one plus two mini loaves.)

For dough
3/4 cup warm milk (105–115°F)
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons active dry yeast (from two 1/4-oz packages)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
2 whole large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened

For egg wash
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream or whole milk

For chocolate filling
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, well softened
2 (3 1/2- to 4-oz) bars fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
1/4 cup sugar

Special equipment: a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment; 2 (8 3/4- by 4 1/2- by 2 3/4-inch) loaf pans; parchment paper

1. Stir together warm milk and 2 teaspoons sugar in bowl of mixer. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If yeast doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)

2. Add 1/2 cup flour to yeast mixture and beat at medium speed until combined. Add whole eggs, yolk, vanilla, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low, then mix in remaining 2 3/4 cups flour, about 1/2 cup at a time. Increase speed to medium, then beat in butter, a few pieces at a time, and continue to beat until dough is shiny and forms strands from paddle to bowl, about 4 minutes. (Dough will be very soft and sticky.)

3. Scrape dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

To assemble

1. Line each loaf pan with 2 pieces of parchment paper (1 lengthwise and 1 crosswise).

2. Punch down dough with a lightly oiled rubber spatula, then halve dough. Roll out 1 piece of dough on a well-floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into an 18- by 10-inch rectangle and arrange with a long side nearest you.

3. Beat together yolk and cream. Spread 2 1/2 tablespoons softened butter on dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush some of egg wash on long border nearest you.

4. Sprinkle half of chocolate evenly over buttered dough, then sprinkle with half of sugar (2 tablespoons). Starting with long side farthest from you, roll dough into a snug log, pinching firmly along egg-washed seam to seal. Bring ends of log together to form a ring, pinching to seal. Twist entire ring twice to form a double figure 8 and fit into one of lined loaf pans.

5. Make another babka with remaining dough, some of egg wash, and remaining butter and chocolate in same manner. Chill remaining egg wash, covered, to use later. Loosely cover pans with buttered plastic wrap (buttered side down) and let babkas rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until dough reaches top of pans, 1 to 2 hours. (Alternatively, let dough rise in pans in refrigerator 8 to 12 hours; bring to room temperature, 3 to 4 hours, before baking.)


1, Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Brush tops of dough with remaining egg wash. Bake until tops are deep golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped (when loaves are removed from pans), about 40 minutes. Transfer loaves to a rack and cool to room temperature.

Cooks’ note: Babkas keep, wrapped in plastic wrap and then foil, frozen 3 weeks.

My note: It tastes better fresh. Really, really. I made one regular loaf and two mini-loaves and froze one for when Michael came back from DC; while it’s still good, it’s just not quite the same.

Join the Conversation

  1. While the idea of chocolate bread is a great one, your description of it with a creamy, sweet cup of coffee was so vivid and enticing! It reminds me of a sweet filled bread my grandmother used to make too:)

  2. wheatlessbay.wordpress.com says:

    That’s funny, I just did babka last week, but the savoury kind.

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