Episode 3, GBBO 2016, Signature Bake

Chocolate Bread

It’s about time I added babka to my baking repertoire. The classic Jewish bread has made quite a resurgence in the past 10 years or so, but it had its humble beginnings in the Jewish shtetls of Poland and Ukraine in the early 19th century. It may have developed from a yeasted cake called baba, which means grandmother in Polish (related to the Eastern Yiddish bubbe). The baba was baked in a fluted, Bundt-like pan which resembled an old woman’s long, full skirt. Babka is the diminutive form of the word baba, so it means little grandmother

It’s unclear how the babas of old were transformed into the decadent, multilayered, chocolate-laden loaves that we know and love today, but it is said that Jewish grandmothers, after making challah bread for Shabbat, would take leftover dough and roll it up with cinnamon, poppyseeds or fruit preserves and bake it alongside the challah. Most Jewish households would not have had a fancy fluted pan, so these humble babkas were usually baked in loaf pans. Of course, the dough would have been pareve, meaning it contained neither meat nor dairy, so the early babkas would not have been made with the enriched dough found in most babkas today.

In fact, to read reminiscences of Jewish New Yorkers who grew up in the mid-to-late 20th century, babkas were usually purchased at the grocery store and are described as “a ‘take it or leave it’ sort of confection” or “dry and crumbly and full of trans fat,” often made with palm oil or margarine. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: Jerry Seinfeld.

In a 1994 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine stop at a bakery to pick up a babka to take to a dinner party. When they find out the bakery is out of chocolate babka, Jerry orders a cinnamon one instead. Elaine declares that cinnamon babka is a “lesser babka,” to which Jerry pushes back, declaring, “Cinnamon takes a backseat to no babka!”

Whether cinnamon or chocolate is the superior babka I am not about to debate here. But the Seinfeld episode catapulted this nearly forgotten dessert bread to stardom, and once the proverbial cat was out of the bag, modern bakers began to put their own twist on this traditional twisted loaf. What began as a dry and crumbly, dairy-free concoction now more closely resembles a brioche, laden with butter and dripping with chocolate or other decadent fillings.

And this modern version is what I chose to make for this signature challenge. The brief was to make any type of chocolate bread. It could be formed into any shape, the judges said, but Paul Hollywood specified that it had to have a bread-like texture. All of the bakers in the Great White Tent used enriched dough, and several made a variation on the theme of chocolate babka. 

Drawing on the experience of America’s Test Kitchen, I used this recipe. It’s a pretty straightforward babka recipe. The enriched dough features just a hint of orange zest, contrasting beautifully with the double-chocolate filling, made with both cocoa powder and melted bittersweet chocolate. I improvised with one additional ingredient, inspired by Rav’s Chocolate, Cardamom & Hazelnut Babka, which the judges loved. I thought a little cardamom would deepen the flavor profile of the loaf, and I was not disappointed. The flavors melded beautifully together, even more so a few days after it was baked!

The key to an enriched dough is time, something the GBBO bakers were short on. The best way to get a long, slow proof with enriched dough is to let it prove in the fridge overnight. This results in a better flavor and better crumb structure, according to Cook’s Illustrated (another arm of America’s Test Kitchen).

This recipe uses a different method of mixing and proving than the way I’m used to making bread. It does all the mixing and kneading with an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Starting off with just the flour, yeast, milk, eggs and flavorings (orange zest, vanilla and, in my case, cardamom), you mix those ingredients together for a couple minutes. Then it instructs you to cover the bowl with a dish towel and let it rest for 15 minutes. As explained in this demonstration video, resting the dough allows the flour to hydrate and the gluten to start developing. 

After that, you mix in the sugar and salt, followed by the softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, continuing to knead the dough with the mixer for about 10 more minutes. Then, the dough is transferred to a large, greased bowl, covered and left to rise for about an hour before being refrigerated for 2-24 hours.

The next day, you prepare your filling by melting the chocolate and butter in the microwave, then stirring in the powdered sugar, cocoa and salt. The powdered sugar stabilizes the chocolate filling so it won’t ooze out the sides of the bread as it bakes. After rolling the dough into a 12-by-18-inch rectangle and spreading it with the chocolate mixture, you roll it up and cut it lengthwise down the middle, so you have two striated halves — stripes of chocolate alternating with golden-yellow dough. You then twist the two halves together, keeping the cut sides up, and transfer them to the loaf pan. 

I was surprised that the dough didn’t need to prove again before baking, but upon researching it, I found that when using rapid-rise or instant yeast, you can get by with only one proof. Instead, this chocolatey loaf goes right in the oven for 80-90 minutes. When it comes out, while still hot, it is brushed with a simple sugar syrup, which soaks into the freshly baked bread, making it even more moist and sweet.

