This is a celebratory babka possibly at its simplest -no nuts or dried fruits. Still, it is a deeply enriched loaf of cake-like bread, generous with egg yolks, dairy and sugar.

I had been wanting to bake a babka very similar looking to the one above for a long time. I saw it featured on Elisabeth Luard’s documentary on Eastern European peasant food. A group of housewives were working on this huge vat (or maybe it was a trough) of babka dough for Easter. They worked on it relentlessly in a relay system of two, plummeting the impossibly sticky looking dough. There was a lot of dough so it took a long time to get it looking smooth and glossy.  The only woman to fatigue was the host herself, Elisabeth, who could only work on the dough at half the speed as compared to the seasoned women around her. She took off her hat to their prowess and stamina as she collapsed into a heap exhausted whilst the woman continued to plummet away. It was amusing to watch all this unfold in the comforts of my cushy chair.

Then, there was the clever bit. Guess what was used for baking pans? The families’ cooking pots! Why waste money on baking pans when you can just as easily use your everyday cooking pots as long as they were round, deep enough and did not have any combustible handles. The final product? Out of the oven, the women were pulling out these round pots of dark and glossy brown babkas with glorious crowns of braids. What a work of art -the skill of experience was evident, tight braiding that sat proudly in place. I need a life time of practise before I can ever get the braiding on my round babka that pretty.

If you have never adorned a braid on a base loaf, learn from my mistakes:

(1) Only work on dough that have been well rested so that you do not create unnecessary tension.
(2) Do not pull on the dough to braid.
(3) Always work on having a surplus length of braid. More is better than less if only to be assured that you have enough length to encircle the entire circumference of your baking vessel. Don’t be tempted to pull the ends of the braid together to forcefully meet. What will happen is that the tension to the braid will cause it to separate as it bakes.
(4) Prepare any smaller size adornments you wish to add on the loaf only ~15 minutes before you are ready to bake. These smaller size adornment(s) need a shorter rising time. Prepared and placed on the base too early, they might over proof and split whilst baking –happened to me.

This babka, although sweet, goes very well with soft cheeses and ham.

I was trying to replicate the babka I saw on telly and I do not recall any nuts or dried fruits being added so my recipe is a reflection of what I remember. I did add orange zest though as I do like the smell and taste of it in an Easter bread. When making sweet bread, I do not usually beat eggs and sugar together. However, I realised that a lot of sweet Eastern Europeans bread start off this way. Intrigued, I had a go. Taste and texturally, I could not detect any discernible difference in the baked babka. What was discernible was how much easier it was for my KitchenAid to work the dough into a smooth, pliable dough. So I am happy to beat eggs and sugar for my next Babka. This dough is very sticky and using a powerful standing mixer is ideal. For other Easter bread ideas, please scroll down to look at some pretty looking Easter bread under my ‘Tips’ section.

Braided Round Babka For Easter

Prep: 45 minutes 
Cook: 40 – 45 minutes
Inactive:

First rise: overnight in the refrigerator
Second rise: ~1.5 – 2.5 hours

Level: Intermediate, as the braiding (and when to set it on base loaf) requires some degree of skill. Level will be ‘relatively easy” if you skip the braiding.
Makes: One 5″- 6″ high, 8″ in diameter round loaf.
Oven Temperature: (350F) (175C)
Can recipe be doubled? No
Make ahead? Best fresh. Keeps well in air-tight container for 2 days. Freezes well.

Ingredients

1 cup=250ml=8.45 US fl oz

(15.23oz)(432g)(~3 and 1/5 cups) bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
(4.22fl oz)(125ml)(~1/2 cup) milk
(2.11oz)(60g) unsalted butter
2 and 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
2 Tablespoons water
4 egg yolks
(4.23oz)(120g)(~1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
~1 Tablespoon orange zest from (~ 2 large oranges)
A little milk or egg+water to brush on top of loaf

Method

Prep the ingredients
1. The night before, prepare the dough.
2. Scald the milk. That means to bring the milk almost to the boil. Once you see tiny bubbles around the circumference, add the unsalted butter and remove the pot from the burner to cool before using. Why scald? Scroll down to my ‘Tips‘ section.
3. Stir the yeast into the 2 Tablespoons of water with a pinch of sugar. Leave it alone for 5 – 10 minutes to activate. It will foam and balloon so use an adequate size of a bowl.
4. Mix the salt into the bread flour. Set aside.

Making the dough
1. I use my heavy duty standing mixer, KitchenAid.  Attach paddle attachment, beat egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract and orange zest on medium-speed until light and creamy.
2 With the machine still running, add the yeast+water mix. Alternate adding the cooled milk+butter mix with the bread+salt mix.
3. After 10 minutes of machine mixing, you should have a glossy sticky dough. Stop the machine.
4. Butter your hands, pull off a small ball of dough. Stretch it. It should not feel tight. If it does, add ~1 Tablespoon of milk and let the machine knead it for a few minutes. Recheck. You should be able to stretch the dough easily without tearing. In fact, you should be able to stretch it to a thin translucent membrane before it tears.
5. Butter the container (with an air-tight lid) where you will be storing the dough for the night. With buttered hands and a buttered dough scraper, gather the dough and divide into 2 equal halves. Gather up one half into a ball, tuck loose ends under and place in the prepared container. Divide the other half dough into 3 equal parts. Shape each into ball, tuck loose ends under and place in the prepared container.

