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Sourdough Surprises: From brioche to babka

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Who would have thought that you could have too much chocolate. Being generous was certainly detrimental this time.
Sourdough Surprises had a double challenge this month: use our starters to make sourdough brioche, and then use the brioche dough to make babka. I kept to the traditional flavours of chocolate (grated) and cinnamon for the filling.
The dough I made was a little too wet and so I added a lot more flour to firm it up. I took about a third of it and made panettone, and the rest, I filled, rolled and formed into a babka. The loaf was quite heavy and didn't look like it would rise much, so I placed it in a small cardboard loaf case (great for gift loaves). In the oven, however, the loaf expanded and the box looked like it might burst its seams! (The panettone turned out well because they were baked in cupcake-size boxes.)
Babka 1: Bursting out of the cardboard loaf case; and too much chocolate
This was like trying to encase my wobbly bits in Spanx, only I used a pair that were a tad small so that the lower part was compressed and the upper part was pushed upward and outward like a muffin top. Add to that too much filling and the result was a very close crumb and oozing chocolate. The loaf was still a little undercooked, I felt, even though I had baked it for longer.
Okay, first time, not good, so I tried again. This time I didn't add extra flour (but with a tiny bit of instant yeast just for insurance) and instead of kneading the "usual" way, I used a kind of slapping and folding technique shown by Richard Bertinet in this video (I did it in a less professional manner, of course). I kneading directly in the large ceramic mixing bowl and with just one hand. 
It was amazing how that sticky slack dough was transformed and though it took me about 20 minutes, it did lose its stickiness.
The slap-and-fold method of kneading dough in a bowl
When you first start to knead, there is a dull thud as the heavy dough hits the bottom or side of the bowl. As it gets more elastic, the sound transforms from a plop to a thwack and finally a slap. You can feel the texture changing as well. It's all very exciting!
The pictures are a little lemony-green because I was doing the kneading at night when the light wasn't good. When the dough was slapped against the bowl, it sometimes caused the bowl, heavy though it was, to clatter against the counter-top. If any of my neighbours could hear all the noises, they must have wondered what the heck was going on in Apartment 12!
For the second loaf, I looked up some Jewish babka recipes. This one has an interesting filling of  instant coffee, cocoa powder and cinnamon, and I mixed up the filling to my own taste. There's only a little coffee but it boosts the flavour of the chocolate.
This time the loaf rose during proofing (and I didn't overfill the cardboard box!) and it had a nice open crumb. Peter Reinhart's advice is to use a toothpick to poke a few holes into the loaf to burst the air bubbles before baking, but I forgot and that's why there is a separation between the filling and the dough (see opening picture, top). Anyway, it proves how light this babka is so I am not  complaining.
See what the Sourdough Surprises baking group came up with:

Babka 2: This time it fits the cardboard box perfectly
Mocha-Cinnamon Sourdough Babka
Makes 2 medium loaves + a few buns
Without the filling, the dough can be baked as brioche.

50g mother starter (at 80% hydration)
65g water
100g flour

All the levain (about 217g; it is quite stiff)
56g water
21g honey
⅛ tsp instant yeast (optional)
1 whole medium egg
2 egg yolks
Seeds from 2 vanilla pods or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
315g bread flour
4g salt
49g caster sugar
150g butter, at room temperature

Filling and topping
20g soft brown sugar
5g icing sugar
5g cocoa powder, sifted
1g instant coffee granules
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg white
2 tbsp caster sugar
1-1½ tbsp almond meal (ground almonds)

Make the levain: Combine all the ingredients, cover and set aside for 12 hours. If it is not bubbly at this time, remove half and feed it again. Leave for another eight to 12 hours.
Make the dough: Place the levain in a large mixing bowl. Combine the water, honey and yeast (if using); stir into the levain. Leave for five minutes.
Combine whole egg, yolks and vanilla seeds. Stir into levain mixture.
Combine flour and salt and stir into levain mixture. Stir in sugar.
Add butter in three batches, stirring together well each time to incorporate completely. The dough will be slack.
Knead the dough using whatever method you are comfortable with until the dough holds together well. It will be elastic and leave the side of the bowl.
Line a baking tray with parchment, with two sides overhanging. Spread dough onto tray, place tray inside a food-grade plastic bag and proof overnight in the refrigerator. The tray "shapes" the dough into a rectangle and makes it easier to roll out when ready to fill.
The next day...
Lightly grease two loaf pans.
Make the filling: Combine brown sugar, icing sugar, cocoa powder, coffee granules and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix egg white with 1 tsp water.
Transfer cold dough rectangle to a lightly floured surface. Roll out to a 5cm-thick rectangle. Brush egg white over the dough, then sprinkle the cocoa-coffee mixture on top. Reserve the remaining egg white. Roll up jelly roll style. Cut dough to a length that will fit the loaf pans, and twist each half three times. Place in the loaf pans. Slice any remaining dough for cinnamon rolls. Cover with cling film and leave to rise.
Preheat oven to 180ºC.
Make the topping: To the remaining egg white, add sugar and almond meal. Brush the mixture over the top of the loaves. Using a toothpick, poke a few holes into the loaves to burst the air bubbles. Place loaves in the oven. If the tops brown too quickly, cover with foil. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 40-50 minutes.


  1. Finally! The Babka is MINE! :) to mess about with heaven...

  2. I love that mocha combination! I hadn't thought of that. Love that open crumb! I'm always giddy when I get that from a loaf. You know, it didn't occur to me to do that slap technique in a bowl. Thanks for that!

  3. Mmm...I like the mocha idea. Good job!

  4. The "slap and fold" method of kneading is GREAT for super wet doughs, and this one definitely qualified! I am sorry you had trouble with your first attempt, but MAN do your results look delicious!! The crumb of your loaf looks absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for baking along with us!!

  5. Oh my gosh, your spanx comment kills me. I think all of your loaves look super amazing. And I love that you used a mocha filling! Delicious! Thanks so much for baking with us again! :)

  6. When I read "Mocha-Cinnamon Sourdough Babka" I said "mmmmm" out loud. It sounds so great. I watched that same video for the slap and fold technique - you are right, so satisfying to have the dough change in your hands like that!

  7. Absoulutely beautyful! Your hard work paid off!

  8. Nice work! I admit, if my first attempt hadn't worked well, I might not have given it a second shot. And I took the wimpy way out and used my mixer to do the kneading, because I despise kneading such wet, sticky dough.

  9. Thanks for the info on the slap-fold kneading. It is always good to learn new and useful techniques.

  10. Wow. Two breads in one! Both look amazing. I love that bread dough is so "alive."

  11. I think the slightly undercooked, chocolate packed photo looks incredible... like it would almost have a puddinglike texture? Looks like everything was edible, and only got better in the end! Nice work!


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