Lemon & Cream Cheese Babka

Lemon & Cream Cheese Babka

I will be the first to admit that I am not a professional baker. I have baked for many, many years, but am in no way at the level of professional. I have just as many bad days in the kitchen as good ones.

This is especially true when it comes to yeast. Yeast is my kryptonite.
Anytime I go into the kitchen with plans to bake yeast risen bread, I am fully prepared to have the bake come out wrong. The silver lining is that you can always learn by messing up.

This past weekend may have been my worst weekend in the kitchen to date. I decided to challenge myself by attempting a Babka. A Babka is a traditional Jewish sweet yeast risen bread that is swirled with chocolate or cinnamon. The bread dough itself is basically a brioche dough. Technically speaking, it is medium of the difficulty of yeast breads.

Three days and four attempts is what it took to get this recipe right. I threw out two doughs and one finished loaf before the fourth and final loaf came out soft and pillow-like. So you do not make the same mistakes, I wanted to share what I learned from my experience. What else is a blog good for?

As for the filling, (per usual) I did not want to take the traditional route. My husband’s grandmother gave me a some homegrown lemons. Her lemon tree yielded for the first time this winter. Lemon is the perfect pick-me-up during the cold months when we lack sun and fresh ingredients. I juiced and zested them, combined them with softened cream cheese, then rolled the mixture up into the dough. My poor husband had to go to the store to get me more cream cheese after I threw out my third attempt.

The finished loaf is delightfully sweet, with a hint of tang. I think a glob of raspberry jelly would adorn a slice of fresh baked lemon cream cheese babka perfectly.

Several slices of lemon cream cheese babka sitting on a wood tray

What I learned throwing out three batches of babka dough:

Batch one and two:

  • Always check your yeast. Yeast will last in the fridge, but of course not forever. Instead of wasting your time making an entire batch of dough to only realize that it will not rise, take the first 5 minutes and make sure the yeast you are using is alive. It is simple, always bloom your yeast in warm water or milk (depending on the recipe). If it sits for 5-10 minutes and it is not bubbly…your yeast is bad. If it is bubbly…it is living!
  • Make sure your ingredients are not cold. If you know you are baking with yeast, set out your eggs, flour (if you store it in the fridge), etc in advance to ensure it is they are room temperature. Cold items will slow down the growth of your yeast. Just like a warm environment will speed up the yeast’s growth.

Batch three:

  • Kneed your dough for longer that you think. Let me explain: Written recipes have various times for kneading dough with a stand mixer. Truly you can only tell when a dough is ready by touch or sight. Just because a recipe says knead for 5 minutes, does not mean that dough will be ready to rise after 5 minutes of kneading. It is easiest to tell when a dough is ready by kneading it by hand. If that is not you (me either), then you must look at your dough to see if it has been kneaded enough. If the recipe says the dough should “pull away from the bowl and form a soft smooth dough”, then make sure it does just that. Otherwise your finished bread will be more like cake than bread.
  • It often takes longer than the recipe says to let your dough double during a rise. Each home and each region is different. For example, I live in the deep south where it is humid. So during the summer it may take less time for my dough to rise. Right now it is dead of winter, and it took a bit longer for my dough to rise to double. My house was very cold. The moral of the story–watch your dough and only move on to the next step when the dough has actually doubled. Do not simply let it sit for the time designated in the recipe.
  • This is babka specific. Some methods call for slicing your rolled up dough down the middle then twisting it. Next, you stuff it into your bread pan to allow it to rise. The finished loaf has exposed filling on the top. The slicing method works great for certain fillings, but not all fillings. Cinnamon sugar or chocolate are ideal, cream cheese is not ideal to cook exposed to the heat of your oven. For my version I used a different method, I did not slice the dough. I rolled it up then twisted it together before placing it in the loaf pan. This way the filling stayed inside of the bread without being directly exposed to the heat of the oven. Consider the method of babka rolling you want to use based upon the type of filling you stick in your babka. Literally you can stuff anything inside a babka, sweet or savory.Upclose picture of the inside of the lemon swirrled babka

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