Some people dream of vacations, getting rich, or meeting movie stars. I dream of making new sweets. This season, I’ve been dreaming of Chocolate Tahini Babka. Of course, if you know anything about babka, you won’t think I’m strange.
A yeasted bread twisted with a sweet filling, babka is somewhere between bread and cake. Rich and moist, with a sugar syrup that seeps into it as it cools, babka makes a great dessert, a marvelous snack and even breakfast if you have a sweet tooth. But it is traditional among Eastern European (Ashkenazic) Jews for the main meals at Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the break fast after the Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur).
An appropriately named site, Bread Through History, says that babka originated in the kitchens of Ashkenazic Jewish ghettos called shtetls.
I’m not sure that’s entirely true as other Eastern European cultures have similar breads. In any event, babka became a staple sweet of New York’s Lower East Side Jewish community when shtetl occupants moved there, beginning in the late 19th Century.
Babka moved uptown as those who began in settlement houses made their way in their new homeland. I used to buy it on the upper west side, at Zabar’s on Broadway and other bakeries such as the now-closed Lichtman’s on 86th Street.
When I moved from New York to DC, I never found bakery babka that matched the versions I could easily get all over New York and New Jersey. So I went through a babka drought that lasted, unfortunately, for decades.
When I tried homemade babka a few years ago, I began with the one from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s cookbook, Jerusalem. (They call theirs chocolate krantz cake, but believe me, it’s babka.) This year I took inspiration from that recipe and another (David Lebovitz’s) plus numerous others that I glanced at as I dreamed up my ideal version.
Because it contains tahini, my Chocolate Tahini Babka is slightly less sweet than the Jerusalem and Lebovitz versions. And it has an added hint of orange from grated orange rind and juice plus an optional sprinkling of orange blossom water. Ottolenghi/Tamimi use pecans in their filling and Lebovitz calls for hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds or pecans. By contrast, I opted for pistachios because they seemed the best match for the tahini. Still, all three versions share the same basic core – a stream of chocolate and nuts twisted through a sweet bread. They are also all infused with simple syrup, making them moist and almost cake-like.
The babka has 3 sets of ingredients: dough, filling, and a simple syrup that you pour over the baked bread. All of the ingredients are readily available except for the orange blossom water, which is optional. (You can purchase orange blossom water at a Middle Eastern grocery or a large grocery with a Middle Eastern customer base.) And if you aren’t near a Trader Joe’s or other store selling reasonably priced pistachios, substitute walnuts or another type of nuts.
This recipe is more complicated than most of those on this site. I hesitated about posting it. However, I realized that it’s really more time consuming than difficult. Besides, if you’re going to have a culinary bucket list, this babka should be on it.
Tips for Making Chocolate Tahini Babka
- Read the recipe all the way through. (Hopefully you always do that. Remember Rule #4 of the 10 Rules for Meal Preparation Success?)
- This is a two-day recipe because the dough rises twice and the first time is best done overnight. It should take you less than 1 hour the first day (making both the dough and filling) and about 3-4 hours the second day, including a 1 & 1/2-2 hour period when the dough rises the second time and 30 minutes for baking. The active time for the entire recipe is in the 2 – 2 & 1/2 hour range.
- Take advantage of my mistakes. First, be attentive when you make the simple syrup to pour over the babka. (Don’t let it boil over.) Second, put a large rimmed cookie sheet underneath each loaf pan as you drizzle the simple syrup on top of the loaf. (If the delicious, sticky syrup gets on your counter, you’ll be sorry – take it from one who knows.)
Chocolate Tahini Babka
- 2 packages active dry yeast equal to 4 & 1/2 teaspoons
- 1 cup whole or lowfat milk, slightly heated (to about 105-110 degrees F)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 4+ cups all purpose flour
- 6 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into tablespoons equal to 12 tablespoons
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
Chocolate Tahini Filling
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- 6 oounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped & then melted
- 1/2 cup tahini
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa natural or Dutch process or mixed
- 1 cup dry toasted pistachios, chopped
- 2 tablespoons sugar
Orange-Flavored Simple Syrup
- 1 orange, rind grated and juiced
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 cup sugar
- few (2-3) drops orange blossom water
- enough water to bring orange juice to 3/4 cup liquid
Place the yeast, warmed milk, sugar and 2/3 cups of flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix them just until combined. Then put the bowl aside to rest in a warm place for 10-15 minutes.
