It all started a few months back when Faith connected me with Jerry James Stone and his Three Loaves project. Jerry's simple idea, an easy intro to giving, is that we all make three loaves: one to keep, one for a friend, and one to give to someone in need. A great project with a solid goal, so when Jerry asked if The Kitchn wanted to contribute a recipe, we jumped at the chance.
But what to make? A sandwich loaf felt practical, but ... yawn. I wanted to make something really special. And a little indulgent. Something that would make eyes grow wide and put big smiles on faces, especially those that might not always have reason to smile. So, you tell me — how did I do?
I've been playing with the idea of transforming sticky buns into sliceable loaf form for a while. It seemed perfect for an afternoon treat — something sweet and entirely happy-making, but that wouldn't require a nap after eating. I considered a riff on a Cinnamon Swirl Bread, but then I remembered — babka!
Babka is a Jewish pastry. (Or cake? Cake bread? I'm not quibbling.) It's traditionally filled with either chocolate or a mix of cinnamon and sugar. The bread portion is rich with eggs and butter — enough to qualify it as a brioche, if you were so inclined.
But what makes babka truly special is the way the loaves are shaped: The dough is rolled up around the filling and then sliced down the length to create two long pieces streaked with filling. Twist those pieces around each other, pop them in a loaf pan, and you have babka in all its twisty, layered glory.
I've taken that traditional cinnamon-and-sugar filling one step further — and much deeper into gooey, sticky territory. This filling is a mix of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and finely chopped pecans. In the heat of the oven, the layers in the middle melt into bubbly caramel, while the exposed layers on top bake into a crunchy praline-like coating. Baker beware — this stuff is addictive.
I highly recommend spreading this bread-making process over two days. The dough is very sticky and can be a struggle to work with right after rising. Instead, put the bowl of dough in the fridge and let it chill overnight (literally and figuratively). The chilled dough is much easier to roll out, slice, and shape. (A tip of the hat to Deb of Smitten Kitchen and Yotam Ottolenghi for this nugget of advice.)
Call it cake, call it bread, call it whatever you like, but by all means, make this sticky caramel-pecan babka. While you're waiting for the dough to rise, check out Jerry James Stone's Three Loaves project and think about what you might like to do with your sticky, nut-filled bounty.
Sticky Caramel-Pecan Babka
Makes 3 loaves, 10 to 12 slices each
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3/4 cup whole milk
4 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 1/4 - 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
For the sticky filling:
2 1/4 cups pecans
3/4 cups butter (salted)
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
For the egg wash:
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon whole milk or cream
Make the dough: Combine the water and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, and let stand until the yeast is dissolved. Add the milk, eggs, yolk, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract, and whisk until the yolks are completely combined. Add 6 1/4 cups of flour and stir with a stiff spatula until a shaggy, floury dough is formed.
Using a dough hook, knead on medium-low speed until the dough comes together and is no longer floury, about 5 minutes. With the mixer still running, begin adding the butter in 1-tablespoon blobs. Mix until one blob is just barely incorporated before adding the next blob.
When all the butter has been added, continue kneading for another 5 minutes until the dough is silky, elastic, and quite jiggly. This won't form a ball like regular dough — it should bunch around the dough hook and clear the sides of the dough hook, but will still be attached in a sticky dough mass to the bottom of the bowl. Add the extra 1/4 cup of flour as needed if the dough is sticking to the sides of the bowl. (For step-by-step instructions, see steps 2 through 6 in How To Make Kugelhopf.)
Chill the dough: Transfer the dough to your largest mixing bowl. Cover and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until doubled in bulk. Transfer to the fridge and chill for at least an hour or up to 3 days. (This makes the dough easier to roll out in the next step; I recommend letting the dough chill overnight.)
Prepare the filling: When you're ready to shape the loaves, prepare the filling before you take the dough out of the fridge. Heat the oven to 350°F and toast the pecans until they're a few shades darker and very fragrant, about 10 minutes. Transfer the hot pecans to a cutting board and chop them finely while still warm. Keep chopping until no piece is larger than a grain of barley. You can also do this in a food processor — process the nuts in pulses and be careful of over-processing (which will turn the nuts into nut butter!).
