March 26, 2016

Easter Babka (Polish Yeast Cake)

I never really noticed a lot of our family traditions until after I moved away.  It’s only when you’re on your own, celebrating a holiday, that you start thinking “we always used to [insert tradition here]”. 

This year we didn’t go home for Easter.  It just happens to fall right before every single grant is due.  So I found myself remembering all the traditions and trying to re-create them for our own little two-person family. 

On Good Friday we had potatoes boiled in their skins for dinner.  And this morning, before Easter mass, we’re having Easter babka. 

My mom used to always serve it with hot chocolate.  She also used to make it with no raisins for me, though it seems my tastes have matured and I don’t mind the raisins so much anymore. 

If you’re not familiar with babka, it’s a barely sweet, yeast-leavened cake with (or without) raisins.  It’s fluffy and delicate, the middle ground between bread and regular cake.  The recipe might seem long, but it’s mostly kneading and rising.  Kneading is a snap if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, and rising time is when you get to squeeze in another episode of the new season of Daredevil. 

Don’t be afraid of yeast either!  They’re your little friends, helping make the babka rise and be fluffy. 

Though I might have it with an espresso instead of a hot chocolate, this is one tradition I intend to continue. 

Easter Babka

100 ml milk
2 packages (16 g) instant yeast
2 3/4 cups + 2 tbsp (370 g) all-purpose flour
Scant 1/4 cup (40 g) granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
3 eggs
10 1/2 tbsp (150 g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup raisins

Glaze (optional)
Juice of one lemon
Splash of rum or 1 tsp rum extract, optional
2 cups (200 g) icing sugar

About 30 minutes before you start, take the butter out of the fridge and cut into half inch cubes to warm. 

Gently warm the milk in a small saucepan or in the microwave.  You don’t want it to be hot, just mildly warm; think body temperature.  Combine half the warm milk, yeast, 1 tbsp of the sugar and 1 tbsp of the flour in the bowl of your stand mixer (or any large bowl).  Cover with a clean towel and let stand somewhere warm for about 15 minutes.  The mixture should get foamy.  If it doesn’t, your yeast is dead!  Get new yeast and try again.

To the starter, add the rest of the milk and sugar and sift in the flour and salt.  Stir together with a wooden spoon or with your dough hook on low speed.  Add eggs one at a time stirring until dough comes together.  Knead by hand for about 10 minutes, or using your dough hook on medium speed for about 7 minutes.  Dough should be fairly firm at this point. 

Knead in softened butter a little at a time either by hand or with your dough hook.  Once all the butter is in, knead for another 10 minutes, or 7 minutes with your dough hook on medium speed.  Dough should be soft, shiny, and elastic. 

Knead in raisins, if using. 

Leave dough in the bowl, cover with the towel again, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.  Dough will at least double in volume. 

While dough is rising, prepare your pans.  Any 9” or 10” bundt pan will work.  I’ve never tried this, but if you don’t have a bundt pan, I don’t see why a loaf pan couldn’t be used, just monitor closely while baking.  Grease and flour pans. 

After an hour, start preheating oven to 350F and place a rack just below the middle.  Punch down dough.  Divide into two approximately equal pieces.  Roll each piece into a cylinder and place into your prepared pans, trying to make an even ring inside the pan.  Cover with the towel and let rise again in a warm place for 40 minutes.

Bake at 350F for 20-22 minutes.  Skewer inserted should not come out sticky and the top should be golden brown. 

Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert and let cool directly on rack.

In the meantime, make the glaze, if desired.  Combine lemon juice and rum or extract, if using.  Add icing sugar and stir.  You want the glaze to coat the back of a spoon thickly, but you still want it to flow easily. If glaze seems too thick, add water 1 tsp at a time until desired consistency is reached.   If it seems too thin, add icing sugar 1 tbsp at a time until the right consistency is reached.

While babka is still slightly warm, place a piece of wax paper under the rack, and spoon glaze over the cake until coated.  I used a pastry brush and brushed the cake after to evenly distribute glaze over the whole cake.  I also re-used the glaze that dripped through onto the wax paper and just kept brushing until most of the glaze stayed on the cake. 

Enjoy right away, or anytime!

Store covered under a cake dome (or bowl if you don’t have a cake dome) at room temperature.  Should be fine for 3 days.  If it gets too dry, use for French toast or top with sliced strawberries and eat with whipped cream or ice cream.  

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