When author Sara Marks asked me to host a stop on the blog tour for her first publication, Modern Persuasion, the first question that came to my mind was what sort of recipe I’d link with it. Not having read the novel at that point, I wondered: What would they eat? Would there be a scene where the characters had a picnic by a pond? Or would they be grabbing street food from a cart in New Dehli, or maybe sipping martinis, James Bond-style, at a swanky bar in Monaco? And so I gobbled up the book with food in mind.
I nearly decided to find a delicious Chinese-inspired dish to reflect a scene where the characters eat Chinese take-out in Central Park, but thought I’d check with the author to see if she had anything in mind. Well, it turns out she did!
Much of the story takes place in New York City, where there are bakeries a-plenty. Further, the actions centres around a successful screenwriter and his book tour, during which copious amounts of tea and coffee are consumed. If the characters are drinking that much tea and coffee, I thought, they surely must want something to nibble along with it, and Ms. Marks suggested bringing in something from one of those above-mentioned bakeries, namely babka! (A babka, for those not in the know, is a delight that’s part-way between bread and cake, a concoction of layers of sweet dough and delicious filling, rolled out and twisted and totally delicious. Variations include chocolate, nut, and poppy seed.)
Now, I am an incurable chocoholic, but I will willingly confess that a good poppy seed filling is enough to make me put chocolate aside with no backward glances. And I have a wonderful recipe for the sweet brioche-like dough, thanks to the amazingly talented Michal R, whose recipes never fail to inspire me. Put these together, and you have a poppy seed babka to die for! Enough of this stuff and the book tour would never have left NYC! (Good thing it did, though, otherwise it would have been a rather short novel.)
Babka isn’t a quick or easy dish to make. It involves several steps and a whole lot of time, mostly waiting for things to rise or cool. But it is worth every second. And so, without further ado….
Poppy Seed Babka
Note: Start this the day before you want to bake it. It needs to rest in the fridge overnight.
- 1 TBSP dried yeast – the instant kind is easier, but regular is fine. See below for extra comments on using it
- 70 grams lukewarm milk or water (if you want it to be dairy-free)
- 500 grams (1.1 lbs / 4 cups) sifted flour
- 140 mL (5 fl oz) milk – just slightly warm to the touch, but not hot!
- 100 grams (3.5 oz) sugar
- 100 grams butter (3.5 oz), at room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Lemon and orange zest, grated from one lemon and half an orange
- 1/2 tsp salt
- If you’re using regular dried yeast, dissolve it in about half of the warm milk with a bit of sugar, and wait for it to begin to bubble. This should take 10 – 15 minutes. Then add to a mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients and proceed to step 3.
- If you’re using instant yeast (teeny-tiny granules of yeast), just toss everything into a mixing bowl.
- Mix everything well, and knead for 10 minutes (using your hands or a dough hook), until the dough is very smooth and supple. As with any yeasted dough, the consistency of the dough is more important than the exact proportion of flour and liquid, so add one or the other as needed to get it right. The ideal dough should be very soft and pliable, but still able to hold its shape. It should be shiny and very smooth, and when it is properly kneaded, you should be able to stretch a small piece to form a thin translucent membrane.
- Form into a boule (fancy French baking term for pulling it into a tight ball), spray lightly with oil, cover and let rise for an hour. Punch it down, cover with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge overnight.
The Poppy Seed Filling
- 300 ml (10 fl oz) milk or milk substitute
- 200 grams (7 oz) sugar
- 100 grams (3.5 oz) honey
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- grated lemon zest from one lemon
- 350 grams (about 12.5 oz) poppy seeds
- Up to 250 grams (about 9 oz) finely ground butter cookies or something similar (see note below)
- 100 grams (3.5 oz) butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
- Using a coffee grinder, grind the poppy seeds till fairly well processed. You don’t want a paste, but you do want them obviously ground.
- Place milk, sugar, honey, vanilla and lemon zest in a saucepan and heat on medium heat till the sugar and honey dissolve and the milk starts to boil. Lower the heat and add the ground poppy seeds. Let cook on low for about 5 minutes more, then start adding the cookie crumbs.
NOTE: the cookie crumbs are to help absorb the extra liquid, to make the filling the right consistency to spread. Start with a little and add more as needed, keeping in mind that the mixture will thicken as it cools. Also, it doesn’t have to be cookie crumbs. Extra pastry will work, as will ground-up ice cream cones or even finely-ground rice cake if you want to keep the filling gluten-free. For the batch I made for this blog post, I actually used some matzah cake meal I had left over from Passover, and it worked out just fine.
- Mix well and remove from heat. Stir in the butter cubes and let them melt into the mixture. Refrigerate overnight.
- For me, the hardest part of this recipe is leaving it in the fridge and not just eating it all right now. Be strong. You can do it.
Putting it together
This is my method for a large eye-catching babka. You can also just roll it out into thin layers with filling in between, cut it to fit two loaf pans, and bake it like that.
- Take everything out of the fridge a couple of hours before you start to work. You want the filling to soften a bit, and you want the dough to be cool and pliable, but not cold.
- Prepare a baking pan. I like to do this in a large spring-form pan. Cover the base with a piece of parchment paper that overlaps the base by a bit on all sides.
- Divide the dough into three even sections. Roll or stretch the first into a circle about the size of the base, and place it onto the parchment-covered base. (It might be easier to do this on a second piece of parchment; I like the insides a bit sticky, so I prefer not to flour my surface, but do what works for you.)
- Cover the dough with half of the filling and spread evenly, leaving a bit of a border at the edge of the circle.
- Repeat with the second section of dough, and the rest of the filling. Top with the final circle of dough. Pinch the edges closed around the rim.
- Mark out a small circle about 8cm / 3 inches in diameter, in the centre of the circle of dough. A drinking glass should give you what you need. With a sharp knife or a cleaver, cut the cake into quarters, leaving the centre circle UNCUT. Repeat by cutting each quarter in half, and then half again. You should end up with a large circle with a solid small circle in the middle, with the outer section sliced into 16 strips. Dampening the knife between each cut helps deal with the stickiness.
- Taking the outer edges of two adjacent strips, twist them toward each other so what had been the top is now upside down, on the surface of the base. (It’s easier than it sounds. Just grab and twist. Really.) Repeat all around, until all the strips have been twisted. It should give you a lovely design of dough and filling. Check out the photos below. They might help.
- Carefully slide the base of the spring-form pan into the edge, letting the parchment fold up inside. This will let the cake release easily from the pan once it’s done.
- Spray the top lightly with oil and let rise in a warm spot for an hour or so. I like to use the inside of the oven, with a bowl of steaming hot water to keep the air warm and moist.
- Remove from oven, and brush some beaten egg or a bit of milk over the top if desired. Preheat the oven to 350F, and when the oven is hot, bake the pastry for 40-60 minutes.
- Remove the side of the pan, allow to cool, and devour.