This sweet braided bread is popular in Jewish communities and throughout Eastern Europe. We've updated the recipe and created a veganised version of this much-loved chocolate and walnut cake. It's so delicious you'll need to bake several.
Babkas are my nostalgic treat. This sweet brioche-like cake reminds me of my childhood and my grandmother, who would make these with poppy seeds, or walnut and chocolate.
There are many variations on the babka, differing from region to region and family to family. You can add apples, raisins and even rahat (rahat ul-holkum—rose Turkish delight), or Nutella. Having no poppyseeds or rahat in my pantry, and not being a fan of Nutella, I whipped up a couple of the ol' walnut and cocoa babkas instead.
Although the recipe usually calls for eggs, milk and butter, I've replaced these with vegan ingredients instead. I wanted to see if I could veganise a traditional recipe successfully, without compromising on taste of texture. Well, it can be done.
I also used wholewheat instead of all-purpose flour, largely because I had run out of white flour, but also because it felt a bit healthier—wholewheat is a good source of protein, fibre, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. I'm happy to say that even with all these adjustments this babka recipe did not disappoint one bit. Add a little milk at a time to the dough as you're mixing in the bowl, as the wholewheat can be drier.
There's a complicated way and an easy way of making a babka. The complicated way is more time consuming and requires laminating and layering of the dough, resulting in a flakey croissant-like texture. The recipe below is the easy, fool-proof version, although it's no less time consuming, so set aside a block of time to make it.
For this recipe, proof and chill the dough for about 24 hours before starting on the babka filling and twisting.
I used an easy coil method— two halves of a dough rope twisted around one other—but you can also just bake the babka in a single log roll, or if you’re feeling adventurous braid three coils like a challah. The twisting can get messy, but the end result is so delicious it’s well worth it.
Enjoy with coffee or tea.
Makes two 9-inch babkas
2/3 cup plant-based milk (I used almond), plus extra as needed
2 tsp active dry yeast/ 2 ½ tbsp fresh yeast
1 cup all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting and kneading
1 ½ cups wholemeal flour (or just stick to all purpose flour if you prefer)
¼ cup brown sugar
A generous pinch of salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
80 grams vegan butter (I used Miyoko's Creamery Cultured Vegan Butter)
For chocolate spread:
2 cups pure cocoa powder
1 cup dark chocolate chips or chocolate shavings
2 tbsp brown sugar (you can add more to taste)
2 cups crushed walnuts
1 tsp cinnamon
120g vegan butter
2tsp vanilla extract
For sugar syrup:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
Pour milk into a large bowl, and add the vanilla extract and sugar. Then add the yeast and lightly mix with a fork, getting rid of any lumps.
Next, add the flour, egg substitute, salt, and butter in small clumps. Mix by hand or if you have on a low speed if you have a bread mixer. Scrape down the sides of the bowl regularly, and make sure to combine all the ingredients well. Add a little flour or water as required to make sure dough is not too wet or too dry.
Continue kneading, or mixing, the dough until it feels elastic and stretchy, and is smooth.
Remove dough from the bowl, and on a lightly floured bench, stretch and tear the dough. Pull the top portion of the dough, stretching it away from your body (it should have tears in it). Then fold the dough back on top of itself. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the process, stretching, tearing and folding. Repeat this until the dough can stretch thin without tearing.
Push the dough back into a round ball, and place back in the lightly floured bowl. Cover with a clean, damp tea towel and set aside to rise at room temperature for 30 mins -1 hour.
Once the dough has risen, gently flatten the dough into a 1 inch thick rectangle.
Wrap dough in a pastry cloth or muslin, and store in an air tight glass container. Normally, pastry making requires the dough to be wrapped in cling wrap, but I find this plastic free way works just as well.
Chill the dough in the fridge up to 24 hours.
Remove dough from fridge. On a lightly floured bench, gently press and roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick and 20 inches long. Pull the corners to create a defined rectangle shape.
Spread the chocolate and nut mix evenly across the dough, all the way to the edges. Then carefully roll the dough towards you into a rope. Make sure to push the dough a little as you roll to ensure you have a tight rope. You can stretch it slightly to lengthen and tighten the dough rope.
Cut the dough rope into even halves, so you have two pieces of dough rope. Then cut each dough rope lengthwise down the middle, exposing the chocolate interior. You will have four pieces.
Lay two halves atop each other in an 'X' (see photo 3 below) with the chocolate filling face up. Start twisting the dough ropes around each other into a coil. Twist and fold the ends under. Repeat on second babka.
Place the coiled babkas into two lightly butter coated 9-inch loaf tins.
Cover with a clean, damp tea towel and let your babkas sit in a warm, draft free place until the dough rises about double in size and is soft to the touch—around 1-2 hours depending on the warmth of the room.
Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius (350F).
Place the babkas in the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the skewer comes out clean (no gooey bits on it).
Prepare the sugar syrup as below.
When ready, take the babkas out of the oven. Pry the babkas out of the pan carefully with a pairing knife, and place on baking parchment on cooling racks. While still hot, brush each babka with cooled sugar syrup. It will make them glossy and also help keep them moist.
Tear into them while hot—if you're feral, like me—or wait until they are cooled and slice them to serve.
Crush walnuts with a mortar and pestle if you want a crunchier and chunkier texture, or blitz them for a bit in a blender with the cocoa powder, melted butter, vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar until it becomes a smooth paste. Add chocolate shavings or chips.
You can also just mix all the ingredients by hand in a bowl, old-school style like your grandma used to do.
Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan on low heat. Mix occasionally so it doesn't burn. Turn heat off once the liquid thickens to a syrupy consistency.
1. Spread the cocoa and walnut mix and roll the dough. 2. Cut each dough rope in half. 3. Cut each dough rope lengthwise down the middle and lay the two halves atop each other in an 'X'.
Twist the two half ropes around each other. Then let the loaf sit for an hour or two in a greased and covered tin to rise a little more.
Once the loaves have risen and expanded into the tin, pop them into a pre-heated oven at 175C.
Voila! You can eat babka hot out of the oven—the loaf will be soft and easy to tear—or let them sit until cool if you want neat thick slices.