Monday, May 30, 2011

Smitten: Chocolate Babka!

At eight bucks a pound, you know you’re into serious excess when a recipe calls for two and a quarter pounds of Belgian chocolate.
But what-the-hell?  I’m here to shamelessly seduce you with the best, most sinfully rich recipe I can find for Chocolate Babka --
Guaranteed to send you careening into chocoholic ecstasy, either that or a hyperglycemic coma. 
GEEZ!  I’ve already given you the best ever chocolate pound cake I know, and it’s just sitting out there in cyberspace, barely touched.  I should repost it, because it’s really that good.  Who cares about calories, carbs, cholesterol or gluten? Try just a bite is all) Okay anyway.
Though not an avid baker (I’m more of a happy cook), I’ve blogged yummy apricotty penna cotta (no baking involved in that one), some serious citron mandelbrot/biscotti (nice photos)  and a credible batch of Russian tea biscuits, winning one of the last-ever Kitchen Challenges (and yes, I’m still smarting over the demise of the weekly Salon Kitchen Challenge on Open Salon, (whose idea was that??)  but hey, all good things must come to an end, as they say, but who says?)  
Back in the kitchen today, (you don’t know how lucky you are, boys,)  humming an old Beatles song, back in the U.S.S.R...I’ve pulled out all the stops on Babka, and old Russian recipe my grandmother never made.
Babka.  The word is both Polish and Russian (and Yiddish)  for old grandmother.
Now when we speak of Babka - the bread -  (origin Polish, Belarusian, Lithunian, Russian, take your pick) we mean an Eastern European delicacy, made of a buttery yeast dough swirled with cinnamon, chocolate, nuts and jam, rum and raisins, or cheese, depending or your childhood memories or your experience in New York-style Jewish bakeries.  
Babka.  If it’s a funny word with a familiar ring to you, perhaps you recall it from The Dinner Party episode on the Seinfeld show where Jerry and Elaine go on a quest for the chocolate, only to find the cinnamon:
JERRY: That’s the last Babka. They got the last Babka.
ELAINE: I know. They’re going in first with the last Babka.
JERRY: That was our Babka.
ELAINE: You can’t beat a Babka
JERRY: We should have had that Babka.
ELAINE: They're going to be heroes.
JERRY: What are we going to do now. If we can't get the Babka the whole thing's useless.
My recipe (brimming with chocolate and cinnamon) happens to be in the oven at this moment with a wondrous baking aroma wafting through every room of the house, and then some -- out the window to share with the neighbors. 

Mouth watering?  Good.   Who in the neighborhood bakes like this any more? Especially on a hot day (trying to be summer finally) 
I’ll get to the recipe in a moment.  

But some time ago, I stumbled upon chocolate babka on a glorious food blog called Smitten Kitchen.  Smitten? You bet.  Check it out to see why Smitten Kitchen lives on BlogHer, winner of scads of internet sitings and awards, including most recently Best Cooking Blog in Saveur’s 2011 Best Food Blogs Awards, 5/17/11  Smitten is right up there with The Pioneer Woman, the Oprah of the blogosphere.  (We all want to be pioneers, masters of our domain, writing/cooking/raising our own chickens - do we not?)  And speaking of Oprah, did I mention that I saw her on the street two weeks ago?  There she was, just walking down the street, singing do-wah, diddy diddy dum diddy do, and she looked good, she looked fine.   She looked up, with her hair flowing and her gold cape blowing in the wind, right there downtown in the Windy City and she smiled back at me, with that knowing celebrity face-to-face recognition, as if to say without words--yeh, you’re right, it’s me, all right, diddy, diddy dum diddy do!  
Ahh, but I digress. (Taking my time.) Consider yourself warned: this is going to be a long-winded, rambling recipe, filled with detours, and fleeting thoughts and lots and lots of chocolate.  . . Callebaut chocolate for good measure.Two pounds.  So make yourself another pot of coffee. . . 
Thinking back to babka in Cleveland where I grew up, the stuff never had a name.  It was simply coffee cake, or the cinnamon/chocolate bread, purchased at the Jewish bakery around the corner as often as were the coconut bars, the  “Black and Whites"  and my Dad’s favorite, Lady Locks.  Babka from the bakery is definitely the route to go; there you have some economy of scale.  For instance, you can walk out of Zabar’s in New York with a 22-oz “Homestyle Babka for  $10.98.  Here in Detroit you can get an absolutely scrumptious chocolate frosted Bapka hot out of the oven at Star Bakery for around 8 dollars.    
Baking babpka from scratchis is not only pricey, it’s a bit daunting, especially with all those ingredients.  But here goes . . .according to the recipe from Smitten Kitchen, 
For dough
1 1/2 cups warm milk  (110°F)
2 packages active dry yeast 
3/4 cups plus a pinch of sugar  (very sweet, I would use less next time)
2 whole large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, room temperature, plus more for bowl and loaf pans
For chocolate filling
2 1/4 pounds semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped* 
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon heavy cream

