Sourdough Babka

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Right now I’m front-row seat at the best kind of concert: ogling at the twisted cacophony of an enriched naturally leavened dough with sharp cinnamon and warm brown sugar (Update! I’ve also added a chocolate filling option), all topped with a luxurious simple syrup — a sourdough babka is just sitting there cooling on a wire rack, but I swear I hear it singing. If there ever was such a thing as too much anticipation, right now surely qualifies; it’s as palpable as any musical instrument in an empty music hall. And I’d pay a hefty sum to cut in, take a bite, and end the concert a little early.

I’ve stepped up my baking research and development for this babka in an attempt to get this recipe out after the enthusiasm displayed on my recent Instagram post. This dough is straightforward, playing at not quite the enrichment level of brioche (or my cinnamon rolls), but not exactly lean, either. I feel it’s just right: not cloying, not overly rich, and certainly not dry or under-flavored. And while it unquestionably looks drenched, the interior is not — the interplay between the crust and crumb is wonderfully balanced.

But let’s be clear: this is a sticky, gooey, sinfully delicious treat that makes the taste buds merrily move and pop.

And the timing for making something like this is perfect, right now we can all use a little joy; a dab of sunshine through the clouds; the sweet, tangible canto of a sourdough babka humming to itself on a cooling rack.

Sourdough babka crumb
As tender as it gets

Grab your mature sourdough starter, pull up to the counter, and get ready to dance.

Sourdough Babka Recipe

Equipment

Pullman Pan

This recipe will work with many different pans, but in testing, I eventually turned to my trusty 9″ x 4″ x 4″ USA Pan Pullman Pan — I know, not common. The reason is twofold: first, I love the resulting straight-sided babka. It makes for a more presentable and tidy treat. Second, the USA Pan has a natural silicone lining and this, in combination with parchment paper, makes cleanup significantly easier (more on this later).

If you don’t have a Pullman pan, a typical 8.5″ x 4.5″ x 2.75″ loaf pan will also work well.

Rolling Pin

You’ll need a standard rolling pin/dowel to roll out this dough, this rolling dowel is my favorite (and made in the USA).

Vitals

Total Dough Weight800 grams
Pre-fermented Flour13.00%
YieldOne babka for a 9″ x 4″ x 4″ Pullman pan (without lid)

Total Formula

WeightIngredientBaker’s Percentage
357gAll-purpose flour (11-12% protein; King Arthur All-Purpose Flour)100.00%
107gWhole milk (cold from the fridge)30.00%
107gLarge eggs (about 2, cold from the fridge, plus one more egg in reserve for the egg wash)30.00%
100gUnsalted butter (Kerrygold; room temperature)28.00%
46gWater13.00%
29gCaster sugar (superfine white sugar)18.00%
8gSalt2.30%
46gSourdough starter (100% hydration)13.00%
Sourdough babka crust

Dough Mix

My final dough temperature for this dough was 76°F (24°C). See my post on the importance of dough temperature for more information.

WeightIngredient
310gAll-purpose flour (11-12% protein; King Arthur All-Purpose Flour)
107gWhole milk (cold from the fridge)
107gLarge eggs (about 2; cold from the fridge)
100gUnsalted butter (Kerrygold; room temperature)
29gCaster sugar (superfine white sugar)2
8gSalt
138gMature, but mild, levain

Method

1. Build Levain – 10:00 a.m. (or when your starter is mature)

In the morning, mix together the following in a small jar:

All-purpose flour46g
Water (warm)46g
Mature sourdough starter46g

Loosely cover the jar; it should be ready after about 3 hours at a warm temperature, 78-80°F (26-27°C). If it’s cold in your kitchen, warm the mixing water for this levain to get close to 80°F (27°C).

If you’re new to making a levain, see my post on the differences between a levain and sourdough starter.

Mature, but mild, levain ready to use
Mature, but mild, levain ready for use after 3 hours at 80°F (27°C)

2. Mix – 1:00 p.m.

Before mixing, take out the butter called for in the recipe and cut it into 1/2″
pats. Let it sit at room temperature until called for.

