Recipe Review

This No-Frills Chocolate Babka Recipe Is Easy, Moist, and Comforting

published Sep 4, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner; Headshot: Doug Schneider

Shannon Sarna has made a name for herself as a true expert in traditional Jewish food. Every day my instagram feed has a photo, article, or recipe from @jewishfood — the handle for The Nosher blog that Shannon founded — about all of the traditional Jewish foods I love. Sometimes she features something I haven’t thought about in a while, such as kreplach or chocolate egg creams, and it takes me back to my childhood. 

Shannon’s 2017 cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker, remains a favorite of Jewish bakers. As the author of The Kosher Baker cookbook myself, I was thrilled to see more proof that there is a market for Jewish baking cookbooks. (I was once told by every publisher that there was no market for such books.) Shannon, we proved them wrong.

Shannon’s book is a bible of sorts for the foundational baked goods of the Jewish food world: challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, and hamantaschen. I had made her chocolate babka a few years ago and was excited to try it again. Here’s what happened when I gave it a go.

Get the recipe: Shannon Sarna’s Chocolate Babka (filling recipe below)

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner; Headshot: Doug Schneider

How to Make Shannon Sarna’s Chocolate Babka

Shannon’s instructions are easy to follow and will guide you through the babka-making process. You’ll start by making the dough, which yields three loaves. I used whole milk and butter rather than the dairy-free options.

I began by scalding the milk on the stovetop. While the milk heated, I mixed the vanilla extract into the flour and sugar, but they didn’t really mix together. I then added the eggs one at a time, which didn’t make sense to me as the mixture wasn’t really mixed. Next time, I’ll add the eggs together. 

After the dough came together, I kneaded it in my 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer (you definitely want a stand mixer for this). The recipe calls for high speed, but this proved impossible, as my mixer was bouncing all over the counter. Rather than stand there and hold it, I reduced the speed to medium-high. I mixed it for seven minutes and the dough came out just fine.

Shannon’s filling recipe isn’t included in the link above, but she gave me permission to share it here. You beat 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) room-temperature unsalted butter with 1/2 cup granulated sugar until smooth. Add 1/3 cup cocoa powder (she recommends Hershey’s Special Dark), 6 ounces melted dark chocolate (you can also use good-quality dark chocolate chips), 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and a pinch of salt.

Shannon’s dough rose really well. The recipe didn’t say what size rectangle to roll out — only that it should be 1/4-inch thick. I prefer a recipe to indicate the precise size, as thickness alone is hard for some people to judge. The recipe also didn’t say whether to use flour when rolling out the dough, but honestly, I didn’t need any. This soft, spongy dough was easy to roll out. 

The filling was simple to spread because it was a bit gooey, but this also made it messy to shape, and the loaf wasn’t so pretty going into the oven. The recipe called for cutting off the ends of the loaf before placing into the loaf pan, but why waste a few bites of babka? I squooshed — my fancy term for essentially accordion-ing (is this a word?), the loaf into the pan — and it worked great.

Shannon’s recipe includes a sugar syrup to brush on the loaves. Her version is unique in that there is vanilla extract in the syrup and you brush on five layers of the sweet stuff. I baked the loaf for 15 minutes, brushed the babka with two layers of the sugar syrup, and then baked it for another 20 minutes before removing the loaf and brushing it again with the syrup in three thick layers. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

My Honest Review of Shannon Sarna’s Babka

There are several features of this recipe I appreciated. The best aspect is that making this babka doesn’t require an all-day commitment: The dough only needs to rise for one to two hours, and the shaped loaf for 30 minutes. The babka dough was also so easy to make and roll out.  

The multiple brushings of syrup add a pop of sweetness to the babka. You can also taste the vanilla in her sugar syrup, which gives the top of the loaf a really nice flavor.

As for the overall flavor, your bite starts with chocolate and ends with cinnamon. The overall texture is moist, and the ratio of dough to filling is spot-on. The chocolate flavor is pure and rich, and the addition of cinnamon, along with the soft layers, is what truly elevates this babka to the winner’s circle. I would have liked to see more swirls of dough and chocolate — this babka could be improved with thinner layers — but that’s a minor complaint. It’s easy and comforting, without too much of anything. I would call it the Goldilocks of babkas, because it’s just right.

Credit: Paula Shoyer
Shannon Sarna's Babka

If You’re Making Shannon Sarna’s Babka, a Few Tips

  1. Make 2 larger loaves. These were nice-looking loaves, although I would have liked the overall size to be larger. Next time, I’ll take Shannon’s advice to make two larger rather than three smaller loaves, or even make the round loaves she is best known for. 
  2. Mix the filling by hand. Shannon’s recipe directed me to beat the butter and sugar together, so I took out the hand mixer. But because the butter was at room temperature, it was soft enough that I could have mixed it by hand and cleaned fewer things.
  3. Cool the baked loaf for at least 15 minutes. After the directed 10 minutes of cooling, the babka was a little soft coming out of the pan and almost broke, but I saved it. Next time, I’ll wait 15 to 20 minutes before unmolding the loaf.

Rating: 9/10

Have you tried Shannon Sarna’s chocolate babka? Let us know in the comments!