my grandparents arrived in the United States in 1903. Russian immigrants—he from a big city and she from the country—they settled in a section of Boston to begin exciting new lives as Americans. my grandfather opened a wholesale millinery, and my grandmother continued her career as a seamstress. i didn’t come along until more than half a century later, just a few months after my grandfather had passed away. but memories of my grandmother remain vivid and dear.
beginning at the age of four and for the next few years, my mom would drop me off at Nantasket Beach on the Hull Penninsula, where i would gleefully spend a week every summer with my grandmother. just the two of us. she’d rent a room in a giant boarding house, complete with veranda and rocking chairs, right across the street from the beach. she and her friends would dote on me, taking my hands as we crossed the street to spend the morning sunning and swimming on the South Shore. already in her sixties by that time, grandma was still a very strong swimmer, diving headlong into the surf and briskly doing laps along the beach. as she emerged triumphant from the salty water, she’d wave enthusiastically at me, as if she took great pride in the accomplishment. and, indeed, she should have.
grandma and mom, circa 1930
as we both got older, we’d play baseball in my parent’s yard; grandma would pitch the ball to me, i’d hit it with my trusty bat, then i’d run and get the ball, so we could do it all again. our dog would run alongside, thinking this was a very clever game. on Sundays, my parents would drive us to grandma’s apartment in the city for a visit. sometimes she’d make chicken soup, and we’d all sit around her kitchen table slurping down the golden liquid. sometimes we’d bring babka from our local Jewish bakery, so she could have a special treat. what’s babka? a sweet, moist and buttery yeast-based bread, much like brioche, filled with a blend of rich chocolate, sugar and cinnamon, finished off with a streusel topping. as grandma might say in still-broken English, “so, what’s not to like?”
with my grandmother top of mind, i wanted to re-create the babka of my youth. first i tried a recipe from Gourmet, but something about it wasn’t quite right. what was it? hmmm. no cinnamon. no streusel. the dough didn’t seem elastic enough as i worked with it or delicate enough after it had been baked. so, i went in search of an alternative. i turned to the chocolate babka recipe found in Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. and that was it: exactly as i remembered it, exactly as grandma loved it.
rather than making loaves, i cut the recipe by 2/3 and made six individual servings in a popover pan, an idea i borrowed from the Bread Farm in Edison, Washington. this perfect babka kept beautifully for several days, maintaining its rich flavor and texture.
a recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook
makes three loaves
1 1/2 cups warm milk (110F)
2 envelopes (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
3/4 cups plus a pinch of sugar
2 whole, large eggs, plus 2 large eggs yolks, at room temperature
6 cups organic unbleached flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, at room temperature, plus more for bowl and pans
2 pounds semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped (i used Scharffen Berger)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, at room temperature
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups organic unbleached flour
1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature
- in a small bowl, sprinkle yeast and a pinch of sugar over the warm milk; stir until dissolved. let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
- in a medium bowl, whisk together the 3/4 cup sugar, 2 eggs and yolks.
- add to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.
- in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine flour and salt, then add the egg mixture; beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated.
- add the 2 sticks of butter, and beat until completely incorporated, and a smooth soft dough forms, about 10 minutes. (the dough should still be slightly sticky when squeezed.)
- turn out the dough on a lightly floured work surface, and knead until smooth.
- place the dough in a well-buttered bowl, and turn to coat with butter.
- cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
- to make the filling, stir together the chocolate, sugar and cinnamon.
- using a pastry blender, cut in 1 1/2 sticks butter until combined; set aside.
- to make the streusel topping, in a large bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and flour.
- using a pastry blender, cut in the butter, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs; leave in some larger pieces (see top photo), then set aside.
- in a small bowl, beat the egg with the cream to create a wash; set aside.
- generously butter three 9-by-5-by-2 3/4-inch loaf pans (check out the online version of the recipe for instructions about the parchment paper; i used a non-stick popover pan, and the babka came lifted out beautifully.)
- punch the dough down, transfer to a well-floured work surface, and let rest for 5 minutes.
- cut the dough into three equal pieces.
- roll out one piece of the dough into a 16-inch square, about 1/8-inch thick.
- brush edges of dough with the egg wash.
- crumble 1/3 of the filling evenly over the dough, leaving about a 1/2-inch border on the long sides.
- roll up the dough lengthwise into a tight log (as if you were making cinnamon rolls), pinching ends together to seal. (ok, this is where i went my own way, cutting the roll into 6 individual pieces and placing in the popover pan.)
- twist dough evenly down the length of the log, a full five or six times.
- brush the top of the log (or tops of your babka popovers) with egg wash.
- crumble two tablespoons of the chocolate filling down the center of the log, being careful not to let the mixture fall off (i didn’t have the dexterity for this feat).
- fold the log in half, into a horseshoe shape.
- cross the right half over the left.
- pinch the ends together to seal, and form a figure eight.
- twist two more times, and fit into prepared pan.
- repeat with remaining dough and filling.
- brush the top of each loaf with egg wash.
- sprinkle 1/3 of the streusel topping on each loaf.
- loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until dough has expanded and feels pillowy, about 40 minutes.
- preheat oven to 350F.
- bake loaves, rotating halfway through until golden, about 55 minute (20 minutes for babka popovers).
- reduce oven temperature to 325F; bake until loaves are deep golden 20 to 30 minutes more. cover loaves with foil, if they begin to brown too quickly (10 minutes for babka popovers).
- transfer pans to wire rack to cool completely.