For egg wash:
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
For streusel topping
Makes 3 3/4 cups.
1 2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Make dough:
1. Combine warm milk,  yeast and pinch of sugar over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
2. In a bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup sugar, 2 eggs, and egg yolks. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.
3. Using the paddle attachment on an electric mixer fitted, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Change to the dough hook. Add 2 sticks butter, and beat until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, and a smooth, soft dough that’s slightly sticky when squeezed is formed, about 10 minutes.
4. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, cover, and set aside to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Make filling:
5. Combine chocolate, 1 cup of sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter (or a food processor) add softened 1 1/2 sticks butter until well combined. .
Make streusel topping: 
7. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, and butter. Using a fork, stir until fully combined with clumps ranging in size from crumbs to 1 inch.
8. Generously butter three 9-by-5-by-2 3/4-inch loaf pans. Beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon cream; punch back the dough, and transfer to a clean surface. Let rest 5 minutes. Cut into 3 equal pieces. Keep 2 pieces covered with plastic wrap while working with the remaining piece. On a generously floured surface, roll dough out into a 16-inch square; it should be 1/8 inch thick.
9. Brush edges with reserved egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of the reserved chocolate filling evenly over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border. Refresh egg wash if needed. Roll dough up tightly like a jelly roll. Pinch ends together to seal. Twist 5 or 6 turns. Brush top of roll with egg wash. Carefully crumble 2 tablespoons filling over the left half of the roll, being careful not to let mixture slide off. Fold right half of the roll over onto the coated left half. Fold ends under, and pinch to seal. Twist roll 2 turns, and fit into prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining 2 pieces of dough and remaining filling.
10. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash. Crumble 1/3 of streusel topping over each loaf. Loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place 20 to 30 minutes.

11. Bake loaves, rotating halfway through, until golden, about 55 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake until babkas are deep golden, 15 to 20 minutes more. 

A "few" notes about this recipe
  • Callebaut chocolate, in case you’re wondering, can be found in bulk at Whole Foods, at $7.99 pound. I found two pounds to be way crazy too much for the recipe.  I cut the quantity to a little over a pound, and  still had about a third left over. 
  • When baking with yeast, check the dates on the package.  Don’t break the cardinal rule (as I did) and use an older product. My dough did not rise as I would have liked. . .I will also confess that I used some buttermilk in my recipe, which could have also laden the dough with too much fat to rise properly. (We all understand that condition.)  
  • In making the various loaves, I experimented and actually got a little better with each babka assembly. The recipe worked for me in a loaf pan, as well as in a ring baked in a pie pan, and free form on a cookie sheet.  
  • Loaves can be assembled and put in the freezer for baking later. I baked all three, assuming they would serve just as well, especially  when sliced and toasted.
  • Looking for a recipe with more manageable proportions, I checked my bookshelves and found Joan Nathan’s Bubby Irma’s Babka  in "The Foods of Israel" (published by Knopf)  as follows.   Looks to be a keeper.  
  • 1 envelope or 1 scant tablespoon dry yeast 
  • ¼ cup warm water
  • ¾ cup plus 1 teaspoon  sugar
  • 4½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or pareve margarine, melted
  • 4 large eggs,, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla  
  • ½ cup milk or water
  • ½ cup sour or pareve tofu  sour cream
  • ¾ cup raisins 
  • ¾ cup chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup shredded coconut
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • ¾ cup apricot or raspberry jam  
Had enough?  Whew!  Me too! Happy baking.  And thanks for stopping by. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

That's My Boy!

I’ve been to (the mountain of gifts at) the baby shower for my first grandchild (it’s a boy!) and I’m here to tell you: they don’t make babies like they used to.


Honestly, I don’t know how my two sons survived without a Boppy, a Bouncer, a Pak n Playa Snap-N-Go, a Piddle Pad, a Peapod, and a Moby Wrap. Imagine the hardship of starting out in life in the first tender months without sucking pads, sleep sacks, MamaRoo and that all-essential Sophie Giraffe?  

At the shower there were soft, fuzzy mounds of baby blues and baby loot. Unwrapped, oohed and ahhhed by all.  But the highlight of the afternoon arrived just as guests were leaving, when my husband and son walked through the door in triumph, carrying ... BOB.  

B.O.B.  As in Baby on Board? Baby Out Bound?   

BOB.  Clever name for a baby stroller with massive male appeal.  
Like a Bud. 

