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Babka (Lithuanian Yeasted Coffee Cake)

This recipe is from A Blessing of Bread by Maggie Glezer (Artisan, 2004).

Makes two 10-inch round babkas

For the dough:

1 1/2 cups milk (any type)

2 tablespoons dry yeast

About 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 fat cinnamon stick, or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup granulated sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons table salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 large egg yolks

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 egg for glazing

For the filling:

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar (reserved from above)

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 cup raisins, 1 cup chocolate morsels, and/or 1 cup chopped walnuts

Heat the milk in the microwave or in a small heavy pot on the stove just until bubbles form around the edges and the milk steams. Pour the milk into a pitcher or other container and let it cool to 105 degrees to 110 degrees, about the temperature of a comfortable bath. (This can be done in advance and the milk just warmed before making the yeast mixture. This step denatures a component in the milk that attacks the flour's gluten and causes a coarse, depressed texture.)

As soon as the milk is cool enough, whisk together the yeast and 1 1/2 cups of the flour in a large bowl. Whisk in the warm milk until smooth. Let stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to ferment and puff up.

In the meantime, if using the cinnamon stick, pulverize it in a heavy mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder until finely powdered (it will have some tiny chips, which is fine). Mix it or the 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon with the sugar, and put 1 tablespoon of this cinnamon sugar aside to use in the filling.

When the yeast has puffed up, whisk in the cinnamon sugar (minus the 1 tablespoon), the salt, vanilla, and egg yolks until smooth. With your hands or a spoon, stir in the remaining 4 cups flour all at once, along with the softened butter, and mix the dough until it is rough and lumpy but holds together. Scrape the dough out onto the work surface and knead until it is a soft dough. (Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now to clean it and warm it for fermenting the dough.) This dough will be very soft and sticky, but with enough kneading, it will become smooth and shiny.

Place the dough in the warmed clean bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. (Or, the dough can be refrigerated right after kneading, then removed from the refrigerator to finish fermenting up to 24 hours later.) Let the dough rise for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours, or until doubled in volume and very soft. (If the dough has been refrigerated, fermenting may take up to 1 hour more.)

While the dough is rising, generously butter or oil two 8-inch or 10-inch round cake pans.

Make the filling just before shaping the breads; it firms up very quickly as it cools and will spread best when still warm.

Combine the sugar, the reserved cinnamon sugar and the cocoa in a medium bowl, and stir well to press out any cocoa lumps. Add the melted butter and whisk the filling until smooth.

When the dough is fully risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut it into two equal pieces. If you have enough room to spread out (such as a large kitchen table), you can work more quickly if you follow the steps successively with both halves; otherwise, shape one half at a time to completion, keeping the second one covered.

With a rolling pin, roll one dough piece out 1/2-inch thick. Cut the circle in half. Smear each half of dough up to just 1/2 inch from its edges with one-quarter of the filling mixture. This is easiest to do with your clean hands. Warm the filling gently in the microwave or over a saucepan of boiling water if it is too firm.

Scatter one quarter of the raisins, chocolate chips and/or walnuts over the filling on each piece. Roll up one piece of dough very loosely like a carpet, starting with the rounded edge and ending up at the long straight cut. Seal the seam by pinching the long edge into the roll; use a little water if you need it to help the dough stick to itself.

Starting from the center of the roll, lightly press out the roll to the open ends to force out any air bubbles that may have formed during rolling. Seal the ends of the roll by pinching them together. Check the seals again, then roll the strand under your hands to create a tapered strand with a thicker middle and slender pointed ends. Repeat with the second piece.

To create a twisted teardrop shape, ask a volunteer to hold both ends of a chopstick or other thin stick vertically. Pull the strand around it, using it to anchor the thick center of the strand. Now cross the ends over each other, pulling them tight against the chopstick to create as many twists as possible. When finished, just slide the chopstick out of the top. Repeat with the other strand.

Curve one twist into a C shape and set it in the prepared cake pan. Loosely fit the fat end of the second twist into the concave curve of the first and wind its end around, so the ends of both twists are wrapping in the same direction, like a pinwheel. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Cover the shaped babkas with plastic wrap. (At this point, you can refrigerate the loaves for up to 24 hours.) Let the loaves proof until very soft and expanded — they should be nicely domed over the pans — about 2 1/2 hours (or up to 3 1/2 hours if the loaves have been refrigerated). It is better to slightly overproof at this point.

Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the lower third position and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt for glazing the breads.

When the babkas are ready to bake, brush with the egg glaze. Poke them with a toothpick to pop any large air bubbles.

Bake the babkas for 50 to 60 minutes, until they are a dark mahogany color and their tops are firm and bounce back when pressed. After the first 40 minutes of baking, turn the loaves around so that they brown more evenly.

If the babkas are coloring too quickly, cover them with foil. If after 40 minutes they seem too pale, increase the heat to 350 degrees, but do not overbake them or they will be dry.

When the babkas are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes in the pans, then tap them out of the pans and let them finish cooling on a rack.

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