In a medium bowl, mash together the softened butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon for the filling with a fork or a spoon, then work in the nuts. Keep mashing and mixing until the nuts are evenly distributed and you have formed a crumbly paste. Set this near your work surface.
Line three 8x4-inch loaf pans with long rectangles of parchment, so that the parchment hangs over the sides of the pan. Grease the pans thoroughly with non-stick spray. (If you only have two pans, bake two loaves and leave the third piece of dough in the fridge to shape and bake later.)
Shape the babka loaves: Remove the dough from the fridge. Sprinkle your work surface generously with flour and scrape the dough out on top. Pat the dough into a log and then use a bench scraper or sharp knife to cut it into 3 equal pieces (mine were about 21 ounces each, if you feel like weighing).
Sprinkle the work surface with a little more flour, then set one of the pieces of dough on top. Use the palms of your hands to press it into a rough rectangle shape. Rub a little flour into a rolling pin and roll the dough out into a thin rectangle, roughly 10 inches wide and 12 or more inches long (the thinner you roll, the more layers you'll make).
Scatter a generous cup of the filling over the surface of the dough, then use the back of a spoon to spread and press the filling into an even layer. Leave about an inch of clear border at the top.
Starting with the short end closest to you, carefully roll the dough into a log. If any filling falls out, just tuck it back in. If the dough sticks to the counter, use a bench scraper to gently pry it up. When done rolling, pinch the dough to seal it closed. Dip a very sharp knife in water and gently, but swiftly, slice the log down its entire length, creating two halves with lots of layers.
To form the babka loaves, turn the halves so that the layers are facing up. Press the two halves together at the top, then twist the halves around each other, creating a spiral. Press the halves together again at the bottom. Flour your hands and lift the loaf into the loaf pan. If the loaf is a little too long for the pan, just smoosh it a little on either end to make it fit — any gaps will be filled in by the rising dough.
Repeat with the other loaves. Cover the shaped loaves and let them rise on the counter until puffy and just starting to dome over the tops of the pans, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Bake the loaves: About a half hour before baking (when the loaves are puffy but not yet domed), preheat the oven to 350°F.
When the loaves have risen, whisk the yolk and the milk together to make the egg wash and gently brush it all over the surface of the loaves. Transfer the loaves to the oven and slide a baking sheet underneath to catch any syrupy drips. Bake 45 to 55 minutes — cover the loaves with foil in the last 10 to 15 minutes if the edges look like they might be starting to burn. The loaves are done when deep glossy brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean of any dough (sticky goo is ok, though!). If you want to check the temperature, the loaves should be around 200°F in the middle.
Cool the loaves: Let the loaves cool in the pan for about 20 minutes to firm up — however, don't let them sit for much longer or the caramel will harden and it can be hard to get the loaves out of the pan.
Run a butter knife around the edges of the loaf to release it from the pan, and use the edges of the parchment to gently lift the loaf from the pan. Place them on a cooling rack and slide the parchment out from underneath.
These loaves are best when served still slightly warm, but are still excellent for several days after. The slices will be quite sticky and the layers won't always stay neatly together — that's part of the charm! Store unsliced loaves on the counter, covered, for up to a week. Loaves can also be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to 3 months.
Ingredients for 2 loaves: 1/2 cup water, 2 teaspoons active-dry yeast, 1/2 cup milk, 3 large eggs, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 4 1/2 to 4 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 8 tablespoons softened unsalted butter; for the filling: 1 1/2 cups pecans, 1/2 cup butter (salted), 1 cup packed dark brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon
Making babka dough by hand: This is one of those recipes that's so much easier to make if you have a standing mixer. However, you can make it by hand by beating the dough with a wooden spoon. It takes about an hour for the dough to come together and get silky, so it helps to have some willing assistants on hand! Also, don't try this with a hand-held mixer, as its motor isn't strong enough.
- P.S.: I highly recommend making French toast with a few leftover slices.