Tahini Honey Babka

Tahini Honey Babka

My babka obsession started when I was a student in Pittsburgh. Back then, I dated a Jewish guy who introduced me to a world of challah and matzo. He wasn't particularly strict on keeping kosher, but one of our favourite weekend activities was a trip to Murray Avenue Kosher not far from campus. Among other typical Jewish foods that I would happily pass up on (but really, just kugel), I quickly fell in love with Green’s Bakery’s babka which was strategically placed near the cashier. The loaf itself is far from photogenic. The stodgy loaf sits snugly in a paper tray, topped with cream-coloured sugar streusel that gets smudged against a flimsy plastic bag with a borderline tacky logo. At first glance it almost looks like a cheap supermarket off brand, but It is so much more that it looks. Green’s babka comes in two flavours, cinnamon and chocolate, and it is the perfect marriage of bread and cake. A discerning “shreddable” crumb that's clearly bread, but swirled in with tight layers of chocolate to make it oh-so-moist like a loaf cake.

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A few years later I moved to New York, and quickly discovered Bread's Bakery in Union Square. This cute bakery cafe is just around the corner from the now defunct Union Square Coffee Shop, and was a pitstop I make after my weekly grocery run. On top of amazing pastries, customers are always welcomed with smiling staffs and with endless trays of samples. The legendary nutella babka never disappoints. It has the most delicate layers of yeasty dough marbled with rich nutella goodness, and punches of melted chocolate chips in every bite. I have been a loyal customer since they first opened their doors and am securely smug that I claimed this as the holy grail before Serious Eats puts them on the babka map (or more accurately, babka on the map).

Bread's recipe is widely available online, and their method is essentially a laminated brioche dough. Chef Uri Scheft calls it the "advanced brioche dough" in his book Breaking Breads. First you rest a traditional brioche dough in the fridge overnight, laminate it with a butter sheet like you would for croissants, then fill and twist it into a loaf. The result is layers of soft cakey bread so delicate that they start to flake. The top is brushed with a light syrup to give it a sticky crunchy exterior. With all the proofing and resting involved, this rich and buttery bread takes 3 days to make and is truly a labour of love. If you're looking for a run and rewarding project for the coming easter weekend, this is your ticket to pastry heaven.

Tips for success

  • Breads’ recipe makes 3 2x9" babkas which is quite appropriate for this rich bread. If you only have a standard 5x9 tin, instead of making three flat loaves, I recommend using 2/3 of the dough for one large babka, and the rest for any brioche-based pastries.

  • The trick to achieving the many layers of swirly dough and filling like Green's is to roll the dough very thin. Make sure the dough is fully relaxed before you roll, if it resists at any point, put it back in in fridge and chill for around 10 minutes before you try again. 

  • Use a bench scraper to help you move around the dough, especially when it is rolled out thin.

  • Flour your work surface just enough so the dough doesn't stick and break to expose the butter as you roll, and brush off extra flour on the outside as you roll the dough after spreading on the filling.

  • Spread the filling all the way to the edge so you have a perfect ratio of dough and filling all along

  • Like braiding a challah, it's OK that your rectangular sheet of rolled out dough is a bit rounded on the short side. That way you'll have a slightly tapered log which you can just pinch together after the twisting step

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It wasn't until I moved to New York did I realize I came full circle. Green's is actually based in Williamsburg, New York. They supply two types of home-style babkas sold at renowned establishments in New York City, as well as groceries and delis across the country. If you've seen the "store brand" babkas at New York's Katz's Deli or Russ and Daughters, chances are its from Greens. You may also order directly from the bakery at their site.

Tahini Honey Babka

Makes 3 2x9’. Adapted from Breaking Bread.

