Chocolate Babka Is the Best Thing Ever

Pastry whiz Clare Gordon teaches the art of buttery, chocolate-filled bread.

By Benjamin Tepler January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

Chocolate babka is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. As a food writer, I’m including Michelin-starred 14-course meals, pepperoni pizza, and still-flapping o-toro sushi. If you’ve never tried babka, imagine a buttery braid of yeasted dough with dozens of layers of gooey chocolate, all contorted like the rings of a gnarled tree.

Babka—an import of Eastern European Jewry, like pastrami, bagels, and lox—was largely the domain of New Yorkers and the Seinfeld-savvy until its recent reemergence on the national, cronut-fab pastry scene. It’s been slow to reach the Pacific Northwest, where Portland’s translation of a Jewish deli, Kenny & Zuke’s, is still the region’s premier vendor.

Fitting, then, that the babka torch has been passed from Ken “Kenny” Gordon to his daughter, Clare Gordon, an accomplished pastry chef who most recently ran the show at Renee Erickson’s Seattle restaurant empire. (The 27-year-old began her career baking bagels and shaping bread at K&Z’s every morning before heading to high school at St. Mary’s.)

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From left: finished loaf; pastry chef Clare Gordon at her annual babka and challah class

After three years perfecting her own recipe, adding a pastry pro’s touches—like a pinch of cardamom—to bubbe-approved ratios, Gordon and self-described babka fanatic Julia Raymond have brought this lost art to the people, with an annual baking class held in Portland. Follow Gordon’s lead at her next class, or braid your own super-simple loaf at home. All it takes to snag a bite of the Best Thing Ever is a little time, and a lot of self-control.

Chocolate Babka

Makes 1 loaf

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp plus ½ tsp brown sugar
  • 1¼ tsp yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • large egg yolks (plus more for egg wash)
  • 2½ tbsp honey
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tbsp plus 1 tsp butter, chilled and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • Chocolate filling*

MAKE THE DOUGH Mix all dough ingredients minus butter together on speed 1 in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook for 6 minutes, or by hand on a countertop, until mixture is smooth. Add butter and mix 6–8 minutes longer. Turn to speed 2 and mix until dough comes off the side of the bowl, 5–10 minutes more. Place dough in an oiled container, cover, and let double in size at room temperature, about 1½–2 hours. Punch down, cover again, and refrigerate overnight.

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The proper rolling, cutting, and braiding techniques

fill, roll, and twist To shape, roll dough into a rectangle, about a foot and a half wide by a foot “tall” on a lightly floured surface. Spread chocolate filling over dough using your hands or an icing spatula. With the long side facing you, roll up like a scroll. Using a knife, cut down the length of the roll so that you have two long pieces with the chocolate stripes exposed. Cinch the top ends of the pieces together, flop one half over the other and twist all the way to the other end, cinching the bottom ends. Place in a greased loaf pan and let double in size at room temperature, about 1–1½ hours.

bake Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush loaf with an egg wash and bake for about 35 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Allow to cool completely before removing from the pan and serving. Babka will stay fresh for at least two days, wrapped at room temperature, or slice and freeze individual pieces to toast later.

*Chocolate Filling

In a food processor, grind 2 oz dark chocolate and 1 oz milk chocolate to pea-size chunks and set aside. Process 4½ tbsp cocoa powder, 2½ tbsp brown sugar, and 5 tbsp butter (at room temperature) until smooth and creamy. Add ½ tsp salt, ⅛ tsp cardamom, and reserved chocolate, and pulse to combine.

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