Babka, meaning "cake" in Polish, is a sweet enriched bread traditionally served at Easter-time. In Poland, as in many European countries, it was common for the kitchen to be emptied of things like sugar, eggs and butter during the season of Lent. Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) was only a celebration because of the pressure to use up these items before Lent began the following day, on Ash Wednesday. After 40 days of prayers and penance, the butter, sugar and eggs were cracked into again on Easter! For this reason, babka basically loads in as much enrichment as possible, so don't shy away from the amounts you'll find in the recipe below. Babka is a bread/cake that is meant to be eaten and enjoyed in celebration.
We grew up getting our babka from a local Polish Deli. It wasn't until later on that we began making it ourselves. We love a good chocolate babka, but this sweet cheese babka, with swirls of rich cream cheese filling and piles of crumble on top, will always take first place.
sweet cheese babka
[For the Dough]
1/4 cup warm water
4 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 cup milk
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
5 cups flour
egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoons water
[For the Filling]
16 oz cream cheese, softened
1 cup + 2 tablespoons white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1 egg yolk
[For the Topping]
6 tablespoons flour
8 tablespoons white sugar
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, cold and cubed
Add yeast to warm water and let sit until it begins to froth, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, grease two 8-inch pans (see note).
Make dough. Heat milk until quite warm to the touch (about 45-60 seconds in microwave). Place in a mixing bowl and add butter, stirring until melted. Stir in sugar, salt, egg yolks, and yeast mixture. Add the flour, stir until combined, and then knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Grease a large bowl, add the dough, turn once to coat, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place away from drafts to rise until doubled, about 2 hours. (Enriched doughs take a long time to rise. I often stick mine in the oven with the pilot light on to encourage growth.)
Prepare filling. Beat the softened cream cheese until light and fluffy. With the mixer running, pour in the sugar and salt, then egg yolk and flour. Mix until combined.
Prepare topping. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together flour and sugar. Cut in the butter until it is in pea-sized pieces. (A pastry blender is useful tool here, but you can also use your fingers to rub the butter in, or the original method of knives.)
Assemble. Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, place one half of the dough and roll it into a rectangle roughly the size of a half sheet (13x18"). Spread half of the filling evenly on top, being sure to leave a 1" border all around. Fold the edges over on all sides to help keep the filling in. Then, begin to roll the dough, starting from the edge furthest from you and moving towards you. Pinch the seam to keep it together, and then twist the dough into a spiral, tuck the tail under, and place in prepared pan (see picture). Repeat with remaining dough/filling.
Second Rise. Brush both loaves with the egg wash, and sprinkle with crumb topping. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough begins to rise above the rim of the pan, up to another hour. Preheat the oven half way in.
Bake the loaves. At 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until they register 190 degrees. You can also test doneness by inserting a toothpick near the center (it should come out clean). Let the babka cool for 5 minutes on the counter, and then run a knife gently around to loosen the edges from the pan. Allow to cool completely before removing from pan. Enjoy!
Notes: The original recipe called for the babka to be baked in three loaf pans, in which case you divide the dough & filing into thirds, and also roll the dough the short way. The babka of our youth was always round, so we've each gravitated over the years towards baking these in round cake pans. When I'm home at my parents', I like to bake these in their fluted pans. I believe Sophie bakes hers in three 6-inch round loaves. In short, the size & shape is a little flexible!
Wondering what to do with those extra egg whites? Check out Sophie's post!
Adapted from The Baker's Guide.