Once the yeast mixture has bubbles and begun to expand, put it on the mixer with a dough hook.
On low speed add the butter into the yeast mixture, then the eggs and salt. Add 4 cups of the flour gradually, until the mixture is well mixed, then raise the speed to medium-high and knead the dough until it is smooth. If the dough does not come off the sides, add additional flour by tablespoons until it easily turns into a ball at the center of the mixer. (I used about 2-3 additional tablespoons of flour.)
Cover the dough with a clean towel and refrigerate the dough overnight. If you're in a rush, the rise can be lessened to 6 hours.
Chocolate Tahini Filling
Mix the melted butter, confectioners sugar, bittersweet chocolate, tahini, and cocoa into a smooth mixture.
Set aside the chocolate mixture and separately the nuts and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Those 3 elements constitute the filling.
Forming the Babka
Butter or oil two loaf pans. Line them with parchment paper with at least 2-3 inches overhanging on the long sides of the pans. Those sides will help you release the babkas once they are cool.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator, cut it in half. Put one half back in the refrigerator and roll the other half into an 11" x 15-18" rectangle on a lightly floured surface. The long side of the rectangle should be facing you, with the shorter sides perpendicular to you.
Using a knife or spatula, spread the chocolate tahini filling evenly over the rectangle of dough. Leave just a small border at the top (the long side farther from you). Sprinkle half of the nuts over the filling and then 1 tablespoon of the sugar.
Roll the dough, starting with the long side near you. Do it as tightly as you can without punching or otherwise damaging the roll.
Seal the roll by brushing a tiny bit of water on the small border that you left unfilled at the top. and press very gently. Turn the roll so it is perpendicular to you. Then slice it down the center with a sharp knife and open it so the two halves are side-by-side. The two halves may not stay together well - that's OK. Just keep them close together and don't move them much.
Braid the two halves as well as you can, lifting one half over the other. Try not to stretch them out lengthwise.
Gently place the braided babka into one of the parchment-lined loaf pans and repeat the process with the other half of dough and filling. If you have to squish the braid into the loaf pan, that's fine.
Cover the two loaves with a clean cloth, place them in a warm place and let the dough rise a second time for 1 & 1/2 -2 hours. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bake the babka for about 30 minutes, until a skewer comes out with no damp dough. (It's ok if chocolate attaches to the skewer, just no unbaked dough.)
Orange Simple Syrup
Either while the loaves or rising or while they bake, make the orange syrup. Mix the orange juice, honey, sugar and (optional) drops of orange blossom water. Heat the mixture just to a boil, watching to make sure it doesn't boil over. Skim off any foam, so that the mixture becomes a clear orange liquid. Add the grated orange rind and mix the rind throughout.
When you take the loaves out of the oven, immediately put them on a rimmed cookie sheet that is larger than the loaf pans. Spoon the syrup over the loaves, trying to get it into crevices.
Let the loaves completely cool before attempting to remove them from the loaf pans.
I'm crazed about the temperature of the warmed liquid (milk in this case) used to activate yeast. My friend Donna Currie recommends 105-110 degrees F for dry yeast. I used an instant read thermometer to gauge the temperature, but if you're a good judge of temperature, you can judge the heat by putting a few drops of the milk on your wrist.
I made the chocolate tahini filling on the first day, just after I put the dough into the refrigerator. That meant it was rather hard when I removed it from the refrigerator. I microwaved it on a low setting in 30 second increments until the filling loosened. You can make it then, or wait until the next morning.
For melting chocolate, I use microwave the chopped chocolate on a low setting in 30 second increments, stirring after each increment, until the chocolate is thoroughly melted and smooth. If you melt the chocolate on the stovetop, either use a double-boiler (a pot of simmering water with a smaller post of chopped chocolate on top, so that the chocolate never touches either the water or the direct heat) or melt it on a very low light, stirring constantly to prevent burning.
You can slice Chocolate Tahini Babka, pull it apart, or cut it in chunks. Whichever way you serve it, be prepared for it to fly off the plate as soon as you offer it.