Bake a Better Babka with These Expert Tips and Tricks
Babka has been around for a couple of centuries, ever since it was created in Eastern Europe as a way to make good use of extra challah dough. It's only in the last decade that it's become trendy in the United States, however, thanks in part to its Instagrammability. It was long a staple of Jewish bakeries and delis, but these days, babka is seemingly everywhere, as a quick search of #babka makes clear. From the look of its gorgeous stripes and swirls, with contrasting layers of rich dough and filling, you might think baking the perfect babka is impossible to pull off at home. What you may not know is that the dough itself is very forgiving, and the process of forming all those layers is easier than it looks. You just need to follow a few steps and, perhaps more than anything else, take your time in doing so.
As the founder of the bakery chain Lehamim in Israel and co-founder and former partner at Breads Bakery in New York City, Uri Scheft is widely credited with popularizing Israeli-style babka in the United States. (His Walnut Babka is shown above.) In the last few years, he's become something of a babka guru. Recently, he brought his world-famous babka and other baked goods to Boston in his latest venture, Bakey. "The problem with many babkas is that they are baked to be shelf-stable. When I first traveled to the U.S., I was amazed that the babka looked so dense. That's not the way I learned to make it," he says.
Scheft was raised in Israel by his Danish parents, and he studied pastry techniques in Europe. To him, the key to a perfect babka comes down to one quality: Freshness. (Bakey's first Instagram post promises "ridiculously fresh" baked goods.) A guarantee of freshness is one good reason to make your own babka from scratch. Scheft believes that achieving perfect babka at home isn't impossible, as long as you keep a few tips and tricks in mind.
Patience Is Paramount
Don't try to rush the process, especially the first time you make babka. Ideally, you should make the dough the night before you plan to bake. You'll need at least six hours before you can roll it out. This allows the dough to develop properly; the longer it rests, the easier it is to roll and to shape.
Stick to the Script
Read through the recipe and follow it exactly the first time (and even the next couple of times). "One mistake home bakers make is they read a recipe and then they do whatever they've done before with other recipes," says Scheft. "Then they are surprised when it doesn't work out." Instead, leave your prior knowledge behind, and trust that any unfamiliar techniques are included for a good reason. Only after you've followed a recipe three or four times can you start to cut corners or make your own adjustments.
You'll get the best results if you weigh your ingredients rather than relying on volume measures, so buy an electronic scale if you don't have one. "That's really the only kitchen equipment you need," says Scheft, "other than your hands and a good oven."
When you are twisting the strands of layered dough, it's important that each strand (or "rope") is evenly long, so that you can form a tight babka. "You want to make sure the twist stays in place as the babka bakes. If the ropes are too short, the braid will unravel," Scheft cautions.
Lock in Moisture
Brush the warm, just-baked babka with simple syrup. This will help keep it moist. You want to get the sugar on the outer crust and let it drain through the cake, but take care not to drench it. "You should have a good idea of when the babka is absorbing the syrup, and when to stop. You don't want to make it too sweet," cautions Scheft.
Eat or Freeze
Babka is best eaten the same day it's baked. If you've made more than one loaf, freeze what you can't eat (or give away), but wait until it comes to room temperature before wrapping it well. "Don't leave it out on the counter for a few days," Scheft says. "This is not a keeping cake. Perfect babka is fresh babka."
It Doesn't Have to Be Instagram-Worthy
Manage your expectations and don't be discouraged if your first babka isn't picture-perfect. "There's a saying that immediate success is not a good teacher," says Scheft. "When you make a few mistakes the first couple of times you attempt something, you learn from the process, and you become a better baker." Keep baking until you're satisfied with the result. Honestly, this shouldn't take too many attempts—as long as you remember to take your time.