6. Butter the exposed surface of the dough, cover container tight and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preparing the dough for baking
1. Remove dough from the refrigerator and leave it on the kitchen counter for 10 minutes or so. It will be easier to handle. The dough would not have double in volume. That’s fine.
2. Have some flour nearby for dusting.
3. Grease the 8″ round baking vessel that you would be using for baking the loaf.  It should be at least 5″- 6″ high. I use one of my round cooking pots with no combustible handles.

Shaping the dough
1. Work first, on the 3 smaller balls of dough. Dust your work surface lightly.

2. Take one of the three dough balls and roll into a 35″ (75cm) sausage. You would most likely not be able to roll it at one go to that length – it’s a long length to roll and stretch. I have to let the dough rest twice for 10 minutes each time. Cover with a tea towel and move on to the second and third pieces of dough. Always keep dough covered to avoid drying out.When all 3 dough balls have been rolled out to 35″ (75cm), keep them well covered under the tea towel (for at least 10 minutes before working on it).
3. Move on to the last remaining larger ball of dough. Dust your work surface lightly.
4. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a circle to fit the base of the round baking vessel. As you roll, try to get rid of any air bubbles. I usually use a pair of scissors to burst those bubbles – it’s more effective.When the three logs of dough have had their 10 minutes of rest under the tea towel it would be time to braid them.

Braiding the dough
1. Start braiding from the centre. Do not stretch the dough as you braid. Instead keep your handling light, gentle and the braiding loose. If you do not, the overstretched braid will distort and not sit nicely on top of your base loaf which was exactly what happened to an earlier loaf.

2. After braiding from the centre down one length and neatening straggly ends by tucking them under, overturn the dough and start braiding from the centre down on the other end.

3. Why overturn? So that you can braid it the same way (left to right or right to left) that you are used to. After braiding this end, do not tuck the ends under as yet.

4. Fold the braid in half just to help you carefully transfer it to the top of the base loaf in the baking vessel. Adjust the braid loosely around the circumference. Do not pull on the braid, you do not want any tension. Join the two ends, trimming excess braid off with scissors.

Letting the dough rise and option of placing more embellishments on dough
1. Let dough rest and almost double in size. It usually takes 2 hours.
2. Traditionally, a crucifix or some other religious symbol made out of excess dough would top the surface of the bread. If you intend to decorate the loaf further with these additional smaller pieces of dough, I suggest you only shape and top them on the dough 10-15 minutes before the dough is ready to go into the oven. The tinier your dough decorations, the less time they need to rise. Placed any earlier and your designs might over proof and split during baking.  That is what happened to my first loaf.

Time to preheat oven
1. When the dough has risen halfway, it’s time to preheat oven at 350F (175C), oven rack adjusted to lower middle position.

Brushing dough just before baking. Egg or milk wash?
1. Just before baking, brush with milk for a matt finish. If you want a very dark coloured loaf, brush with egg mixed with a little water.
2. Bake on the lower middle oven rack.
3. After the first 20 minutes of baking, place a sheet of aluminium foil over the loaf to avoid over browning. Bake a total for 40 – 45 minutes until a darker shade of brown.
4. To test if loaf is baked, carefully overturn the loaf and tap the base. It should sound hollow. A thermometer inserted should read 195F (90.5C). If you want a darker coloured loaf, you could brush it with a little more beaten egg diluted with a little water and return to the oven for 3 – 5 minutes which is what I had done.  If you want more of a gloss, brush some melted butter. Remove from baking vessel and cool completely on a wire rack.

Tips

Why scald milk?
A lot of the Old World recipes for sweet breads frequently ask for milk to be scalded. I always thought it was to make milk ‘safe’ or to speed up yeast activation.  I read enough to be intrigued and looked it up. To summerize, scalding milk alters the milk proteins that interfere with gluten development in bread. End result? A softer loaf with a higher rise. Now that I know this, I will be scalding my milk each time I intend to use it to bake bread.

Other Easter bread ideas

(1) Greek easter bread Tsoureki has the unique flavour of mastic and mahlep in it. A spice which I have to make a special order for as it’s not readily available. This bread pulls apart almost like cotton candy. No mastic or mahlep? Substitute with anise extract.

(2) Russian Easter bread, Kulich with it’s cream cheese like accompaniment, Pashka is also wonderful to eat. I make it rather often but I simplify it by baking it in long loaves and not into tall cylindrical shapes. It is a very rich and sweet bread studded with dried tangerine peel, sultanas and nuts. Sometimes, I bake them just to make Bread and Butter Pudding!

(3)  Hot Cross Buns. The Easter bread that I grew up eating. Although those I had back then looked and tasted nothing like these yummy yummies.

(4) Eastern European inspired Poppy Seed Roll is a celebratory bread which can be served for Easter.


WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?

These are going to look so cute on my Easter table as individualised dinner rolls. I just need to neaten up the bunny ears a little. The eggs are not there merely to look pretty, they are going to be incorporated into my Easter lunch menu.

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