The hardest part of this bake was waiting for the bread to cool before cutting into it! The recipe is very clear that it must cool in the pan for a full hour and then cool on a wire rack for another 2 hours before it is sliced, perhaps so the chocolate has a chance to set. This babka is definitely very rich and chocolatey. It was great in small portions, but I couldn’t eat a whole (thick) slice in one sitting. My daughter suggested that next time I reduce the amount of filling. But who knows? Next time I might try the cinnamon babka instead…

Chocolate, Orange & Cardamom Babka

Recipe adapted from AmericasTestKitchen.com

For the dough:

  • 2¼ c. bread flour
  • 1½ t. instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • ½ c. whole milk, room temperature
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 T. grated orange zest
  • 1 t. ground cardamom
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • ¼ c. granulated sugar
  • ½ t. salt
  • 6 T. unsalted butter, softened

    For the filling:

    • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
    • 8 T. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
    • ½ c. powdered sugar
    • ½ t. salt
    • ½ c. unsweetened cocoa powder

      For the syrup:

      • ½ c. granulated sugar
      • ¼ c. water


      1. To make the dough, whisk flour and yeast together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add milk, eggs, orange zest, cardamom and vanilla. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on medium-low speed until dough comes together and no dry flour remains — about 2 minutes. Turn off mixer, cover bowl with clean dish towel or plastic wrap and leave to rest for 15 minutes.
      2. Add sugar and salt to dough and knead on medium speed until fully incorporated — about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium-high and, with mixer running, add 6 tablespoons of butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, making sure each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next, scraping down bowl and dough hook as needed. This should take about 3 minutes. Continue to knead on medium-high speed until dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, 7-10 minutes longer.
      3. Transfer dough to large, greased bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until slightly puffy, about 1 hour. Then refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
      4. To make the filling, just before removing the dough from the fridge, combine the chocolate and butter in a medium, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at 50% power, stirring every 30 seconds, until chocolate is fully melted and smooth, about 2 minutes total. Sift together powdered sugar, cocoa and salt and add to melted chocolate, stirring until combined. Set aside.
      5. Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 325°F. Grease an 8½-by-4 ½-inch loaf pan with butter and line it with parchment paper. (Make sure the parchment paper overlaps the edge of the pan by a couple inches; this will help you remove the babka from the pan.)
      6. Remove dough from fridge and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. (Don’t use too much flour, or the dough might slide around while you’re trying to roll it out.) Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12-by-18-inch rectangle, with the short side facing you.
      7. Use an offset spatula to spread the chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a ½-inch border along the top edge (farthest away from you). Beginning with the edge closest to you, tightly roll the dough away from you into an even, 12-inch log. (I used a bench scraper to pry the edge of the dough off the work surface to start the rolling process.) Pinch the seam against the log to seal.
      8. Placing the log, seal-side down, on the work surface, use a greased serrated knife to cut the log in half lengthwise. (NOTE: Slice through in one smooth motion rather than using a sawing motion. This should keep the layers distinct.) Lay the two halves next to each other, cut sides up. Cross the left half over the right half, keeping the cut sides facing up, then repeat, forming a tight twist, until you reach the end of the log. Pinch the ends together and then carefully transfer the loaf to the prepared pan, keeping the cut sides up and tucking the ends into the pan. Tap the loaf pan on the counter to make sure the dough is resting on the bottom.
      9. Set a wire rack into a rimmed baking sheet and center the loaf pan on the rack. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cover top of babka with aluminum foil. Return to oven and continue to bake for another 50-60 minutes, until the center of the loaf registers between 200°F and 205°F on an instant-read thermometer.
      10. While the bread is baking, make the syrup: Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and set aside.
      11. Remove babka from the oven. Leave in loaf pan and brush syrup evenly over the entire surface of the hot babka. (Make sure to use all of it — you won’t regret it!) Leave in the loaf pan on the wire rack for an hour, then carefully remove from pan and cool completely on the rack for two more hours. Slice thickly, at least 1 inch thick, and serve. (Feel free, like I did, to cut each piece into two or three “fingers,” as they are very rich and chocolatey!)
      12. This babka is delicious when eaten the same day, but if you leave it in an airtight container for a day or two, the flavors meld together and, in my opinion, taste even better! It should keep at room temperature for 3-5 days. If desired, reheat for a few seconds in the microwave to get that melty chocolate and fresh-baked flavor!

      Up next: Dampfnudel

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