Do you usually shy away from complicated baking projects? Yes or no, stick with me here; I'm going to walk you through Cranberry-Orange Babka, a bread that looks fancy but actually requires no more skill than simply twisting together two strands of dough. I call it fancy without the fuss.
While most familiar to us Americans in its chocolate version, babka is a time-honored Slavic yeast "cake" made from a rich brioche-type dough studded with raisins. The cake (we'd call it sweet bread) is traditionally baked in a tall cylinder, and different versions are often found at Jewish-American bakeries. It's frequently flavored with rum, and usually gilded with icing.
Our version of this classic lays the babka on its side in a loaf pan; and substitutes cranberry and orange for raisins and rum. The result is part coffeecake, part sweet bread, and 100% "Save this recipe, I'm making it again."
Cranberry-Orange Babka: Let's get started!
Let's start with the dough. Enriched with egg and butter plus dry milk, it's a smooth, malleable dough, eager to please as you knead and shape it.
Combine the following:
1/2 cup (113g) lukewarm water
1 large egg
3 tablespoons (43g) softened butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia, optional; for enhanced flavor
2 1/4 cups (269g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (25g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (14g) Baker's Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast or active dry yeast
Mix and knead by your usual method — hands, bread machine on the dough cycle, mixer — to make a smooth, supple dough. It may be sticky at first, but keep at it; it'll eventually come around (and become a round).
The first rise
Put the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise until it's just about doubled. This took 90 minutes in my moderately cool kitchen; your dough may be quicker or need more time.
While the dough is rising, make the filling. Combine the following in a saucepan:
1/4 cup (57g) orange juice
1/3 cup (71g) light brown sugar, packed
1 cup (99g) fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup (57g) dried cranberries
Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to thicken to a jam-like consistency. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes once it comes to a simmer.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon melted butter, 1/8 teaspoon orange oil or 1 teaspoon grated orange rind, and 1 teaspoon Yuletide Cheer Spice or cinnamon. Set the filling aside to cool to lukewarm.
Take your nicely risen dough and gently deflate it.
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface (or silicone rolling mat, as I'm using here), and roll/pat it into a 12" x 14" rectangle. As I mentioned earlier, this dough is nice to work with; it won't fight back as you stretch it out, thanks to the egg and butter tempering the gluten.
Spread the cranberry filling over the surface of the dough, leaving a 1/2" border along the edge of one of the short sides. Starting with the filling-covered short side, roll the dough up jelly-roll style, sealing the edge.
Cut the log in half lengthwise to expose the filling.
Place each half side by side, filled sides up. Yes, this becomes a bit messy; keep a wet dishcloth close by.
Lay one strand over the other to make an X shape.
Twist the two logs together, working from the center to each end.
Pinch the ends together, and place the twisted log in a lightly greased 9" x 5" loaf pan.
The second rise
Cover the loaf and allow it to rise for 1 to 2 hours, until it's crowned 1/2" to 1" over the rim of the pan.
Hint: If you know anyone who stays in hotels regularly, get them to bring you home some of the courtesy plastic shower caps available to guests. PERFECT dough rising covers!
Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Admittedly my kitchen is usually chilly, but it took the loaf a full 2 hours to rise to the desired 1" over the rim of the pan. That's why you need to take suggested rising times with a grain of salt: your dough in your kitchen in your climate will react differently than your sister's in Phoenix — or our dough here in Vermont.
Bake the babka for 45 to 50 minutes, tenting it with aluminum foil about halfway through to prevent over-browning.
The top of the finished loaf will be golden brown, and a digital thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf will read 190°F or above.
Remove the loaf from the oven.
After 10 minutes, remove the babka from the pan and transfer it to a rack. For a softer crust, brush the top of the warm loaf with melted butter, if desired.
Cool the loaf completely before slicing and serving.
Want to gild the lily? Mix 1/2 cup (57g) confectioners' sugar with about 1 tablespoon milk or cream, enough to make a pourable icing. Drizzle over the cooled babka.
Serve it soft and fresh, or toast it with butter. Make it into French toast, or even sweet/salty grilled cheese (try an assertive cheddar). Any way you slice (or twist) it, Cranberry-Orange Babka is a recipe you'll definitely want to keep in your virtual hip pocket.
Please read, bake, and review our recipe for Cranberry-Orange Babka.
Interested in other European-style sweet breads? Check out these recipes:
• St. Lucia Buns
• Czech Kolaches
• Chocolate-Cherry Brioche
• Overnight Panettone
• Tuscan Coffeecake
• Polish Babka
• Greek Tsoureki
• Shortcut Russenzopf