Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "The house smelled so wonderful as the bread baked away."

Photo by Tony
One Crumb at a Thyme

Two questions came up in this week's baking:  the first, a more intellectual question: what makes a babka a babka?  And the second, a more practical one:  which filling should I make?  Wikipedia, not surprisingly, has a lot to say about babkas, including that there is a Christian babka and a Jewish babka.  Bon Appetit did a recent cover story on babkas, but I kind of lost faith in the scholarliness of the article when it compared babka to Taylor Swift.  And, of course, who can think of babka without thinking of Seinfeld?

Perhaps following Elaine's dictum that anything other than chocolate is a "lesser babka," most Alpha Bakers, including Tony, opted for the chocolate almond schmear filling.  But this had its own problems--the recipe calls for one cup of cake crumbs, "fresh or stale."  Say what?  In my house, fresh cake gets eaten before it goes stale.  And no one seemed to have cake crumbs lying around. Tony bought some chocolate cupcakes for the crumbs, and forced himself to eat a cupcake for "quality control."  Oh, the sacrifices we bakers are forced to make.

Nancy, who also baked the chocolate version, drew this lesson from the project:  "You can get away with a good bit of sloppiness and still have a wonderful bread at the end."  That lesson must be why bread is my favorite thing to bake.  Nancy's "sloppiness" wasn't that serious, though.  It simply involved giving the bread a "mistaken second rise," using all King Arthur bread flour, and forgetting to add the vanilla--not huge mistakes.  Anyway, to make up for it, she suggested using leftover challah instead of leftover cake crumbs.  Since I freeze bread to toast it, and I'll bet a lot of you do too, you're much more likely to have spare challah than spare cake.  She opted for chocolate "because, well, chocolate."  Can you imagine if chocolate had never been discovered and you just last week ate your first bite?  I wonder if we'd be telling our friends that they must try this weird flavor called chocolate.  

We Alpha Bakers can be quite clever.  Faithy wanted to make the chocolate filling, but had just eaten the last two pieces of leftover pound cake (What?  Who has leftover pound cake?) and she had also left her almond paste in the office refrigerator.  (???)  But she did have some leftover mini Bretons, which were almond-flavored and cake-like.  Done and done.  Her verdict:  "Overall, I like this bread.  However, I find that it doesn't keep well doesn't taste as good as when it is freshly baked."  Faithy, it lasts very well in the freezer.  As I was reading all the posts on babka, I had to keep fighting the urge to take a piece out of the freezer, thaw it, and eat it.  I pushed temptation away.  And then I just couldn't do it any more.

Babka has two affection names in the Evil Cake Lady household:  Cakebread (or Breadcake) and Swirlybread.  Both of those names are more evocative than babka.  And if grown people can get credit for coming up with the name Cro-Nut, I'd like to be the first to congratulate Eliot for his descriptive Swirlybread.  Jen made the chocolate filling, (no word on where the cake crumbs came from).  When the bread was out of the oven, looking so glorious, she asked permission of other Alpha Bakers to dig in right now instead of waiting for the bread to cool.  Permission DENIED, Private!  So she waited, and (reportedly) was glad she did.  Sometimes a case can be made for self-discipline.

Catherine is no doubt the only person who made the babka to take to the office for their Harmony Day Celebration.  We could certainly use a Harmony Day in the U.S. but it's unlikely to happen because we're all too angry.  You're really supposed to bring a food that exemplifies the food of your ancestors, and Catherine allowed as how babka really wasn't the food of her ancestors, but really, who cares?  As long as you get to eat babka.  No cake crumbs for Catherine, but she used almond crumbs.  And Marzipan.  And she didn't swear while she was making this bread/cake.  I believe that she was feeling very harmonious.  

Katya has made this babka twice:  once with the almond filling, which was "delicious," and was promptly devoured by her co-workers.  She baked the chocolate-filled babka for Thanksgiving, and her guests did not eat it "quite as voraciously" as the almond-filled one was eaten, but it was Thanksgiving weekend, when there's too much of every kind of food available.  Katya herself is partial to "the richer and sweeter charms of the Zabar-style stuff," and she is unconvinced that Rose's "great filled brioche" is the real thing.  I have a feeling that there are as many "real" babka recipes as there are real baking grandmothers.