For the dough:

125mL (½ cup milk), room temperature
6g (2 teaspoon) active dry yeast
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
280g (2-1/4 cups) all-purpose flour
220g (2 cups + 2 tablespoons) pastry flour
2 large eggs, room temperature
70g (scant 1/3 cup) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
80g (5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) unsalted butter, softened
200g butter, at room temperature, for lamination

  1. Make the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the milk, yeast and vanilla. Add the flours, eggs, sugar and salt and pinch off small pieces of the soften butter into the mixture. Mix on low speed until combined, around 2 minutes. The dough will be scraggy, if it’s too dry and there are lots of dry bits, add more milk, one tablespoon at a time. If it’s too wet, add more all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. When the dough comes together into a mass, increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and has good elasticity, but not quite windowpane stage.

  2. Knead the dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and form into a rough ball. Take the top part of the dough and stretch it away from you to lengthen, then fold it towards the center of the dough. Rotate a quarter turn and repeat the stretch and fold until you can stretch a small piece of dough very thin without it tearing, about 5 minutes. Use your palms to cup the sides of the dough and pull it towards you in a circular motion to create tension on the surface. When the dough is nice and round, transfer to a floured bowl. Cover and rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

  3. Chill the dough. Press the dough into a 1” thick rectangle. Wrap with plastic and chill in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 24 hours.

  4. Prepare the butter for lamination. Cut the butter into approximately 1/2” slices and arrange them into a rectangle on the center of a large sheet of parchment paper. Fold the four sides over, mold the butter into a 7 x 8 inch rectangle with a rolling pin. Time the edges with a bench scraper to make the corners squared. If the butter becomes too soft at this point, return it to the refrigerator until it is malleable but not melting. (You want it at a similar softness to the dough)

  5. Lamination. Remove the dough from the fridge and on a lightly-floured surface. De-gas with a rolling pin and roll into a 7 x 16 inch rectangle, with the short side facing you. Place the butter on the bottom half of the dough with a 1/4 inch border at the bottom. Fold the top half of the dough over, pulling the corners so they align perfectly. Pinch the edges close with your fingertips and brush off extra flour with a pastry brush.

  6. Rotate the dough 45 degrees so the seam side is now facing the right. Lightly flour both sides of the dough and roll it into a 9 x 16 inch rectangle. Use a bench scraper to help you square the edges without over heating the dough. Visually divide the long side of the dough into equal thirds and make a small mark with your finger. Brush off any excess flour and fold the dough on top of itself where you made the mark. Align the edges as much as you can. Wrap the dough and rest in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Repeat the turn and fold two more times. Wrap in plastic and rest in the refrigerator overnight.

    For the filling:

    65g (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
    1 large egg
    50g dark brown sugar
    1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
    25g (1 1/2 tablespoon) honey
    20g (2 1/2 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    8g (1T) cornstarch
    150g tahini, divided
    120g halva, crumbled

    1. Make the filling. Whisk together the egg, sugar and vanilla. Whisk in the honey, then the flour and salt. Add the butter and whisk until it forms a smooth paste. Whisk in the cornstarch, followed by 100g of the tahini. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

    2. Preheat an oven to 350F. After chilling the dough, roll the dough out into a 10 x 28 inch rectangle, around 1/4 “ thick, with the long side facing you. Spread the tahini mixture over the dough all the way to the edges, then sprinkle the crumbled halva evenly over the dough. Starting from the top edge, roll the dough into a tight cylinder, pushing and pulling as you go to make it even tighter. Hold the ends of the dough with both hands and stretch the dough out a little longer.

    3. Form the twists. Slice the dough in half lengthwise with a serrated knife, then in three equal pieces crosswise. You should have six halves and three sets of dough. Take one set and place one half on top of the other, both cut side facing up, into a cross. Gently bring the ends on top each other to form a twist. Make a tight twist so the layers are intact. Pinch the ends close and tuck it underneath.

    4. Proof the babka. Place the twists into greased loaf pans and allow to rise for 1-2 hours, or until the loaves have risen to the top of the pan and slightly jiggle. Bake in the preheated one for 40 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches

    5. While the loaves are baking, prepare the honey glaze. Mix together 2 tablespoons of honey and the remaining tahini, and thin it out with around 2 tablespoons hot water.

    6. When the loaves are ready, remove from the oven and brush with the warm glaze. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes before removing onto a rack.

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