Mind you, BOB is no sissy-baby-carriage. BOB, for anyone who has just landed on the planet of new parenthood, is well known as a “baby sports utility vehicle” (more commonly understood as a racing stroller). Racing through the magic years, are we?

Remember moms-of-yore, rolling through the malls with umbrella strollers? So portable (collapsable), so convenient (and presumably hazardous).  With its all-three-wheel drive and enough safety features on board to have actual recalls (noting a recent concern over a drawstring on the rear of its canopy) BOB is an entirely different animal.

As I learned from my 30-second google-research, BOB stands for Beast of Burden, the name of the original company, now fondly called Bobgear.  Beast of Burden? Strange imagery for a newborn, but somehow the product manages to captivate new sherpa parents, particularly new dads, so susceptible to the fear that a baby-in-arms will forever hamper independence and mobility, upwards, sideways or otherwise. Not surprisingly the BOB company started in the 90’s making bike trailers called Yaks. 

To those unfamiliar with the high style of conveyance of today’s tuned-in, well-appointed and wired parents with their young progeny,  the BOB promises: 
“a renewed sense of sanity . . . a means to “explore the potential of each day”
Imagine the ability to “keep rolling in a straight line,” no matter what curves are thrown your way on the path of life.      
Yow.  Who can resist that ironman stroller with its fast-track car seat adapter, attachable snack tray, state of the art suspension system, lightweight alloy wheels,  hand and parking brakes, sunroof canopy, and cargo bay for carry-on essentials? 
Wherever life takes you, you’ve got to be prepared.  

And so my son was smitten with this thing, The BOB.
All too familiar to me in my years of parenting, I’ve seen that look in my son’s eyes, that obssession with an object of desire -- that retail lust --  for a Star Wars action figure, for a LEGO Galaxy Explorer, for Super Mario Land on Gameboy, for an Xbox, for his first car, for a diamond ring, for a mortgage, for a dog, for a DROID, . . . and now The BOB.  (Wherever life takes you.)

There's a baby in there somewhere. (My son is the one with the lollipop.)

At the three-month mark now, I’m happy to report, Dad, Mom and Baby (and Dog)  are all doing quite well with The BOB, thank you. (Noting that the Snap N Go on loan, works best for travel.)  Grandparents are moving gamely along as well, wherever life takes us.

Word on the street, BOBgear is bound to have exciting new strollers in development.  Watch for:
BOBsled.  With its revolutionary new aluminum alloy sleigh-runner attachment, here’s a BOB equipped for Alpine sports and the need for speed.
iBOB.  Wired, USB-port ready, and onStar for superior navigation around the block to Starbucks. 
xBOB. Training wheels for the digitally dextrous in the highly competitive world of video sports. Are you game? 
BOBWalker.  A new generation BOB in a 4-door sedan model, equipped with extra seating enabling toddler to powerwalk grandparents. 
BOBBoard.   Why walk when you can roll on state-of-the-art ball bearing wheels of a skateboard? Winter conversion kit available for snowboarding.
BOBSwifter.  A multi-tasker for homebodies, with special attachments for cleaning and polishing floors. 
BOBRumba.   Walk baby and pick up toys on the floor.   With its power vacuum attachment, this BOB clears any path you choose at home.  
WaterBOB.  Fully aquatic, equipped for beach landings with water wings and flotation seats.
DecathaBOB.  First international competition, to be held at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Get ready. 

(Just kidding around.)
Photos: VHenoch and
Thanks for strolling by

Monday, May 23, 2011

Burning the Toast: When Words Fail

To love and laughter, to wedding days (come rain or shine), 
to marriage and mercy, patience and wisdom,
to mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to in-laws, 
to enduring friendships and all in the family. 
To health and happiness, to lives lived well and long together.
To life! L'chaim! 
Ahhh, where were those words when I needed them?

Here’s to the stammerers, the stumblers, the fumblers for words, to the tied-of-tongue, to those inexplicable moments of silence, to hearts full, to glasses raised, to the toasts never adequately spoken.  

Thank God, my melt-down was the toast at the rehearsal dinner and not the wedding!  

Thank God, for my son - the groom - who gallantly rescued me through awkward introductions in my lame attempt to "work the room"  table by table. 

Thank God for the bride and her family.  You couldn't ask for kinder, gentler, more gracious in-laws. 

Thank God for family and good friends  -- who understood the gist of what I tried to express,  well sorta.  

  “Good thing my mother  has only two sons,  my first-born and now-married son observed, “Mom would never make it through another wedding toast.” 
Sadly. So true.   
In the hapless role of Mother-of-the-Groom, I have failed miserably (now twice!) in the simple instruction to MOG’s everywhere: just show up and shut up.  The adage is for the wedding, but it holds true just as well for the rehearsal dinner.  
Oh - had I only  just shut up.  I wouldn't have to live down what has become my reputation for clamming up.   Instead, with the best of intentions to impart words of welcome, grace and blessing on the night before The Big Day, here  I found myself sputtering and stammering over my own written words. . . 