Vicki opted for the almond filling, although she made this rather cryptic remark about it.  "An unopened box of almond paste does not have an indefinite shelf life."  Probably only the people who actually tasted Vicki's babka may feel an urgent need to know whether she just shrugged and used the almond paste well paste its "use by" date or whether she sighed and bought a new box.  I'm sure she made the right decision.  This bread was a turning point for Vicki--the day when baking bread turned into just another baking project, like cake or cookies, and not a heart-stopping ordeal.  Congratulations!  And congratulations on the fine-looking, swirly piece of almond babka.

Kim also chose the almond filling, even though she's "not much of a fan of almond paste."  "But mixed with Muscovado and cinnamon--I'm putty."  This was exactly the kind of baking that makes Kim a baker.  "It was so delicious.  I wanted to share it with everyone, not to get rid of it, but to show why I love to bake and what kind of sweetness rings my bell."  Well said, Kim.  Even the seam bursting open and spewing forth almond filling didn't faze her.  And it shouldn't have, because it still turned out to be an exceptionally beautiful loaf of bread.

And Jenn also decided to fill her half-recipe of babka with almond filling.  Jenn was "crazy enough" (her words, though I don't disagree) to make her babka on the same day as she made the Pecan Sandies, and she included one photo of a mass of dirty dishes in the sink.  But she loves baking bread, so her double baking project ended up not feeling too stressful.  Jenn loved the almond filling, although she thought it looked a little gross.  But looks can be deceiving and this sweet, nutty filling turned out to be anything but gross.  With its "brown and perfect" crust, this bread was a winner.

As you may know by now, "babka" is a diminutive of "babushka," Russian for grandmother.  Kristina was told by a guy at work that babka was a rude way of referring to a grandmother in Russian.  But after making Kristina feel guilty for her lack of "cultural sensitity," Sergey proceeded to eat his share, which was "greatly appreciated."  The apricot filling was tarter than Kristina expected, but after she got over her initial surprise, she "really enjoyed it" and now wants to try all the rest of the fillings.  I think she should only share with Sergey if it's Harmony Day.

Rachel chose the apricot cream cheese filling by process of elimination.  She had planned to make the almond filling, but had made too many nutty things lately.  And the chocolate?  Still the almond problem,  and "where would I get cake crumbs?"  But the apricot cream cheese turned out to be fabulous, and, in the process of being made, justified Rachel's long-ago decision to buy a "funky hand-crank chopper," which turned out to be just the thing to chop up softened apricots.  "Even prettier when you cut into it.  We're set for breakfast this week!"  I love our little band of baking brothers and sisters who all get to eat homemade babka for breakfast!

Next week:  a chocolate cake that represents the best of both Rose and Flo Braker.  You can't get much better than that.  Even if you don't want to bake a chocolate cake (although why wouldn't you?), you should still try the caramel buttercream.  If you like caramel, you'll find it doesn't get much better than this.

The following week, we'll try our hand at making meringue birch twigs.  I know that some of you, who have excellent piping skills and like meringues, have been looking forward to these.  To make them exactly by the book, you should find some "fine-quality raspberry flavoring."  It may not be easy to find this; fortunately, you're allowed to substitute with "flavoring of your choice."

Thanks for being so prompt this week with your posts, allowing me to post the roundup on Wednesday morning!


  1. Congrat's Tony on a perfectly golden Babka! Great round up Marie. I have no idea how you can sleep at night knowing there's Babka in the freezer. You must have amazing self control. Mine was shared post haste. And the almond paste turned literally hard as a brick. I banged in against the kitchen counter and thought I cracked the title. No sneaking outdated almond paste into the mix.

  2. Oh..the reason why I didn't put in the freezer, is because the Babka was baked late at night and next morning I was going to give it away. Didn't taste as good the next morning when I tried again compared when it was freshly baked. And yes, my almond paste is still in my office!..i keep forgetting to bring home. The baking supplies store is just a street across my office, so usually I'll go buy all the supplies required during lunch hour.

  3. Beautiful Babka Tony! Picture perfect! Good to have you baking again!

  4. i just love this posting and each and every one of your babkas so i want to share with you the traditional babka shaping done in bakeries i discovered in america's test kitchen. here's the link of my blog posting from last december. this is now my fav way to shape babka because the swirl gets more evenly distributed to have a taste with every bite and there's less risk of separation but i have to admit my kugelhopf shape is more majesterial:

  5. I'm all set on the "fine-quality raspberry flavoring", but we shall see how my piping skills stack up.