This is classic, Ashkenazi-style chocolate babka, with an excellent dairy-free version as well as a dairy option. It uses a timeless, extra rich yeast dough made with oil (or butter), eggs, and sugar, wrapped up with a delicious chocolate filling. The shaping looks complicated, but is actually easy, making this a fun and doable baking project.
I've waxed on (and on) about the taxonomy of Jewish cakes (and cookies, for that matter) that fall under the rubric of "babka." We've provisionally concluded that there's a common European ancestor to the divergent Israeli and American versions of babka in circulation out there in the bakeries. A desideratum (that's academic jargon for "something we want a lot") is a full representation of all these various and sundry forms of babka in these pages, and today we're proceeding apace with a classic chocolate babka. This one resembles the Israeli krantz in its form and parve status, but lacks the krantz's sugar syrup topping; it forgoes the streusel crumbs and dairy dough that typify the American babka, making it a middle-of-the-road, straight-up, best-of-all-worlds babka.
I had a few criteria for my classic babka recipe:
- Obviously, it had to taste amazing: a rich, slightly sweet, feathery bread enfolded with tons of deep chocolate flavor.
- I wanted a recipe that would make one loaf of babka rather than two or three, as do most recipes. Listen, we love babka around here, but more than one babka is a lot of babka.
- I wanted a recipe that could be made (deliciously) parve.
- The dough and the filling had to be easy to work with and generally non-persnickety.
- The finished babka needed to look great, with well-defined lines of chocolate beautifully twisted together.
After much ado, by which I mean many, many failed and lackluster babkas, the final recipe ticks all the boxes: it makes one delicious loaf that's equally good with or without dairy, and comes out well every time without too much fuss (although babka, being a yeasted cake that's carefully shaped, is always going to be something of a primadonna; here, it's a manageable one).
My best tips for making babka
- Give yourself plenty of time: about 15-20 minutes to mix the dough, about 2 hours for the first rise, 30 minutes to make the filling and roll out and fill the babka, another 1 hour to chill the dough; after that, another 30 minutes for the second rise in the pan, and finally, 40-45 minutes in the oven. A lot of it is hands-off time, but you do have to bake babka on a day when you can attend to it every few hours.
- Don't roll out your babka dough so that it's wide on both edges. You want to keep an edge of the rectangle of dough about the length of your loaf pan in which you'll be baking the babka (about 8" / 20 cm). Usually, with rolled cakes and cookies, you roll them up by the longer edge of the rectangle; for babka, you may want to roll up by the short edge, especially if you are using a standard loaf pan. This will give you a thick, relatively short roll of dough with lots of spirals.
- If your filling is on the soft side, you can, after shaping your babka, wrap it up in cling wrap and put in the refrigerator for 1 hour. This will give you extra defined lines of filling when you cut the rolls.
- You can use a standard or a long loaf pan; a standard loaf pan will need 5-10 minutes more of bake time than the long loaf. Instructions for both are in the recipe below. While you don't want to underbake, because raw dough, you also don't want to overbake, because dry babka. You're looking for the babka dough to just begin to get golden. Make yourself a parchment paper sling and grease with cooking spray for easy removal from the pan.
- Babkas keep fairly well covered or in a sealed container, and can be frozen and then defrosted in the fridge, though I can't bring myself to stick a fresh baked good in the freezer, so I rarely do this.
Mixing and rising the babka dough
Babka uses yeast dough, which requires two steps that can seem persnickety: activating the yeast and rising the dough. Both of these, in actuality, are extremely simple, requiring nothing more than time. You need to leave the yeast alone in warm water for 5-7 minutes, until it gets bloomed-looking and foamy. After mixing the dough, you need to let it rise until it's doubled, generally about 2 hours.
Babka dough resembles challah dough in most ways, but it's loaded up with way more sugar, eggs, and oil. This means that the finished dough won't be nearly as firm and dry as challah dough; babka dough will be slack, shiny, and tacky, sticking to your fingers, but not so much that it's impossible to work with.
Making the chocolate babka filling
Having trialed many different babka fillings in my day, my far and away favorite and standard go-to is the chocolate schmear filling featured in my chocolate rugelach. It requires a few steps to make, but yields better results that using chocolate spread or sprinkling cocoa and/or chocolate over a layer of butter.
To make the filling, here in its non-dairy incarnation, you start off by melting the chocolate and setting it aside to cool slightly. The margarine (a.k.a. vegan butter) gets beaten with sugar, then cocoa and vanilla, and finally the melted chocolate gets folded in. I had high hopes for coconut oil (or another type of oil) in this filling, but it doesn't work—the filling is too runny.
Shaping the babka
This is the fun part! Are you ready? Roll out your babka in a fairly thin rectangle on a floured surface, about 8"x16" / 20 x 40 cm. (It generally shouldn't stick much, but a little flour makes it even easier.) The thinner and longer, the more layers your babka will have. Spread the chocolate filling out in a thick layer on the rolled-out rectangle, going almost up to the edges.
Roll up the rectangle starting at the long edge, forming a thick, shortish log of dough. The ends should pretty much seal themselves, but give them a bit of a pat to make sure.
Turn your roll of dough and place it on your work surface seam-side-down. Using a sharp knife (I find a chef's knife works best for this), cut the roll of dough all the way through down the center, forming two long, thinner rolls with their guts hanging out. Intertwine the rolls at their center point and twist together 2-3 times. Pat the ends together if they're long.
Place in a lined and greased loaf pan. You'll now leave the babka to rise a second time, for about half an hour, by which time it should be visibly puffier.
Looking for more Jewish bakery classics?
- Zabar's-Style Cinnamon Raisin Rugelach - Guaranteed to make your kitchen smell like the corner of 80th & Broadway.
- Classic New York Black & White Cookies - A project, but a worthy one, as there's nothing like a fresh black & white eaten down the center.
- Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot - If heimisch was a cookie, it would be this chocolate chip mandelbrot.
Chocolate Babka (parve or dairy)
- 1 package instant yeast - 2 ¼ tsp - 7 g
- ¼ cup warm water or milk - 60 ml
- ¼ cup granulated sugar - 60 ml
- ⅓ cup oil or softened butter - 75 ml oil / 75 g butter
- 2 eggs
- 1 ¼ tsp kosher salt
- 2 ½ cups bread flour - 320 g
Make the yeast dough:
- In the mixer bowl, whisk together the sugar and warm water (and milk or milk powder, if using). Add the yeast and leave until activated, about 5 minutes.
- Add 1 ½ cups (250 g) of flour, the softened butter, eggs, and salt. Begin mixing using the dough hook. Gradually add in the remaining 3 cups flour while kneading until a smooth, soft dough forms, about 5 minutes.
- Place dough in a greased bowl. Cover and place in a warm spot for 2 hours.
Prepare the chocolate filling:
- Melt the chocolate, in a double boiler or the microwave (in 2 30-second intervals). Set aside to cool slightly.
- Cream the butter with the sugar until smooth, light, and creamy. Add in the melted chocolate, cocoa powder, and cinnamon and salt, if using. Beat to combine.
Shape the babka:
- Preheat oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Roll out to form a large rectangle, about 6” x 18“.
- Spread the rectangle with the chocolate filling, up to the edges.
- Roll up from the short side of the rectangle, forming a thick, short roll. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Using a chef’s knife, cut the rolls in half lengthwise down the center. Twist the two halves together, beginning at the center.
- Place in a lined, greased loaf pan (standard or long).
- Bake for 40-45 minutes, until lightly golden on top.