I first heard of this Eastern European pastry back in the 1990s. In more recent years, it taunted me on social media. I could bear it no more. And so it was that on the first afternoon of my sweet eating adventure, I went to Breads Bakery, ordered their legendary Nutella babka, and ate the whole thing.
The rich, buttery brioche slathered in chocolate-hazelnut spread, rolled up, braided and drenched in sugar syrup is everything it promises. Bread’s Nutella take also ignited a New York babka renaissance, and now you can savor it as an ice-cream sandwich at Russ & Daughters, as a doughnut-babka hybrid at Dough, and more.
My babka takes inspiration from Arcade Bakery, another game-changer, where traditional brioche is replaced with laminated brioche for countless more soft flaky layers, and chocolate with boozy nuts. Like many pastries, there’s time and work involved, but for me, this is the ultimate babka and worth every rest and fold. You’ll also learn some neat new skills if you haven’t tried your hand at laminating brioche before. — Yasmin Newman, author of The Desserts of New York (And How to Eat Them All)
The aim with laminated dough is to keep the butter encased in the dough at all times, so if butter is starting to melt or seep out, refrigerate the dough further. If the butter or dough is too stiff, rest it at room temperature for 5–10 minutes; this will make it easier to roll. If a little butter does break through, dust it lightly with flour to help mend the hole. And don’t be daunted by the process — it’s actually a lot of fun!
Combine the milk and yeast in a bowl and set aside for 5 minutes or until frothy, then whisk in the eggs. Using an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, knead the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast mixture until combined, then knead for a further 3 minutes. Add the butter, one piece at a time, mixing until incorporated before adding the next, then knead for a further 8 minutes or until smooth and elastic (the dough will be quite sticky). Shape into a ball and transfer to an oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, then set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 2 hours or until the dough has almost doubled in size.
Just before the dough has finished proving, set the extra 3 ounces butter aside at room temperature until it is just soft enough to roll (the goal is to have the dough and butter at roughly the same temperature). Place the butter between two sheets of baking paper and, using a rolling pin, roll out to a 12-centimeter (4 3/4-inch) square.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to an 18-centimeter (7-inch) square. Place the butter in the center of the dough on the diagonal, so the corners are just touching the edges. Gently pull one corner of dough to stretch slightly, then fold it over the butter so it reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the remaining corners, then press the edges together to seal in the butter completely (make sure there are no gaps so the butter doesn’t escape). Wrap the dough parcel in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough starts to firm up.
Place the dough parcel on a lightly floured work surface and, using a rolling pin, firmly press the dough at two ends to elongate slightly, then roll out to a rectangle 40 centimeter (16 inches) by 12 centimeters (4 3/4 inches), ensuring the edges are straight and gently reshaping the corners into a square with your hands if necessary. Brush off any excess flour. With the short edge parallel to the work surface, fold the bottom third up, then the top third down over the bottom third, as you would a letter. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough starts to firm up.
Rotate the dough parcel 90 degrees, then roll out to a rectangle 40 centimeters (16 inches) by 12 centimeters (4 3/4 inches). Fold it into thirds like a letter (as before), then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until it starts to firm up. Rotate the dough another 90 degrees, and repeat the rolling and folding. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough starts to firm up.
Grease two 22 centimeter (8 3/4 inch) by 11 centimeter (4 1/4 inch) loaf tins. Divide the dough in half and refrigerate one portion until needed. Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured work surface to a rectangle 30 centimeters (12 inches) by 22 centimeters (8 3/4 inches). Spread half the filling over the dough all the way to edges, then scatter over half the walnuts. Working from one long end, roll up the dough, pressing the edge to seal. Using a large sharp knife, cut lengthways through the center of the dough. Place the pieces next to each other, cut side up. Starting from the top, braid the pieces, cut side up, then press the top and bottom edges together to seal slightly. Carefully transfer the babka to one of the prepared tins. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling, and place in the remaining tin. Loosely cover both tins with plastic wrap and set aside for 1 1/2 hours or until risen.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the babkas, loosely covering with a sheet of foil halfway through to prevent overbrowning, for 28–30 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and immediately brush over the glaze. Cool the babka in the tins for 5 minutes then, before the caramel hardens, turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into slices to serve.
To make the filling, whisk the sugar and butter in a bowl to combine. Whisk in the flour and then the whisky, then set aside until needed. (If the mixture stiffens, warm it slightly just before using.)
To make the glaze, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium–high heat and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cook for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and set aside until needed.