I used my KitchenAid stand mixer to mix this dough. To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add the mature levain, flour, whole milk, large eggs, salt, and half of the sugar3. Set the mixer to low and mix until everything is incorporated. Let the dough rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

After the 10 minute rest, turn the mixer up to medium and mix for 5 minutes until the dough starts to pull from the sides of the mixing bowl. At this point, slowly stream in the remaining sugar while the mixer is running. Mix for another 1-2 minutes until the dough comes back together.

With the mixer still set to medium, add the room temperature butter, one pat at a time, waiting to add the next until the previous is absorbed into the dough. It might take around 5 minutes to mix all the butter into the dough. After all of the butter is added, continue mixing for another few minutes until the dough smooths out and once again begins to cling to the dough hook. The dough should be almost fully developed at this point (it won’t completely pass the windowpane test, but almost).

Transfer the dough to a container for bulk fermentation, cover, and keep somewhere warm—78-80°F (26-27°C)—in your kitchen for bulk fermentation.

3. Warm Bulk Fermentation – 1:25 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (or longer, as needed)

During this time, give the dough 2 sets of stretch and folds where the first set is 30 minutes after the beginning of bulk fermentation and the second set is 30 minutes after the first. After the second set, let the dough rest, covered, until the next step.

4. Cold Bulk Fermentation – 3:30 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. (next day)

Assess the dough: has it risen a little in the bowl during the warm bulk fermentation? It should be a little puffy and smoothed out. If it looks like there’s no activity at all, give the dough another 30 minutes to 1 hour and check again.

Once you see some rise in the dough, place the covered bulk fermentation bowl into the refrigerator overnight.

Same day option: I much prefer making this over the course of two days, but you could make this all in one day: let the dough finish bulk fermentation for 2-3 hours on the counter. When the dough has risen around 50% and feels puffy, proceed with the rest of the steps below. However, I do recommend placing the dough in the fridge for at least 1 hour after this warm bulk fermentation to chill before rolling out!

5. Roll, freeze, cut, and shape – 8:00 a.m.

Before taking the dough out of the refrigerator, make one of the fillings below (keep the filling covered until ready to use):

Brown Sugar Cinnamon Filling
Dark brown sugar200g
Unsalted butter, melted42g (3 Tbsp)
All-purpose flour15g
Ground cinnamon8g (3 tsp)
Salt1/4 tsp

Mix all of the ingredients above together in a bowl and cover until ready to use.

Chocolate Filling
Granulated sugar110g
Unsalted butter75g
Bittersweet chocolate, chopped70g
Unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch-processed)25g

For the chocolate filling: in a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and add the sugar and chocolate, stir everything together while the chocolate melts until everything comes together and smooths out. Add the cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Set aside to cool until ready to use.

Rolling babka dough
Rolling up babka dough with brown sugar cinnamon filling

In the morning, take the dough out of the refrigerator and scrape the dough out to a floured work surface. Flour the top of the dough and using a rolling pin (or dowel), roll the dough out to a rectangle approximately 10″ x 12″ in size with a short edge closest to your body.

If you want a less-sweet, less-sticky babka, spread less filling over the rolled out dough.

Using your hand or an offset spatula, spread the filling over the dough leaving about 1″ clean on the short side farthest from you. Starting at the side closest to you, roll up the dough into a tight cylinder. It’s important for the dough to be rolled up rather tight, so pull the dough at each revolution of the cylinder.

Important: Place the rolled-up log on a baking sheet and place it into the freezer for 15 minutes (this makes it much easier to cut and braid).

Prepare your baking pan by inserting a piece of parchment so two “handles” stick up at the long sides of the pan (see photo above). The parchment will drape down one long side, over the bottom, and up the other side. Once it fits, take it out and place it on the counter next to your pan.

