This is the time of year when people who frequent food blogs are probably looking for one of two things: simple, delicious dishes to use up lots of late summer produce, or inspiration for encroaching harvest, autumn-centered meal plans.
Yes, this week’s recipe uses a good pile of zucchini, shredded into a mass of green and white ribbons, and yes, it combines the warm, welcome flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar that you might expect from a really good zucchini bread. But it takes those flavors and, peevishly, wraps them up in one of the more involved sorts of bread out there.
Babka is a sweet bread, raised with yeast and stuffed with butter and eggs. Most frequently, it is filled with chunks of chocolate until it is gasping under the weight, then rolled up, twisted, folded, twisted again, piled with streusel, and then baked until it is golden and crusty and melty and decadent. It tends to be a holiday treat which, considering the quantities of butter and time that go into producing a loaf, makes good sense. Though the bread itself is most likely of Eastern European origin, it probably didn’t intersect with chocolate until the mid 20th century at the hands of some, I must say, entirely sensible and clever American Jews. I mean, bread and chocolate all in one? Yes, please!
I wanted to make a lighter version (hah). I’ve been making zucchini bread for years, and I have a recipe I like, but with this year’s focus on dough, I needed something a bit more complex. I don’t remember exactly where the idea came from, but the idea of sweet, slightly vegetal zucchini flavored with the warm spices of zucchini bread and rolled up in a sweet, doughy loaf was something I had to taste. When the recipes for zucchini babka that I found used the zucchini threads in the dough itself, rather than rolling them up in the middle, I got determined.
The biggest problem here, of course, is how watery zucchini is. My great fear was that this would produce a loaf that was overcooked on the outside but still underdone in the center, as the great leaking mass of zucchini kept things too wet to bake properly. This fear was, thankfully, unfounded. A lengthy draining session followed by a firm squeezing made the zucchini, while still quite moist, apparently dry enough to use as a filling. Paired with well toasted almonds, brown sugar, and butter, it baked into a curious, almost custard-like texture. The stubby ribbons of zucchini were still in evidence, but the edges of dough around them mellowed into beautiful creaminess, like a little central vein of bread pudding.
Zucchini Almond Babka
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes one large loaf
½ cup milk
1 ½ teaspoons yeast
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons butter (1 stick + 2 tablespoons), divided
2 medium zucchini, grated, drained, and squeezed
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup finely chopped toasted almonds
1 egg white (use the one you separated from the yolk above)
1 tablespoon milk
For streusel topping:
½ cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon cinnamon
- First, prep your zucchini: grate it with the large holes on a box grater and set it in a colander, preferably lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel, so it can drain while you mix up the dough.
- Heat milk in a small bowl until just warm to the touch. Sprinkle yeast over milk and let it stand until it is foamy and smells like bread; about 5 minutes.
- In a bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, the egg, the egg yolk, and the vanilla. Add egg mixture to the yeast and milk, whisk to combine.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Add the egg mixture, and beat on low speed until the flour is mostly incorporated and forms a shaggy, craggy mass. This should take about 30 seconds.
- Switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook. Add 6 tablespoons of butter one at a time in 1-inch chunks, beating until incorporated after each addition. The dough will come together briefly, then fall apart into wet bits, and then come together again into a smooth, elastic, rich dough. This should take about 10 minutes.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until it is smooth. It will feel moist and elastic against the heels of your hands.
- Butter or oil your mixing bowl and place the ball of dough back into it, turning the dough to coat it with fat on all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside to rise for about 1 hour. During this time, it should double in bulk.
- When your dough is almost done rising, squeeze your drained zucchini to eliminate as much water as possible, then combine the zucchini, brown sugar, remaining 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and 4 tablespoons of butter in a small bowl. Stir or smoosh these together, then set the mixture back into a colander to drain again.
- Butter or oil a 9×5 inch loaf pan and line it with parchment paper if desired. Beat the remaining egg white with milk and set it aside.
- Gently punch down the dough by pressing your fist into the center. It will depress as the air releases. Set it on a generously floured surface and let it rest for 5 minutes.
- Once dough has rested, roll it out into a 16-inch square; it should be about 1/8 inch thick.
- Brush edges of the dough with the egg wash. Distribute all but about 2 tablespoons of the zucchini mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a ¼ inch border.
- Roll the dough up tightly like a jelly roll, enclosing the zucchini mixture inside. Pinch ends together to seal. Twist 5 or 6 times.
- Brush the top of the roll with egg wash, then carefully crumble the remaining 2 tablespoons of zucchini mixture over the left half of the roll, being careful not to let it slide off. Fold the right half of the roll over onto the coated left half. Fold ends under, and pinch to seal. Twist the roll 2 turns, and fit it into the prepared pan. This may make a bit of a mess, but be bold. It will all work out.
- Heat your oven to 350F and prepare your streusel by combining the powdered sugar, flour, butter and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Two forks work well for this, but your fingers work better.
- Brush the top of the loaf with egg wash, then crumble the streusel topping over it. You may have some extra, but don’t be afraid to load it up.
- Loosely cover the loaf with plastic wrap and let it stand in a warm place for 20-30 minutes while the oven heats up and the loaf swells again.
- Bake the loaf, rotating it halfway through if possible, until it is golden on top. This will take about 55 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 325F and continue baking until the loaf is deep golden, 15 to 20 minutes more.
- Remove from oven, transfer to wire rack until completely cool before you attempt to remove it from the pan and cut it into thick slices to serve. Beware: removing it from the pan and slicing too early will result in a failure in structural integrity! Be sure to let it cool.