“Unorthodox” Chocolate Babka

by Cara Nicoletti on January 6, 2015

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I’ve never cared very much about birthdays. I have an epically bad one—New Year’s Day—which means that everyone is always too exhausted and hungover to do much celebrating. Either that, or everyone has started in earnest with their resolutions and no one wants to eat cake and mashed potatoes or drink champagne (for at least another couple of days). The last few weeks though, I found myself caring a lot about my birthday—stressing and dreading it in a way that was unfamiliar to me—the mere mention of it sending me into a sweaty anxiety spiral. I feel easy about the number 28, it’s a good, solid, round number. 29 I do not like. 29 feels like clinging to something that just isn’t there anymore, and it’s okay that isn’t there anymore—can we just skip to a clean, even 30 and be done with it?

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This past year—my 28th—was major, the most important of my life thus far. First and most importantly, in March, my beautiful niece, Vivian, the first baby in our family, was born, and it changed my entire world in a way that I can’t even put into words. In April, I made lard biscuits and wondered about the future of butchery for Vice, and I also started writing a weekly column about meat for Food52, which has been challenging and exciting and stressful in a way that I badly needed. In July, I shot a commercial for Stella Artois with my amazing grandfather, Seymour, and we talked about butchery and drank beer and ate steak and he told me stories that I had never heard before. In September, my best friend, Emily—the reason that I stayed in New York, the reason I started this blog, the reason that I am where I’m at in so many ways—moved away from her little Manhattan Avenue apartment down the street from me and back to Portland, Oregon.

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And there were all the months that I sat in a small, windowless room in my freezing cold apartment and I didn’t speak aloud to anyone for days at a time except sometimes to say “debit” to the woman at the grocery store which came out sounding like sandpaper because I hadn’t used my vocal chords in so long, and I wrote a book, a real life actual book, and it’s done (!), and it will be in real life actual book stores on August 18th, which feels like a century from now but it isn’t.

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There was sadness and fear and loss in my 28th year, and there were failures too, many, as there often are. One of my biggest failures was keeping up with all of you in this space here. Having hard deadlines for the first time since college meant having to cut back on anything that didn’t have a deadline. It also meant that there was significantly less time for reading, which is an integral part of the upkeep of this space. For this reason, one of the things that I was most thankful for this year was the book club that Emily started before she moved away. It kept me reading even when I didn’t have time, and more importantly, it connected me to the coolest, smartest, funniest group of women I have ever known.

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At our last book club meeting of 2014, which was right before Hanukkah, we made latkes and jelly donuts and drank cheap champagne, and we talked about Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox, which details her decision to leave the strict Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism that she was raised in. The book takes place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the very neighborhood that I live in, and reveals much about a population of people that I’m surrounded by daily, but know little about. The book is scandalous and fascinating, but devastating enough that I often found it hard to read.

In the midst of all of Feldman’s suffering, there are a handful of shining, happy moments from her childhood that make her pain slightly easier to bear, and usually these moments involve food. Her bubby’s kitchen is “like the center of the world,” it is where people congregate to chatter and gossip, where all good news is shared. “It is in this kitchen,” Feldman writes, “that I have always felt safe. From what, I cannot articulate, except to say that in the kitchen I did not feel that familiar sense of being lost in a strange land, where no one knew who I was or what language I spoke. In the kitchen I felt like I had reached the place from which I came, and I never wanted to be pulled back into the chaos again.”

Of all the myriad things I could not even begin to wrap my head around in the book, this I fully understand.

Happy 2015 to you, may it be filled with all the warm, chocolately bread you desire.

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Unorthodox Chocolate Babka
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients:
4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons rapid rise yeast
zest of ½ a navel orange
3 large eggs
½ cup water (may need up to 2 tablespoons more)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup (11 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) unsalted butter, room temperature
neutral oil (I used vegetable) for greasing pan

Filling
5 ounces dark chocolate (about 1 cup chocolate chips)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
scant ½ cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

Syrup
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar

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Make the Dough:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, and zest, eggs, and ½ cup of water. Mix on low until it comes together (this could take a couple of minutes). The ½ cup of water should be enough for the dough to come together, but if it doesn’t, add extra water 1 tablespoon at a time until it does.
With the mixer still running on low, add the salt and the butter, a little at a time, until it’s incorporated into the dough.
Turn the mixer speed up to medium and beat, scraping down the sides if necessary, until the dough is completely smooth and pulling away from the sides of the bowl—about 10 minutes.
Transfer dough to a well-oiled bowl, cover and refrigerate at least 8 and ideally 12 hours. NOTE: this dough doesn’t fully double and that’s fine.

Make the filling: In a small saucepan, melt butter and chocolate together over medium-low heat, whisking until smooth. Whisk in powdered sugar, cocoa, and cinnamon.