Cutting and braiding babka

After the 15-minute freezer rest, take the baking sheet out of the freezer and return the dough log to the counter. Using a sharp knife, cut the log to split open the log from one side to the other. Pinch the two top halves together and braid the dough one strand over the other. At the bottom, pinch the two halves together again. Don’t worry if filling spills out or things get messy — it’s all good.

After the dough is braided, pick up the braid and place it on the parchment right in the middle, then pick up the sides of the parchment and lift the dough up and drop it into the pan.

Cover the pan and place it somewhere warm, ideally, 78-80°F (26-27°C), to proof.

6. Proof – 8:30 a.m. 12:00 p.m. (or until ready)

This dough can be slow to rise at this point. Give it the time it needs to rise up to about 1/2″ below the rim of the Pullman pan. For me, at 78°F (26°C), it took about 3.5 hours. See the image below for how high my dough filled my pan.

Fully proofed babka dough
Fully proofed babka dough, ready for an egg wash and the oven

7. Bake – 12:00 p.m.

Preheat your oven with the rack in the middle to 350°F (176°C) — no fan assist (no convection).

When the oven is preheated and the babka dough is fully proofed, place the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (to catch any sugar spilling over). In a small bowl, whisk together one whole egg and 1 Tbsp water and brush a thin layer of the egg wash on the top of the dough. Then, slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes until the center of the babka reaches 200°F (93°C). Keep an eye on the babka in the last 10 minutes of the bake, if it’s coloring too quickly drop the temperature to compensate.

Be sure to bake this thoroughly, the interior should reach 200°F (93°C).

While the babka is baking, make the simple syrup. In a small saucepan heat over low 52g (1/4 cup) granulated sugar with 59g (1/4 cup) water. Heat until the mixture bubbles a bit and stir occasionally until the sugar fully dissolves in the water. Transfer this simple syrup to a container to cool. If covered, it will keep indefinitely in the fridge (I reuse over and over for babka, other baked goods, or even cocktails).

When the babka is fully baked, remove the pan to a cooling rack. Using a plastic spatula, free the short sides of the babka (the sides without parchment) from the sides and bottom of the pan by pressing the spatula down from top to bottom.

Using a pastry brush, brush on a thin layer of the simple syrup. The amount you put on is up to you: the more you add the sweeter the crust will become. Let the babka rest for 10 minutes in the pan. Do not let the babka rest for longer than 10 minutes or it’ll be hard to remove from the pan.

After the rest, lift the babka out of the pan using the parchment paper sticking up as a set of handles. You might have to use a spatula and pry it out a bit, but be gentle. Remove from the parchment paper and let it rest on a wire rack until cool to the touch. It’s even better if it sits for an hour or so to let the crust fully harden.

Conclusion

Sourdough babka exterior
Sticky, sweet, and oh so wicked

The flavor of this babka is just wicked. The exterior looks intense, gooey, perhaps even glutinous — but once the babka cools it turns into a thin and crunchy layer of pure enjoyment. Because of the way I braid the dough, pushing the cut-side to mostly face up out of the pan, the interior is a little more shy with fewer pockets of the filling. This creates a nice balance and doesn’t make each bite overwhelming.

Sourdough babka crumb

And your babka will certainly look different (isn’t that the beautiful thing about baking by hand, anyway?), as the filling ebbs and flows its own way through each slice. Looking at a slice is like pretending you’re a palm reader: you subconsciously trace the dark lines as they wind here and there, trying to see the future, to plan each bite to land you right in the next delicious zone of brown sugar and cinnamon.

You probably already know by now that I caved and cut the concert short, I sliced this babka sooner than I thought I would. While there is something cute about a fresh babka sitting on the counter with its siren song whispering in your ear, there’s something much better to be had when it’s eaten.

If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!


  1. If you don’t have caster sugar, use the finest sugar you have.

  2. If you don’t have caster sugar, use the finest sugar you have.

  3. While not completely necessary for this dough, I withhold half the sugar to help develop the gluten before adding the full amount (which can interfere with gluten development).

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