Monday, July 22, 2013

Blueberry-Peach Summertime Babka

 A babka that tastes like summer......

In my mind's eye babka doesn't bring summer to mind, although a slice of any babka with coffee or tea- iced or hot- would never be unwelcome. This version, however, takes advantage of two of our favorite summer fruits - blueberries and peaches. The blueberry syrup wash on the outside gives the cake a not-too-sweet finish.

I must admit that when I bake babka, I think of that "Seinfeld" episode.....the babka you know and love is always the best..... this one really is delicious. Although not a typical Eastern European babka, the testers at our house gave it a thumbs up just the same.

The dough is a combination of white whole wheat and bread flour. White whole wheat, a less assertive whole wheat flour is available at either King Arthur Flour or at Trader Joe's. The addition of lemon extract and zest gives the cake a lemony undertone, a perfect compliment to both the blueberries and the peaches. 

If you are new to working with sweet yeast dough and need some guidance, check out my post "Some things to know about measuring flour and working with yeast." .  The finished dough will have the feel of a high gluten challah - strong and stretchy, but a bit sticky and shiny.


  • Babka needs a long slow rise, thus you need to plan to complete this cake in two sessions. Peaches tend to oxidize and turn brownish, so I do not recommend that you prepare the fruit until you are ready to use it. I prefer under-ripe peaches; they will be less juicy and not affect the texture of the yeast cake. 
  • The dough starts out with a "sponge," a small starter dough that ferments in the bowl. Sponge starters are used to modify the texture of the final product and DO make a difference in your finished product, so don't skip this step. This sponge ferments for a short time - about 30 minutes. 
  • The remaining dough ingredients are added to the sponge and the dough is then allowed to rest/rise in the refrigerator overnight (8- 24 hours).  
  • The fruit filling is prepared just before you start to work on the babka assembly - after the refrigerator rising. 
  • Once assembled you will brush the unbaked cake with blueberry syrup. This step is repeated at the end, after the cake bakes.  Once brushed with syrup, the cakes must COMPLETELY cool in the pans; you'll run the risk of their collapsing if you remove them while they are warm. 

  • stand mixer or electric mixer (I wouldn't attempt this by hand kneading, read through the procedure and you'll see why)
  • large mixing bowl 
  • measuring cups, spoons, silicone spatula
  • 3 medium loaf pans (measuring approximately 8x4x3, the kind that will bake a 1lb loaf of bread)

For the sponge:

  • 8 oz bread flour (don't use all purpose)
  • 2 Tbsp instant yeast (I use SAF gold for sweet breads)
  • 8 oz warm water (about 100 degrees F) 
For the cake dough:
  • The sponge 
  • 12 oz bread flour
  • 4 oz white whole wheat flour
  • 5 oz granulated sugar
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp lemon extract (or lemon oil)
  • 2 tsp lemon zest (or lemon oil)
  • 4 extra large eggs (about  8 oz)
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter or margarine (8 oz)
  • a small amount of  bread flour or all purpose flour for the work surface when you roll out the dough
For the fruit filling:
  • 2 c blueberries (about 15 oz)
  • 4 medium slightly under-ripe peaches, peeled and diced (about 15 oz)
  • 1/4 granulated sugar
  • 2 heaping Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 c fine unflavored bread crumbs
  • 3/4c blueberry syrup (1/2 c will be used for assembly, 1/4 for brushing the outside of the unbaked and then baked cakes)
1. In the bowl of a mixer, using the flat paddle, mix the sponge ingredients together. Beat at low speed until everything is hydrated. Use a silicone spatula to remove any dough that sticks to the paddle. Cover with a damp towel and allow to rest for 30-40 minutes. The finished sponge will look puffy and might have tiny bubbles just below the surface

