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What is babka?
Babka is a traditional Eastern European Jewish sweet bread, typically filled with chocolate or cinnamon. In Romania we call it ‘cozonac’ and it’s pretty much the country’s staple dessert for all holidays. The Romanian cozonac is slightly different from the Jewish babka. The cozonac texture is much softer, and the brioche is made from two pleats (rather than one cut in two halves).
My family has passed on the traditional cozonac recipe through generations. This recipe is a hybrid of the soft, Romanian cozonac, and the pleating type of the babka.
How to make a delicious Christmas milk bread
The sweet bread consists of two parts, both equally as important: the milk dough and the filling. The yeasted dough is crucial, as it’s the base for our brioche. The dough needs to be fragrant and incredibly fluffy to get the full experience of Cozonac.
Making a babka is quite simple, but it does require a bit of patience. To make this recipe, we will need to:
- Make the dough
- Fill the dough with strawberries & cream
- Roll up the dough
- Cut dough into 2 halves
- Pleat the dough and place into tin
- Bake and decorate
The dough is very similar to the one I used for the chocolate sweet milk brioche.
Flour – this is a very important choice, as it can make or break your Cozonac. In Romania you can buy flour made specifically for Cozonac, but anywhere else you can get Type 000 white cake flour. This means that the flour is extra fine, and will result in a supple and fluffy dough.
Yeast – fresh yeast is the best choice for this recipe, as it tends to be more reliable. I store mine in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for 2 months. Make sure to leave the yeast at room temperature for a few hours before starting on this recipe for the optimal activation.
Instant or fast action dry yeast can also be used, and the ratio is usually around 1:3 – you need 15g of dry yeast for 50g of fresh yeast.
Filling – Traditionally, babka is filled with either chocolate or cinnamon. For this reinvented recipe, I am using a strawberries and cream filling. The filling doesn’t need any preparation in advance, and only requires cream cheese and strawberry jam.
Decorating the Christmas wreath
After baking the sweet bread, ensure it has around 20 minutes to cool in the tin. Afterwards, remove it and let it cool on a wire rack, whilst covered with a thin towel. Since we will be decorating the bread with cream cheese, it’s crucial it’s completely chilled beforehand.
If you’ve read my blog before, you know how much I love decorating my bakes! For this Christmas brioche I chose to make it look like a festive wreath. To do this, I used cream cheese frosting, gingerbread cookies, sugared cranberries & rosemary, as well as chocolate baubles. For the baubles, I used Lindt chocolates covered in gold lustre dust for some extra sparkle.
Serving and storing
The best way to serve your babka is fresh, once it’s had enough time to chill. It’s best you decorate it before serving, as the sweet bread will become hard if left uncovered in the fridge.
You can also make the brioche beforehand, and store it in the fridge before decorating. To do this, simply let it cool completely after baking, then cover fully in cling film. Store for up to 2-3 days in the fridge, then decorate before serving.
Once decorated, I recommend you try to eat most of it, or store individual slices in airtight containers. This will avoid the bread drying out in the fridge.
Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy your babka with a healthy helping of Baileys Strawberries & Cream.
Strawberry Babka Wreath
- 500 g cake flour (4 cups)
- 7 g instant dry yeast* (1 satchel)
- 40 g milk, warm (8 tsp)
- 40 g Baileys Strawberries & Cream* (8 tsp)
- 100 g sugar (½ cup)
- 2 eggs, medium
- 30 g butter, softened (2 tbsp)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 lemon zest
- 1 orange zest
- 7 g salt (1 tsp)
- 1 tbsp sour cream
- 220 g cream cheese (1 cup)
- 220 g strawberry jam (1 cup)
- 100 g sugar (½ cup)
- 100 g water (½ cup)
- First, we need to prepare the yeasted dough ‘starter’. In a small bowl add the yeast and 2 tsp of sugar. Mix with a fork. Add in the warm milk and mix well.
- Add 2 tsp of flour and mix well until you get a sticky paste. Set aside and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
- In a large bowl add the eggs, salt, the rest of the sugar. Mix well until the eggs become light and airy.
- After your yeasted dough ‘starter’ has proved and doubled in size, add it to the egg mixture. Mix well with wooden spoon or spatula.
- Add in the lemon and orange zest. This will give a wonderful fragrance to your babka. Mix well to incorporate.
- Add in the sour cream, Baileys and the rest of the flour, mixing to incorporate well. We need it to be a little sticky, but do not over-mix.
- Once the flour is properly incorporated, start kneading it on your work surface. Once the dough becomes less sticky, add half of the softened butter. Knead well, folding the dough in on itself to incorporate the fat. Only mix in the remaining butter once the first chunk has been fully incorporated.
- In order to stretch the dough, gently reach under your dough and pull it over, folding it onto itself. Be careful not to rip the dough, and do slow, steady movements.
- Once the fats have been incorporated, cover with cling film and a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to prove. Let the dough prove for 30-45 minutes or until it doubles in size.
- When the dough has risen nicely, deflate it with your palms. Afterwards, roll out the dough to a rectangle roughly 60 x 40cm (24 x 15 inches). Spread a thin layer of cream cheese over the dough, followed by a thin layer of strawberry jam.
- Start rolling the dough on the longer side, ensuring the filling is tucked inside. Then, with a sharp knife cut the roll in half lengthwise. Place one half on top of the other in a cross sign, then start twisting each half around each other. Once you reach the end, pinch the dough to seal together.
- Scoop your hands under each side to lift up, then place the braided babka in a Bundt cake tin. This will ensure you get a perfectly round shape.
- Cover the babka loosely with cling film, then let prove for 30 minutes until it doubles in size. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
- With a fork, quickly whip up the egg yolks with a dash of milk. Using a pastry brush, cover the babka with the egg wash. This will give it a lovely shine.
- Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with aluminium foil to prevent the top from burning. Bake for a further 25 minutes until done. Depending on your oven, you might need more or less time – please check with a skewer to see if they’re done.
- Prepare a quick sugar syrup by heating up equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan. Cook until the liquid gets a little thicker. Once the babka is baked, poke some holes into it with a tall skewer, then pour some Baileys Strawberries & Cream over it. Brush the top with some sugar syrup to give it a good shine.
- Let cool in the tray for 30 minutes before removing. Once cooled, decorate with some cream, sugared cranberries and rosemary or other edible treats.
- I recommend using a kitchen scale in grams for more accuracy. The cups used for the conversion are standard US customary cups (1 cup flour = 136g). There are many different types of cups across the globe, which is why I strongly recommend using grams instead.
- Instant dry yeast – can also be replaced with fresh yeast in approximately 3x quantity (7g dry yeast = 25g fresh yeast).
- Baileys Strawberry & Cream – can be replaced with any other type of Irish Cream or strawberry liqueur.
- Storing – wrap in cling film and store in the fridge for up to 5 days. Decorate with cream cheese before serving.