For the unfamiliar, babka is a Jewish Eastern European bread made of a yeast dough that gets filled with ingredients like chocolate or cinnamon, rolled up, twisted and baked in a loaf pan. The sweet bread is known for its soft, brioche-like texture and distinct swirls of filling throughout.
So what makes a great babka? “First and foremost, freshness,” Gadi Peleg, managing partner at Breads Bakery in NYC, tells us. “To find a great babka, you should to go to a place that sells a lot of babka. This way, you know that the babka has not been sitting on a shelf for days.”
When it comes to choosing a flavor, chocolate or cinnamon (the lesser babka) just won’t cut it. Call us basic all you want, but we’ve jumped on the pumpkin spice bandwagon in this version and will never look back. Pumpkin purée is mixed with seasonal flavors like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and clove for a touch of fall in every piece.
As seasoned babka consumers bakers and with the help of our babka consultant, Peleg, we’ve rounded up the tips you need to know before breaking bread.
Rise to the occasion. As with any bread, the dough is the most important part. Proofing dough takes patience and a keen eye; how long your dough needs to proof can change depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Essentially, you’re looking for the dough to double in size.
Fall means layering. Once your dough is proofed to perfection, it’s time to fill it. Although chocolate and cinnamon are the most common options, we encourage you to branch out. Just remember that when choosing your filling, you don’t want it to be too runny, or it won’t stay put when you halve and twist the babka. Pro tip: Keep the filling in the refrigerator until ready to use to avoid any melting or softening.
Be knot afraid. The braiding may seem daunting, but this is not a challah, people, so remain calm. Halve the dough lengthwise and twist the strands together (it’s really as simple as that). Just work quickly and cleanly, using a serrated knife when cutting the dough for extra security.
Now that you've mastered Babka 101 feel free to use this recipe all year round, switching up the filling to match the season. “When in doubt, spread lots and lots of Nutella!” Peleg offers as his final piece of wisdom for the first-time babka-makers out there.
Pumpkin Spice Babka
Recipe from the Tasting Table Test Kitchen
Yield: 2 loaves
Prep Time: 30 minutes, plus proofing and cooling time
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus proofing and cooling time
For the Dough:
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115°
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup, plus 1 teaspoon, granulated sugar, divided
5¼ cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup light brown sugar
4 eggs, divided
1 stick unsalted butter, cubed and softened, plus more for greasing
For the Filling:
One 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Make the dough: In a large bowl, combine the milk, yeast and 1 teaspoon of the granulated sugar. Let it sit until it begins to foam, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt and cinnamon, and set aside.
2. To the foamy yeast mixture, add the remaining granulated sugar, the brown sugar and 3 eggs, and whisk to combine. Slowly stir in the flour until a dough forms, then transfer to a lightly floured surface. Using your hands, knead in the softened butter, a little at a time, until a smooth dough forms. Place in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, make the filling: In a medium bowl, stir the filling ingredients together until incorporated.
4. Assemble the babkas: Preheat the oven to 350° and grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Divide the dough into 2 balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll 1 ball of dough out into a 14-inch square, about ⅛-inch thick.
5. Spread half of the filling evenly over the surface of the dough, leaving a 1-inch margin at the top of the square. Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up tightly. Leaving ½-inch of dough connected, cut the roll lengthwise in two. Twist the strands together and pinch at the end to seal. Carefully place the babka in one of the prepared pans.
6. Repeat this process with the remaining dough and filling. Cover both babkas loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough expands to fill the pan, 45 minutes more.
7. In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg and liberally brush onto each babka. Bake, rotating halfway through, until golden and cooked through, 40 to 45 minutes.
8. Let cool slightly, then remove each bread from the pan and let cool before slicing and serving.