2. About 10 minutes before the sponge is ready: 
  • Melt the butter (or margarine) until just melted, but not hot. I microwave it in a pyrex measuring cup for 30 seconds. Set aside
  • Mix the eggs, sugar, salt, extract and zest (or lemon oil) in a small bowl
3. Uncover the sponge and at the low mixer speed, mix in the flour and egg mixture. The dough will be sticky and unformed

4. Add the melted butter (margarine), at first it will run around the dough while the mixer is moving, but it will begin to blend.  Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat. At first the dough will stick to the sides of the bowl and the eggs or fat will slide around the hydrated flour. After about 10 minutes it will form a soft dough, although it will still stick to the sides of the bowl. After 20-30 minutes the dough will become more glutenous, hold together in strands and ribbons of dough and will come away from the side of the bowl.  

5. Using the silicone spatula, clear any remaining dough along the side of bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. The dough will be ready in 8 hours, but can be held in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. The finished dough will be well risen and hold a dome shape in the bowl.

6.  When you are ready to assemble: remove the dough from the refrigerator, gently degas (just push it down a bit, don't worry about "punching" it down).  Divide into three roughly equal portions. Each portion will make a cake.  Allow the dough to rest while you prepare the fruit filling.

7. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and gently add the peaches. Blanch for a minute or two. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of ice water.  They will peel easily. Peel, slice and dice each peach, place in a bowl with the blueberries.

8. Mix the sugar with the cornstarch and toss with the fruit. Set aside.

9. Pour the breadcrumbs into a small bowl and the syrup into a second bowl.

10.  Grease 3 medium sized loaf pans. You're now ready to assemble the first babka.

Steps 11- 15 are demonstrated in the short video that is attached.

11. Take one portion of the divided dough and divide in half. Flour the surface you will be working on as well as the rolling pin. Take one piece of dough, shape it into an elongated piece, about 4-5 inches long and working in the direction you've established, roll the dough out to a length of about 12-15 inches long. By rolling out in the direction you established when you initially formed the elongated piece you are helping the "memory" of the gluten strands and helping them to stretch in the direction they have already been coaxed to follow. If you find you get a lot of resistance, let the dough rest for a few minutes, the gluten will relax and you'll be able to continue.

12. After establishing the length, you will need to widen the rectangle by rolling in the opposite direction; you may find resistance at the point, so again, you want to allow the dough to relax and then you'll be able to continue to form a width of about 8 inches. The dough doesn't need to be a perfect rectangle for this process.

13. Brush the rectangle with blueberry syrup. Add 1/6 of the fruit along the length of the upper third of the rolled out dough and roll up to make a fruit filled log. 

14. Repeat with the other piece of dough.

15. Line the two logs up next to each other, pinch one end together and twist one log over the other (4-5 twists). Seal the end. Gently life an place in the prepared pan. Brush with blueberry syrup.

16. Repeat to make two more babkas and allow the assembled cakes to rest and rise in a draft-free spot for approximately 30 minutes. Toward the end of the rising period, preheat the oven to 360 degrees.

17. Bake the cakes for approximately 40-45 minutes. Check them after 30 minutes, if they are browning too quickly, tent with foil.  The cake will be slightly underdone after 40 minutes. Turn off the oven, keep the door shut and allow the cake to stay in the hot oven for another 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven.  These babkas will have a beautiful golden color.  Brush the warm cakes with more syrup and allow to cool in the pans, on a rack.  This cake MUST be completely cool before removing from the pan (I leave them in the pan overnight).

18. Store loosely covered in the refrigerator (the fresh fruit creates a very moist cake). The cake will stay fresh for several days. It more easily sliced after it has set for 24 hours.  Alternatively, you can double wrap in plastic and freeze for up to a month.

This babka is somewhat like challah or brioche in texture; a colleague of mine enjoys it was sweet butter (or cream cheese) spread on the slice.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rustic Fruit Crumble

At our house this simple fruit crumble is called "Apple Stuff." 

