Continental Bakes

European Yeast Cake: Babka

This week’s challenge is about making recipes from the Continent.  First up, a challenge to bake an old-world style of cake; one made with yeast, not baking powder, which was invented as recently as the 1850s.  Prior to that, all cakes had to be made with yeast to get the rise.  The trick is to take your time–too hot and it’ll rise too quickly and have the wrong texture.  Too low and it won’t rise enough.

Contestants baked up a few different varieties of cakes:  a kugelhopf from Austria and a German guglhupf–both very similar, but with different added flavors; a couple of savarins; and a babka were made by our contestants.  I’m thinking I’m going to do the babka…maybe with chocolate and caramel for the skinny boy, but could be persuaded to make a lemon savarin for the middle kid.

Searching for recipes these days is SO EASY.  The internet really is the coolest thing, isn’t it?  I found:  Chocolate babka recipe here and here (the second one from the Food & Wine page being the one that worked better), Lemon savarin here, Transylvanian yeast cake here, Streuselkuchen recipe here, and Gugelhupf recipe and history here.

To be honest, I want to make one of each of these, but I don’t think I’ll have time (or the stomach) for all of them, so I’m going to start with the babka.  The directions say that it’s supposed to take 6 hours to make…hopefully it won’t *actually* take that long, but we’ll see…there’s a lot of rising time involved.

My dough mixed up OK, but I thought the yeast may not have been top notch.  The expiration date is more than 6 months away, so it’s probably fine.  The trick is knowing the difference between *instant* yeast or *active dry* yeast.  The active dry needs to be proofed first, which means soaking in warm liquid (milk or water) with a pinch of sugar in it.  Let it sit for 10-15 minutes to get foamy.  (For more details about bread and using yeast, see this web site for a great tutorial!)  Instant yeast doesn’t need that kind of care, so just go ahead and use as-is.

Chances are, I may not have allowed enough time for the yeast to proof in the milk the first time around.  Pictured above and below, this is the 2nd run at making the babka with jarred yeast rather than packets.  I put a couple pinches of sugar in the milk to give the yeast something to get excited about because it was proofing really slow.  15 minutes later, the proof is in the … milk!

Following the directions, the dough was very sticky.  I may have also under-mixed it so the gluten may not have developed enough (second run through made a stiffer dough).  I covered and set it aside to rise, but it didn’t rise much.  I lightly floured the surface, but the dough was still so sticky that I ended up adding a lot more flour to make it workable.

The first loaf, I must have added 3/4 cup of flour before adding the sugar and chocolate.  The second one, I heavily floured the surface and carefully patted it out (rather than use a rolling pin) and needed to use a pastry chopper/scraper to aid in rolling up the dough.

Picking it up and twisting it was another adventure, and eventually I just folded it over on itself a couple times and dumped it in the lined pan.  I started heating the oven to help rise the dough, which I hope will help.  As you can see, the loaf did fill  out a bit in the pan, but it didn’t rise to double.  Not even close.

I baked it anyway, just to be done with it.  In the end, it was edible, but very dense.


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