Assemble:
Butter or oil two 9×4 loaf pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment and butter or oil the parchment. Take half of the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a well-floured surface until it’s roughly 10 x 10. Spread half of the chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a ½-inch border all the way around. Sprinkle half of the toasted pecans over the chocolate. Carefully roll the dough up into a tight cylinder and trim about ½ an inch off each end and seal them. Place the dough on a floured baking sheet and freeze for 10 minutes (this makes slicing the dough in half much easier). Repeat this process with the remaining dough.

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Remove the dough from the freezer and transfer it to a cutting board. Cut the dough cleanly in half lengthwise and lay the two halves next to each other, cut-side up. Pinch the tops of each side together and cross the two loves over each other into a twist shape. Place the twist in the loaf pan, curving it into an S-shape to fit in the pan, cut-side up. (You can take the ends that you trimmed off and tuck them into the blank spaces in the pan, or you can take all four ends and bake the in a small cake pan like cinnamon buns)
Cover the loaf pan with a damp towel and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 ½-2 hours. Repeat this process with the second loaf.

Preheat your oven to 375F and uncover the loaves. Place loaves in the center rack of the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out with no resistance—if it’s not cooked all the way, the center will feel rubbery and the skewer may come out with dough on it.
While the babka is cooking, make the syrup: whisk sugar and water together in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

As soon as the babka comes out of the oven, brush the syrup all over the loaves—it will seem like a lot but it will all sink in. Allow the bread to cool for about 30 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a cooling rack and cooling completely. Or, if you’re like me, just eat it all right away and burn your tongue in a good way.

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Leave a Comment

Elizabeth Aquino January 6, 2015 at 5:09 pm

A belated happy birthday to you, dear Cara. I understand the difficulty of being “29″ — I, too, hated that number as I did “39″ and “49!” Now at age 51, I’m getting more accepting of the dull, odd years! In any case, I have loved coming here to read your new posts and am so excited about your book in August. I’ve recently started a literary/food salon, here in Los Angeles, and will be making your red wine cake as I facilitate a discussion about “Strange Pilgrims.” You were the inspiration for that, and I can’t wait to share your site (and, eventually, book) with my attendees and friends.

Oh, and the babka looks divine!

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Nicola Miller of The Millers Tale January 6, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Oh THERE you are. Happy New Year and happy birthday my lovely.

Love this as per usual and love the musings that accompany it even more. We had a new baby nephew born 7 weeks early on Christmas Day (We were staying with his folks in Frankfurt when he arrived.)

I can imagine how much you’ll miss your friend. Hoping its not too long until you see her again.

Me, I cannot WAIT for your book. More than any other cookbook in a long, long, aeon- long time.

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Gemma January 6, 2015 at 6:08 pm

This is amazing. You have such a way with words! I have the goosebumps! I still have to read this book….and make this chocolate babka. ASAP.

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Betty DiGangi January 6, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Dear Cara: Happy belated birthday!! I remember well the day you were born…Your grandfather Seymour was so excited that the new year began with you! Be happy that you are 29!! Every year is special and “29″ especially because it represents enough naivety to be excused as innocence, coupled with sophisticated experience which is respected and viewed as dignified vintage. You have done more living than most your age, even in a little windowless dwelling. Your insight, your talent, your ability all outstanding, not to mention your incredible beauty. Thank you for your blog…Phyllis and I read it faithfully and we can’t wait until your book is released. Be happy for all you have accomplished and what is to come. Enjoy that beautiful niece, Vivie who will love you unconditionally and bring you much joy, and again, embrace this wonderful age of 29! Love, Betty

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Amina | PAPER/PLATES January 6, 2015 at 8:01 pm

Belated happy birthday, Cara. Even if they date itself is less than ideal, it sounds like the year leading up to it was full in the best ways. To many more!

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Seymour Salett January 6, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Cara, Deborah’s description of the smells and comfort of her Bubby’s kitchen brings back the memories of my Bubby and the smell of Challah being kept warm on the steam radiators. The chocolate bubka sounds so delicious ., we’ll have to bake some.
Good luck with your new book,
Seymour

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carolyn halliday January 7, 2015 at 12:43 am

You intrigue, amuse, and impress me with every entry, and now to discover it is at the sweet tender age of under 30. My birthday falls on the other side of New Year’s Eve, December 30, and I suffer from similar birthday predicaments, but love my birth date anyway. You are amazing. Please continue to make this exceptional blog a priority in your life for many years to come.
Thank you. Happy Birthday. Happy 2015

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Ophelinha January 7, 2015 at 7:11 am

happy belated birthday and happy new year, Cara!
I am hopeless at baking, but can’t wait to buy your book and dream about literature and about being actually able to cook, one day
:)

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kristie {birch and wild} January 18, 2015 at 11:24 pm

This is a beautiful babka! “Unorthodox” sounds like a book that my book club would enjoy. A lot of women can relate to having a grandmother’s kitchen as a happy place. Warmth and Kindness oozed out of my grandmother’s baking. Everything she made was made with love.

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