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Recipe: Babka basics

If you feel the desire for a multiday bread-baking project, but chocolate babkas are too sweet, and crusty sourdoughs too needy, I’ve got a loaf for you.

It’s a savory, ricotta-filled babka that’s absorbing and meditative, but not at all fussy. Simply tearing the warm, garlic-scented bread with your hands will make procuring the yeast and flour well worth the search in these sometimes difficult times. And slices make for the best grilled cheese sandwiches, ever.

The difference between this babka dough and other savory bread doughs, like focaccia or pizza dough, is that babka is softer, eggier and a whole lot more buttery. But that same richness means it takes its time to rise.

Your oven with the light turned on is an ideal place to let the dough rise. Or, if that’s filled with yet another banana bread or lasagna, pick any warm, draft-free spot. Think of your bowl of dough like a cat looking for a place to nap, and tuck it away on top of your fridge, in a nook of your couch, on in that bright spot of sunlight on your carpet, wrapped up in a blanket. This first rise could take two or three hours, and the dough might not double in bulk. But it should puff noticeably.

Then, the second rise is best done in the fridge overnight. The long, slow fermentation develops the bread’s flavor. But if you’re in a rush, you can get away with four hours.

As for the filling, it’s a simple and adaptable mix of ricotta cheese spiked with Parmesan, chopped herbs, onions and garlic. Optional ham or olives will make it saltier. If you don’t have ricotta, any creamy fresh cheese will work — just make sure the cheese is at room temperature, or it will be too hard to spread.

Really, the only slightly tricky thing about this babka, if you’ve never made babka before, is shaping it.

There are lots of videos and how-to photos on the internet. But honestly, it doesn’t matter how you shape it. As long as the filling is rolled in the dough, and that dough is baked in a pan, it will be fine. With its buttery, Parmesan- speckled crust, it will look gorgeous no matter how it comes out. And it will taste even better.

CHEESY BABKA WITH RICOTTA AND HERBS

  • >> Dough:
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons active dry or instant yeast
  • Pinch sugar
  • 2-1/2 cups (310 grams) bread flour, or all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup (55 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more as needed, divided
  • >> Filling:
  • 1 cup (230 grams) fresh ricotta or cottage cheese, soft goat cheese or cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup (25 grams) grated Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped herbs, such as basil, mint, parsley, thyme leaves or cilantro, or a combination
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons chopped ham, prosciutto, salami or olives (optional)

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan on stove, or in a bowl in microwave, warm milk until lukewarm, but not hot (about 110 degrees). Add yeast and sugar; let sit 5 to 10 minutes, until slightly foamy.

In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with dough hook, a food processor or using a large bowl and a wooden spoon, mix flour and salt. Beat or process yeast mixture and eggs until dough comes together in a soft mass, about 2 minutes. It’s OK if a little flour remains in bottom of bowl.

Add half the butter and beat until dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl with a spatula as needed. Beat in remaining butter and continue to beat until dough is stretchy, another 5 to 7 minutes. At this point, all the flour should be worked into the dough. If not, add a teaspoon or two of water, and beat another minute or so.

Grease a clean bowl with butter. Form dough into a ball and roll it around in the bowl so all sides are buttered. Cover bowl with a plate or towel; let dough rise in a warm, draft-free place (like inside a turned-off oven with oven light on), until it puffs and rises, from 1-1/2 to 3 hours. It may not double in bulk, but it should rise.

Press dough down with your hands to expel air, cover bowl again and refrigerate overnight. (In a pinch, you could chill the dough for 4 hours, but it won’t develop as much flavor.)

Prepare filling: In a medium bowl, mix all ingredients until smooth. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed. (If you used ham or olives, you probably won’t need more salt.) Filling can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead and refrigerated.

Butter a 9-inch loaf pan, then line with parchment, leaving 2 inches of overhang for removing babka after baking.

Put dough on floured surface and roll into a 9-by-17-inch rectangle. Spread filling over dough, close to edges. Starting with a long side, roll tightly into a log. Bring one end to meet the other end, then twist dough, pinching ends to seal.

Place dough in prepared pan. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until puffy. (It won’t quite double.)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush top of babka with more softened butter and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake until top is deep golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. The babka should sound hollow if tapped on the bottom once it’s unmolded. An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center will read 185 degrees. Cool on wire rack. Babka is best served a little warm. Serves 8.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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