Calling it "Apple Stuff" doesn't mean that it's always made with apples, and since it defies any clear category- it's a rustic throw together type of fruit dessert- we just call it "stuff." You can make this dessert in about 75 minutes, start to finish. At one time I was making a cobbler, the recipe just got simpler, faster, less sweet and less fat laden as time passed. We have "Apple Stuff" for dessert on most weekends of the year- it's great alone or alongside cake and/or ice cream.

There is no dramatic kitchen equipment involved:

  • large shallow baking pan 
  • cutting board and knife 
  • glass measuring cups that are micro-wave oven proof 
  • mixing spoon 
  • Grease the baking pan (vegetable oil spray is fine, so is butter or margarine)
  • Prepare the fruit filling
  • Prepare the crumble topping and sprinkle it over the fruit
  • Pour 1/4c orange or cranberry juice over the fruit 
  • Bake for about 45 minutes, until the topping (which is sparse) is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling 
  • That's IT! 
  • 2 cups (3-4 medium sized) apples, peeled and thinly sliced. Use your favorite apple. 
  • 6-8 cups of  any other assorted  fruit, thinly sliced (e.g.apples, pears,peaches, plum, kiwi), halved (e.g. strawberries), left whole (blueberries, blackberries), chunked (mango), cubed (pineapple), etc. 
  • 1 stick (1/2 c) unsalted butter or margarine
  • 1/2 c white whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c corn meal
  • 1/2 c oatmeal (quick or old fashioned, NOT instant)
  • 1/2 c granulated sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/4 orange or cranberry juice 
1. Grease the pan, preheat the oven to 370 degrees (the fruit will need to bubble, but the oven need not be as hot as when you bake pie)
2. Cut up the fruit. Start with 2 cups of peeled and sliced apples and add any other fruit, including more apples. I have found that the best "stuff" always has some apple slices in the filling. I don't think this is because apples have pectin- most of the pectin is in the peel
3. Place the apples on the bottom of the pan, other fruit is piled on top of the apples
4. Prepare the crumble top by melting the butter (or margarine).  I use a 4 cup glass measuring cup, melting the butter in the microwave for about 30 seconds 
5. Add the whole wheat flour, corn meal, oatmeal, sugar and cinnamon into the measuring cup and mix. The mixture will be firm 
6. Sprinkle the crumble evenly over the fruit, the covering will be sparse
7. Pour juice over the entire mixture
8. Bake for 45-55 minutes, until the top is golden and the fruit is bubbly
9. Cool before serving, this crumble will make at least 8 servings. It's delicious by itself, but can always pair up well with ice cream, sorbet or cake. 

To store any left overs,  cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. It will keep for several days. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Lavender-Vanilla Icebox Cookies

Hurricane Sandy affected everyone's garden around here. The hurricane winds carried in a salty ocean mist and in then in combination with the cold wet spring some plants showed signs of stress this season. The lavender however, does not seem be the least bit affected; we are experiencing gorgeous lavender blooms.  The bees and other pollinators are clearly happy as are the humans that walk past the lavender and cannot help but stop to smell the musky delicious odor that permeates the air near the plantings.

I was just talking to a neighbor, a serious amateur gardener, about the lavender this year. He commented on how lavender used to be an "iffy" plant in our gardening zone, but appears to be much more reliable in the past few years. We both lamented that the plant requirements haven't changed, but rather the weather has - we are now designated as a zone 6 growing area rather than zone 5, accounting for the happier lavender. The climate change is causing angst among many of us, but the lavender appear to be taking it in stride.

This year, with the abundance of lavender flowers available in the garden,  I decided I would cut and dry some buds, make lavender sugar and try to bake some cookies. This recipe is inspired by Vanilla Bean Refrigerator Cookies, found in  Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library: Cookies & Biscotti. Recipes by Kristine Kidd, 1993; I'm pretty certain the book, a nice small compendium of cookie recipes, is out of print but available through used sources..  The cookies are faintly flavored and scented with lavender. You can increase the lavender flavor/scent by increasing the proportion of lavender sugar to unflavored sugar.

