Christmas pastry with a twist: Mark Best’s recipe for chocolate babka
Year after year the same few recipes haunt the internet like the ghosts of Christmas past. Coming at you with the ubiquity of a Mariah Carey carol is the Nutella/pastry Christmas tree.
From the great tradition of cooking from the side of the packet, this is a recipe Ebenezer Scrooge himself may have imagined: a jar of hazelnut spread sandwiched between two layers of frozen puff pastry “scored in all the right places”, twisted to form “tree branches” and then – in an age where the camera always eats first – baked, shot and posted.
Before I’m accused of punching down, let me establish my blue-collar credentials and admit to having made a Yule log from a packet of ginger nuts, whipped cream and Bundaberg rum. Its redeeming feature (other than the lashings of rum) is that it is actually delicious. Frozen puff pastry and a jar of cocoa-coloured sugar and palm oil is about as close to joy as needing a toboggan on the 25th. “I don’t want a lot for Christmas / There is just one thing I need” – and it isn’t this supermarket-shelf confection.
Like many families, our Christmas table was always primed for the possibility of war, but there was some consensus: this time of year, the table should be groaning with relative luxury. It was more about the feasting, less about the ritual, but it was the day of the year where you would put – in the kitchen at least – the most amount of effort.
Christmas crackers with corny dad jokes, the first of the season’s cherries, big bowls of prawns with cocktail sauce, a farm-reared turkey “the size of an emu”, a multitude of biscuits and small cakes, laden with sugar, butter and eggs from our own chickens. A never-ending ham. String bags of “exotic” nuts. Bowls of chocolates and lollies, grabbed by the handful by kids as they hurtled past, pursued by “you’ll spoil your lunch!”.
Inter-family relations at our Christmas table were always fractious and spiced with loving animus, but the gift was always the amount of time, thought and effort that had gone into the offering.
This recipe is for those who take joy in cooking for the people they love.
Prep 20 min
Rest 3 hours
Cook 45 min
For the dough
750g plain flour
75g caster sugar
2 tsp salt
14g dried yeast
450g unsalted butter
For the filling
60g unsalted butter
80g brown sugar
100g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
2 tbsp cocoa powder
For the egg wash
1 egg yolk
30ml pouring cream
½ tsp salt
Set up your stand mixer with a dough hook. Enriched doughs like this are quite maddening by hand. Sift in the plain four. Add the yeast. You can use fresh yeast if you have access to it, but I find good-quality dried yeasts more than serviceable. Most recipes start by “hydrating” the dried yeast. This isn’t required. Just add it to the flour.
Break your eggs, which should be room temperature, into a bowl and cut your butter, which should be fridge cold, into cubes. Turn your mixer to medium speed and add the eggs. Mix until the dough starts to form a homogenous mass. Commence adding the butter cubes one by one in fairly rapid succession. At this stage you can add the salt and sugar, which will help the butter incorporate. Continue to add the butter. This process shouldn’t take longer than five minutes. Halt proceedings and scrape down any ingredients making a run for it, and then kneed on medium speed until the dough is smooth and silky.
Place the dough into a bowl that will allow it to double in size. Cover with cling film and leave to prove about 45-60 minutes to achieve this state. Knock it back with a good fist to the belly and refrigerate. I prefer to do this overnight to develop the flavour but two to three hours should make it cool enough to be manageable.
Roughly chop the chocolate with a heavy knife and add to a small mixing bowl. Add the sugar, cocoa powder and cubed butter. Melt over a simmering pot of water or in the microwave (a much maligned machine which is always excellent for chocolate work). Leave to cool.
Lightly flour your work surface and roll out your dough into a 500mm x 400mm rectangle. Spread the chocolate over evenly then roll the lot into a sausage. Stretch it out to about 600mm. Cut the sausage lengthways using a sharp knife, leaving one end intact. Grab a strand in each hand and plait them together, hand over hand, giving a slight twist to each as you go. Bring the ends together and fashion a loose knot of sorts, more for decoration than structural integrity. Carefully place onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Leave to prove under a tea towel for 40-50 minutes until it has recovered from your manipulation and risen by 30%.
Preheat the oven to 180C and mix together the egg wash ingredients with a fork. Egg wash the dough and bake for 45 minutes until firm and golden. Allow to cool on a rack and decorate further if you like.