Was I ill prepared? Unpracticed.  Lamentably, no.  If only I had just read what I had written.   “You’re such a good writer, my son would say, “this should be easy for you.  Just stick to the page! Don’t go off at the mouth”   But no.   That would have been too easy.  
Given the choice of jumping out of an airplane and speaking in public, I would chose the flight anytime.  This is not an uncommon affliction, there are techniques for mastering, or at least polishing one’s presentation skills.  I am in fact well aware of my deficiency and have by and large conquered the beast – at least as well enough to get by in presentations I often need to make in my work.  But every now again, unpredictably,  the demon comes out,  the adrenaline kicks in … and sets off a chain reaction, a deep spiral downward into some cave of my brain, where I’m momentarily lost, utterly checked out, silenced… tongue tied.   
And so it happened again at my son’s rehearsal dinner.  With so much love in the room, and everyone heartily rooting (then praying) for me to get through my little shpeil, there I was: 

We’re here because. . .because. . .because. . .I can still hear myself at that moment,  “I can’t begin to tell you (literally!) how happy I am."
So I mangled my little speech.  Only I will know exactly how much.   Chalk it up to mother-love and an emotionally charged moment. . . and an errant gulp that nearly choked off my first word.   

It was I who chose the moment to speak, orchestrating the toast with the Jewish Friday night ritual of lighting candles with a blessing over wine and a challah.  My now-daughter-in-law had asked me specifically to bring the candles and order the challah for the rehearsal dinner, which was to be served family-style at Trattoria Roma,  an Italian restaurant in Old Town Chicago.  

Yoy!  After weeks of planning,  amidst the general flurry of wedding details and guest counts,  after 7 calls to kosher bakeries in Chicago to cover the challah detail, and finally after consulting the wedding planner,  (yes, there was a wedding planner!) I got the challah detail covered to the tune of  $50 for delivery to the restaurant.    And yes, I remembered to bring the candles, along with  a pair of Steuben crystal candlesticks holders as a "prenuptual" gift to the bride.  So like a Jewish mother, what a fuss I made!  Just a little OCD, ya think?  

So there I stood, before 80 guests  -- all relatives and close family friends. Ready for the moment of grace, ready to celebrate with bride and groom. Or so I thought. In the Jewish ritual of "breaking bread," it is customary to tear a piece off the braided loaf and pass it along to share.  About to speak, I popped the tidbit of bread in my hand into my mouth -- my dry mouth.  As I struggled to swallow (finding myself in some pre-Heimlich maneuver, imagining how in another breath I might literally begin to choke) I took a sip of wine. After what seemed like an interminable silence, I began with a tentative, unnerved . . .welcome.  At that point, all bets were off, my notes, my speech, my  presence of mind, all started swimming.   Treading water.  

I never did quite recover my equipoise to raise my glass for the actual toast.  But such is life.  Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.  

Speaking of anxiety: 

According to national surveys, fear of public speaking ranks among America's top dreads, surpassing fear of illness, fear of flying, fear of terrorism, and often the fear of death itself.  In other words, quips Jerry Seinfield in a stand-up routine, "the average person at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."
Apparently, there is some underlying science behind the fear of public speaking (glossophobia.)  Studies show it's all to do with the amygdala - the region of the brain responsible for our primordial self-defense mechanisms.  As social animals, we are hardwired for tribal survival, hyperalert to social situations that pose a threat (however real or imagined).  In other words, standing in front of a room of expectant listeners (separated from the flock, if you will) can be enough to freak the bejeezus out of many of us -- setting off that disquieting instinct to fight, flee or freeze. (Or in my case, to choke on bread.) 
So, in self-defense, let me raise a glass, and declare:
Three Cardinal Rules Not to Break in Making a Toast 
(take it from me)
1. Be brief.  If you are going to lose your way with words, then chose brevity over eloquence. Why even try to deliver 1000 words when 20 will do just fine?  A word to writers: while composing your thoughts on paper, beware: the written word does not always behave well in speech.  Speak from the heart, not from the page.  
2. Breathe!  If you're going to get all choked up, whatever you do, don't start the process literally. Don't begin with a swig of water or wine, or an obligatory bite of food in your mouth.  Bad move!   
3. Accept your own imperfection.   Whatever pearls of wisdom you think you're about to deliver, remember no one's really listening.  They're watching.  Feeling your presence.  So be present.  Wear a smile.  And remember to raise your glass.  Drink in the moment. It's your moment to share. So by all means,  for better or for worse, cherish it.  

Photos: V. Henoch
Cheers.  And thanks for stumbling by.