This is a basic sugar cookie that you prepare as a chilled or frozen slice and bake cookie.  It is "jazzed up" through the use of vanilla, lavender and granulated sugars.   You can simplify the process of baking these cookies by purchasing the flavored sugar ready-made, although preparing the flavored sugar by yourself is not complicated.  Both lavender and vanilla sugar are available at Wholefoods Market and on line at a number of food sites.

I've included instructions for making lavender and vanilla sugar in a separate posting. When preparing flavored sugars you'll need a few days for the sugar to cure. 

  • Obtain the flavored sugars or prepare them yourself (it will take several days for the sugar to cure and develop adequate flavor)
  • This is a straight-forward sugar cookie. You mix the dough, allow it to chill a minimum of 4-6 hours in the refrigerator (or 2-3 hours in the freezer if you are in a hurry, as I inevitably am)
  • Slice and bake as needed. The wrapped -dough will keep for at least a month in your freezer. You can unwrap, slice off a few cookies , re-wrap, place in a zip-lock freezer bag and return to the freezer 
  • Baked and cooled cookies keep for 2-3 days at room temperature, for longer storage keep covered in the refrigerator
Equipment (for the cookies): 
Mixing bowl, measuring spoons, cups, spatula  
Electronic mixer or wire whisk
Cookie sheet or jelly roll pan
Baking parchment (to line pan)
Baking parchment or waxed paper (to wrap the cookie log)
Small sharp knife (a paring knife will work) to slice the cookies from the log

*4 oz lavender sugar (for instructions on home made sugar, see related posting)
4 oz vanilla sugar 
4 oz granulated sugar 
1 stick of unsalted margarine or unsalted butter 
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten
8 oz all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder 
pinch salt (less than 1/8 of a tsp)

*For a more assertive lavender taste, increase the lavender sugar to 5 oz and reduce the granulated sugar to 3 oz.

  1. Blend the 3 sugars together. Measure off 8 oz of the sugar, set the remainder aside  
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.  The minute or so it takes to sift rather than stir the flour and baking powder together is worth it!!!! 
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter (margarine) and 8 oz sugar mixture. Continue to mix until the sugar is entirely incorporated    
  4. Add the egg and beat the mixture until fluffy 
  5. Add the flour mixture, working at the lowest speed and mixing until the ingredients are just incorporated     
  6. Take a piece of waxed paper or baking parchment and spread the remaining sugar over the surface. Place the dough on the sugar coated sheet. Form into a rough log, approximately 8 -10 inches long. Using the paper to help smooth out the log. The sugar will not completely stick to the cookie dough, but should more or less coat it. 
  7. Roll the dough up, twist the end of the paper, place on flat supporting surface (a small cutting       board for example) and chill in either the refrigerator (4-6 hours) or the freezer (2-3 hours). 

8. After the dough is firm ,preheat oven to 360 degrees 
9. Remove the roll from the refrigerator (or freezer) and unroll on a flat work surface. Much of the sugar will fall along the sides.  Press the edges of the log so that the ends are not tapering off.
10.  Using a small sharp knife, make slices approximately 1/4 thick. Press one side of the cookie into the sugar that is on the paper and place the cookie on a lined baking pan with the un-sugared side down. Space the cold dough slices about 1" apart from each other, the cookies will spread a bit while baking 

11, You do not need to slice all of the cookies at once: you can slice off as many cookies as you want to bake, re-wrap the remaining dough, place in a plastic freezer bag and freeze the remaining dough for up to one month
12, Bake in the pre-heated oven for approximately 12-14 minutes. Check progress of the baking cookies after 10 minutes. The cookies should be just golden, browning a bit along the edge, if they look like they are browning too quickly, lower the oven by 5-10 degrees. The sugar will crystallize on the top of the cookies as they cool

Cool cookies on a rack before storing in a closed container