After a summer of more Amazon packages carrying cookbooks arriving than I would like to admit, autumn so far has been all about making the most of them. Tara O’Brady has had me rediscover the brilliance and simplicity of a good dal (followed by her simply delectable chocolate chip cookies – it is all about the melted butter!). She also introduced me to a fresh chutney made with green apple and copious amounts of coriander which will become a staple in my kitchen. And Amy Chaplin’s At Home in the Wholefoods Kitchen has not only upped my game when it comes to preparing legumes, her stunning book also introduced me to Miso Mayonnaise. Simple yet delicious. Most recently, Heidi Swanson‘s Near and Far had me thoroughly enjoying Saag Paneer for dinner several nights in a row and enjoying an unexpectedly wonderful dessert of goat yoghurt topped with her saffron infused honey.
All of which is to say, there is some comfort in following a (good!) recipe rather than simply trying to make the most of the ingredients in your fridge. Someone has already done the heavy lifting for you and thought about the proportions of the main ingredients, flavour pairings and seasoning. All of those can of course be adjusted, but it is nice to have a solid base to start with. And one such solid base is the enriched dough recipe in Honey & Co: The Baking Book, the first step in making their famous babkas.
Similar to the Krantz cake of Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem fame, the Honey & Co Babka consists of a sweet enriched dough that is wrapped around all manner of fillings – chocolate, cinnamon and hazelnuts, tahini and white chocolate or a poppyseed filling that reminds me of the Mohnstrudel of my childhood in Germany. And while I have resisted the lure of the Jerusalem Krantz cake to date, I found myself unable to stop thinking about the Honey & Co babka and once I tried their recipe, unable to stop making it: in the past month or so, I have made the babka three times. Over that time, I have slowly adapted the recipe until I was happy with how it worked in my kitchen (and until the filling to dough ratio was spot on). Here are some tips I picked up along the way:
– the recipe mentions you can substitute the fresh yeast asked for with dried yeast. I don’t generally have fresh yeast at home (unless you count my sourdough starter Hugo) so I have been using dried active yeast instead (I use the Allinson bread – I pick up 2 tins every time I am in London). If using dried active yeast, I found it worked best to dissolve the yeast in the milk before adding it to the dough. This not only makes it easier to distribute the yeast evenly in the dough, but is also a neat way of checking whether your yeast is still alive.
– if you have a stand mixer, by all means use this for kneading the dough. For a small amount of flour as is required here I am quite happy to knead by hand. But, and here is the but, the dough is very sticky initially and it will take about 15 minutes to turn it into a smooth ball if kneading by hand (good for anger management though)
– while the recipe asks for room temperature butter, I am the first person to forget to take the butter out of the fridge in the morning if I want to bake in the evening. But, I am glad to report that the recipe works equally well with melted butter as it does with room temperature butter
– ensure the babka can proof somewhere warm. If your kitchen is anything like mine, it is probably too cold, hovering just above the 20 degree mark, and the proofing times will be off. One way to get around this is to let the dough rise while running the washing machine or tumble dryer and placing the bowl with the proofing dough on a chair in front of it. That being said, don’t expect the dough to grow to double its size while proofing – it is ready when the dough is puffy and when pressed gently with a finger the dent will only slowly disappear.
Cinnamon and Walnut Babka
Note: Recipe for the babka dough is only very very slightly adapted from Honey & Co: The Baking Book. The filling recipe can be easily adapted using different nuts or spices (almond and cinnamon would work equally well or pumpkin seed and mixed spice). Similarly, you can make the syrup without honey (just substitute the same amount of sugar in weight) and can be flavoured with different spices or with orange blossom water for example.
For the babka dough
2 tsp dried active yeast
330g wholemeal spelt flour
Pinch of sea salt
90g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, at room temperature
For the cinnamon and walnut filling
75g soft butter
1 tsp cinnamon
For the syrup
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Start with the babka dough. Warm the milk in a small saucepan until hot to the touch. Add the yeast and set aside for 10 minutes or until bubbly.
In a large bowl, add the flour, sugar, salt, egg and the butter. Add the yeast mixture. Using your hands or a mixer, mix until everything comes together in a shaggy and sticky ball of dough. If using a stand mixer, knead for ca. 8-10 minutes or until the dough is perfectly smooth and no longer sticky – alternatively, turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until it is perfectly smooth and no longer sticky, this should take around 15 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.
While the babka dough is resting, prepare the filling. Add the butter, sugar, walnuts and cinnamon to the container of a food processor. Pulse until the walnuts are chopped finely and the mixture comes together.
Grease a loaf pan with butter and line with parchment paper.
To assemble the babka, place the dough on a floured surface and roll out to a 30x50cm rectangle (don’t worry if the edges are a bit uneven – no one will be able to tell once the babka is baked!). Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush, then add the filling and try and distribute it as evenly as possibly – there won’t be enough filling to cover the entire rectangle in a layer of it (I found that much filling overpowering in previous tests) but try and ensure it is evenly spread across the dough.
Carefully roll up the babka starting from the long side. The easiest way to do this is to first fold the edge of the dough in over itself as tightly as possible starting from one end of the dough and slowly working your way to the other end. From then on you should be able to roll up the entire dough using both hands and resting the heels of your hands on the folded dough and gently rolling your hands forward.
Roll the dough so that the seam is facing downwards. With a sharp knife or a pastry cutter, cut the roll in two halves along the long side. Turn the dough slightly to ensure the cut side is facing upwards on both pieces. Pinch the ends together on one side then gently twist the two pieces of dough, pinching the other ends together as well. Carefully push on both ends to compress the twisted strands of dough until they are about the length of your loaf pan. Using both hands, carefully place the babka into the prepared loaf pan. Cover and let proof somewhere warm for ca. 1.5-2h or until risen and puffy and a dent made in the dough with a finger will only slowly disappear.
While the babka is proofing, preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Once the babka is proofed, bake for 30-40 minutes until well risen, springy to the touch and golden brown in colour.
While the babka is baking, prepare the syrup. Combine the water, sugar, honey and spices in a small saucepan and bring to a boil on medium heat. Wait for the sugar to be dissolved completely, then continue boiling until the syrup just starts to thicken slightly. Immediately pour the hot syrup over the babka – you may not need all the syrup.
Leave the babka to cool in the pan before turning it out.
The babka should keep 3-4 days at room temperature.