The babka is a Jewish pastry that originated in Eastern Europe. It’s chewy and flaky on the outside, yet gooey and sugary on the inside – not unlike coffee cake, though its texture is more similar to that of bread. And while this Slavic sweet is certainly no beginner’s loaf, don’t be discouraged. All you need is some patience, a little bit of bravery, a trustworthy dough mixer and about six hours, and you’ll be good to go.
Luckily I had Marco Island resident Estie Karpman, a seasoned baker, to guide me through the process. As a member of the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island, Estie is one of the several women who make up Bubbie’s Bakery. Each year they prepare over 3,000 baked goods for the congregation’s Jewish Deli Fest. Needless to say, Estie knows her way around a babka.
Last month Estie graciously let me into her home and showed me the ins and outs of Jewish baking. In the interest of saving time, she had already prepared the dough. It’s important to note that this recipe would be extremely difficult to make without a stand-alone mixer, as it’s an essential component in preparing the bread. So if you do have a stand-alone mixer, Estie urges you to give the babka a try. “Everyone’s afraid of yeast,” she said. “The thing is, you’ve just got to have patience. The dough takes between an hour to an hour-and-a-half to rise up. Then you have to wait all over again.”
Estie and her husband George, both Illinois natives, have been coming to Marco Island for over 36 years. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that they became full time residents. Before retiring, Estie worked in development and fundraising. She even played an integral role in the creation and opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois.
Estie credits her baking prowess to her grandmother, who used to bake strudels for many of the Jewish bakeries in the St. Louis area. “I remember coming home from school and smelling my grandmother’s kitchen and knowing that it was going to be like heaven,” said Estie. “That’s how heaven smelt, just like grandma’s kitchen.”
While she may have gotten her start by watching her grandmother bake, it seems that their methodologies differ greatly. With Estie, it’s all about precision—perhaps this is a result of her background in development. She’s analytical and good at math. Everything was measured exactly. “My grandmother was the kind of baker that did everything by hand. She never had a measuring cup in her kitchen,” said Estie. “As she got older I went and stood over her and everything she did—before I let her put another ingredient in—I measured it in a measuring cup. Which is how I got herstrudel recipe.”
We started with the easy part, the filling. In a large bowl we mixed together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, butter and egg white. Then it was onto the dough. On a floured surface (we used a pastry cloth) we rolled the dough out into a rectangular shape, it should be about 20 by 14 inches. For our first babka we stuck to the script and only filled it with our premade filling, leaving about an inch along the border. It’s important to reserve about one tablespoon of the filling.
This next part is where it gets tricky. Going from the short side we rolled the dough so it looked like a cylinder. We pinched the ends and stretched it out so that it was about 18 inches long. Using a spoon we plopped the reserve filling over the length of the cylinder. Then taking one side of the cylinder we folded it up onto itself about halfway. We repeated this step on the other side. Taking each side of the now folded dough we twisted in opposite directions to make a figure 8. Estie is a pro at this, whereas I, on the other hand, had some difficulty. But Estie says not to worry if the figure 8 doesn’t come out exactly right or if there’s some cinnamon filling oozing out the side, it will still taste just as delicious.
Before you can bake the babka you must wait another hour so that it can double in size. It seems that baking a babka is 40% work and 60% waiting. While the first babka sat we got to work on the three other babkas Estie had in store for us. For these we got a little more creative. For the next babka we added chocolate chips on the inside and the outside. On the third babka we added walnuts and blackberry jam, and on the fourth babka we added apricot jam and mixed nuts. Before the babkas went into the oven they were brushed with an egg wash and coated in a cinnamon sugar mixture.
We checked them after about 35 minutes and they were perfect. We took them out of the oven, let them sit for 20 minutes, and then dug in. They came out wonderful! I cannot stress enough how good these things were. Like, scary good. It was definitely worth the wait. So if you’re up for it, take a day and try and make a babka of your very own!
Do you like to cook or bake? Have a recipe you’d like to share? If so, contact Coastal Breeze News at 239-393-4991. Or email the author at email@example.com.
Recipe Courtesy of Stan Alliker and Estie Karpman
Yields 2 loaves
Prep time: 4 hours and 30 minutes
Cook time: 35-45 minutes
1 cup lightbrown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 egg white
Egg Wash: 1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk, heated to 110 degrees
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1½ tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
1/2 tsp. salt
8 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1. Make the filling: Combine light brown sugar, flour, ground cinnamon, salt, butter and egg white.
2. Make the dough: Grease a large bowl and set aside. In a measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg yolks and vanilla extract.
3. Using a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, sugar, yeast and salt on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Slowly pour the milk mixture and mix until the dough comes together, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-low and add the butter, one piece at a time, until they have all been incorporated, about 1 minute. Continue to mix until the dough is smooth and comes away from the sides of the bowl, about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the dough to the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature, about 1 hour.
4. Place bowl in the refrigerator until the dough is firm and has doubled in size, at least 1 hour.
5. Assemble the Babka: Line an 8½ by 4½ inch loaf pan with parchment paper, allowing the excess to hang over edges.
6. Punch down the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out half of the dough to a 20 by 14-inch rectangle. Spread all but 1 Tbs. reserved filling over the dough, leaving 1/2-inch border around the edges. Working from the short side, roll the dough into a cylinder and pinch along the seam to seal.
7. Position the cylinder seam side up and roll back and forth until stretched to 18 inches long. Spread reserved filling over the top of the cylinder. Taking one side, fold the cylinder half way. Repeat to other side.
8. Gently twist the double cylinder twice to form a double figure eight. Place the shaped dough seam side down in the prepared pan, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.
9. Bake the Babka: While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly beat one whole egg and brush the top of the loaf. Bake until the loaf is a deep, golden brown and the inside registers at 190 degrees, about 35-45 minutes. Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then remove the loaf from the pan and cool completely, about 2 hours. The bread can be kept at room temperature for up to three days. Or bread can be frozen for up to a few months.