You can say a lot of things about me, but you can’t say I’m not committed to this blog. If you’ve seen my Instagram stories lately, you know I’ve been on something of a mission—a mission that involved nine separate attempts at babka. Each batch makes two loaves, so that’s 18 babkas!
Last night, my sister made me promise that I wouldn’t make any more babka during the month of October. I think that’s fair.Some of you may be wondering what in the world I’m talking about, and I totally get it. I had never heard of babka before I moved to New York, but it wasn’t long before I became a fan of the chocolate variety. I mean, what’s not to love about soft yeasted cake swirled with chocolate?!Cinnamon is another popular flavor of babka, but chocolate is definitely king. Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes famously called cinnamon babka “the lesser babka.” I wonder what she’d have to say about this Pumpkin Babka. I sort of hope she’d call it a “basic babka.” That is, if she had time to talk between bites of this buttery, pumpkin-filled treat!
Let’s talk dough. You’ll find all sorts of babka in NYC (and online). I’ve tried Israeli and Polish versions, and I’m sure there are more varieties. Some are flaky, some are feather-soft. Some have an exposed twist, while others look like any other bread until they are sliced. Some are baked in a ring; others are divided into loaf pans. I think this is why I had to make so many batches before I found a recipe I like.This babka—my babka—is heavily adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s popular recipe. It starts with a soft brioche dough that is enriched with butter and eggs and accented with nutmeg and vanilla. I highly recommend making this dough in a stand mixer, although it can be made by hand. As each tablespoon of butter has to be incorporated individually, it’s nice to have a machine doing all that work.
The dough gets kneaded until it’s smooth before being refrigerated overnight. It won’t double in bulk the way most of my yeast doughs do, but it should puff up a little.On the day you want to bake your babkas, divide the dough in half. Working with one portion at a time, roll it into a large rectangle.Spread on the filling—in this case, a simplified pumpkin pie filling—before rolling it into a cylinder.Briefly freeze the cylinder on a floured baking sheet before cutting off the ends and then slicing it in half lengthwise, thereby exposing the filling.Carefully twist the two halves together before placing your unrisen babka in a parchment-lined loaf pan.
Repeat this process with the other half of the dough before letting babkas rise for 1.5-2 hours, or until they peek (peak?) over the tops of their pans.Bake the babkas at 350F for about half an hour (or longer, if you are using light-colored pans). When they’re done, they should be deep golden on top, and a skewer inserted in the center should meet no resistance at all. If you, like me, get nervous about things being done, you can use a thermometer to check for doneness. The interior should be 190F.As soon as you remove the babkas from the oven, brush them with a good dose of pumpkin spice syrup. You may think the amount in the recipe is too much, but it isn’t. If you try to cut back on this, you’ll miss the sticky glossiness that makes babka a cake rather than just a swirled bread.As a baker, I am supposed to tell you to wait to enjoy your Pumpkin Babkas until they have cooled completely. As a human, I’m going to tell you that it’s totally okay to let them cool halfway in their pans before tearing in.There’s just something about the combination of warm, fluffy brioche and pumpkin and autumnal spices that are nearly impossible to resist. I’ve eaten A LOT of Pumpkin Babka over the last two weeks, so I know.Oh, yeah. There’s nothing basic about this babka.
heavily adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
makes 2 babkas
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast (not regular active dry yeast)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups pure pumpkin purée (I high recommend Libby’s here)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
pinch of Kosher or fine sea salt
Pumpkin Spice Syrup:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
This is a time-consuming, two-day recipe with many steps. Please read the recipe at least twice before beginning.
The day before you want to bake, make the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together flour, sugar, nutmeg, salt, and instant yeast. Fit the mixer with a dough hook. Add beaten eggs, water, and vanilla. Turn mixer on low (the “stir” or “2” setting on my Kitchen Aid mixer) and let run until a thick dough forms.
Cut softened butter into 12 one-tablespoon pieces. With the mixer running on low, add butter one piece at a time, waiting until the previous piece is incorporated before adding another. Once all butter has been added, turn mixer up to medium speed (“6” on my mixer) and let run for about 10 minutes, scraping down the bowl occasionally, until the dough is smooth and pulling away from the bowl.
Transfer dough to an oiled bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours (preferably overnight). Dough will not double in size or rise very much during this time—don’t be alarmed.
The day you are going to bake, make the filling. Combine pumpkin, melted butter, granulated sugar, light brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl. Use a fork to whisk everything together until well-combined. Set aside.
Grease two 9×5-inch loaf pans. Line with parchment and grease again. Set aside.
Remove dough from the refrigerator, punch it down and slice it in half. Return half the dough to the refrigerator.
Flour a surface and a rolling pin. Working with one half of the dough at a time, roll it out to an 11×14-inch rectangle (about 1/8-inch thick). Use an offset knife to spread half the filling onto the dough, leaving 1/2-inch bare on all sides. Starting from a short edge (an 11 inch edge), tightly roll the dough into a cylinder. Some filling may squish out—that’s okay.
Place cylinder on a floured baking sheet and freeze for 10 minutes. Repeat rolling and filling process with remaining dough.
Shape the babkas. Remove one cylinder from the freezer. Slice 1/2-inch off each end. Slice the cylinder in half lengthwise. This will be messy.
Place both halves next to each other, cut-sides-up. Carefully twist them together. Place babka in one of the prepared pans. Cover pan loosely with plastic wrap. Repeat shaping process with remaining cylinder. Let babkas rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1.5-2 hours, or until they rise 1/2- to 1-inch above the pan walls at their highest point.
Bake babkas at 350F for 30-40 minutes. If you are using a dark pan, your babka should be done closer to the 30 minute mark. Test for doneness with a skewer—if it meets any resistance or comes out with dough on it, bake in five minute increments until neither of those things happens. To test for doneness with a thermometer, insert the end into center. If it reads at 190F or above, it’s done.
While babkas are baking, make pumpkin spice syrup. Combine sugar, water, and pumpkin pie spice in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat.
Brush hot babkas with pumpkin spice syrup. Let babkas cool in their pans on a rack until they are cool enough to remove them with your hands. Let babkas continue to cool on a rack until they reach room temperature (if you can resist tearing in).
Slice and serve babka. Leftovers will keep tightly-wrapped in plastic at room temperature for up to 48 hours, or in the refrigerator for a few days.