This white chocolate cardamom babka boasts layers upon layers of soft, sweet dough filled with sweet twists of cardamom-flecked white chocolate–a perfect accompaniment to an afternoon cup of coffee.
I met Alex Shimshon at a Christmas party a few months ago when everybody was gushing over the soft, doughy pretzels she’d baked to share. We fell easily into conversation, trading stories about sourdough bread, croissants, and motherhood. I quickly became smitten with her passion for baking, her unrelenting love of bread, and her warm, inviting personality. At the time we spoke, Alex was making sourdough croissants for the bakery she was working at and I couldn’t think of anything cooler.
I loved talking with her, in part, because we shared some similar history (we both attended the same culinary school) and in part, because our stories were so vastly different from one another’s. I’m a Canadian-born Polish girl who grew up in a family-owned restaurant and she’s a recent Israeli immigrant with a burgeoning career in the pastry world. But anytime anybody wants to talk to me about inspired and thoughtful food, a friendship is sure to bloom. When I’m in my element of cooking and baking at home, one of the areas I gravitate toward immersing myself in is Middle Eastern/Israeli cuisine. Since the rise of Ottolenghi’s Plenty (and many more thereafter) it has opened a door to a ferocious desire to learn about Middle Eastern cuisine. (Perhaps I’m a cliché, but the moment you open an Ottolenghi book, you’ll also quickly become a convert.)
It is for these reasons that I wanted to get to know her better, to share her story, and to share her work with you. So we got to talking and it turns out that one of her favourite recipes is for babka (or babka cake, as she calls it). This white chocolate cardamom babka is her favourite yet, and once you try it, you’ll absolutely know why. Smooth, velvety white chocolate, flecks of aromatic cardamom, woven into billowy sweet dough–it’s a match made in… Israel. And now, here in Canada. Read a little more about my interview with Alex and get the recipe below:
Kris: Why did you decide to become a pastry chef?
Alex: The pastry world always attracted me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was. When my husband and I move from Israel to Canada, in the summer of 2013, I decided that it was a perfect opportunity for me to have a career change. Back in Israel, I worked in public relations but I didn’t feel that this is the right spot for me. As soon as I started the Baking and Pastry program at George Brown College, I felt that I belonged in the pastry and culinary world.
Now I know, I simply love making food whether it’s sweet or savoury. I enjoy seeing people’s’ smiles when they bite into my baked goods. And on a personal level, I also find it to be very therapeutic and very social–food brings people together.
Kris: What or who are your influences when it comes to baking?
Alex: I am inspired by Israeli, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines, as well as European patisseries. I have travelled a lot and draw inspiration from those culinary trips. There are a few pastry chefs that I consider to be my main influences nowadays. One of them is Uri Scheft from Breads Bakery, an Israeli bakery that became very successful in NYC. Elisabeth Prueitt from Tartine Bakery, in San Fransisco, is another idol of mine. And last but not least is Joanna Yolles, my very first instructor at GBC. These three chefs are quite different in what they are doing, but I take a little bit from each.
On top of that, I really enjoy Israeli food bloggers like Efrat Lichtenstadt and this babka filling was based on her recipe.
Kris: What defines Israeli baking to you?
Alex: Israeli baking, as I see it, is a combination of local Middle Eastern ingredients and French pastry techniques and standards. The combination of these two brings elegance and rusticness into perfect balance.
Kris: For readers who want to bake more Middle Eastern or Israeli dishes, do you have any resources to recommend to include more middle Eastern Israeli flavours in their baking?
Alex: Sure! For those who want to get into Israeli baking, I highly recommend Uri Scheft’s book Breaking Breads. It’s a very detailed, step-by-step cookbook that showcases both sweet and savoury baking. It’s my favourite right now. For more modern Middle Eastern baking and cooking, my go-tos are Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi and The Palestinian Table by Reem Kassis. Both books are very friendly to people who are new to this cuisine.
Kris: Along the same line, what specific ingredients would you recommend our readers explore if they want to delve into Middle Eastern/Israeli baking?
Tahini! Also known as sesame butter is so healthy and delicious and it can be used both in cooking and baking. There are endless recipes for tahini cookies. Tahini is also a natural thickener that can replace eggs in baking for vegans.
Olive oil, of course! Spices include cumin, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika.
I also love to use dates (whole, paste, or as a syrup) as a pastry filling or as natural sweetener.
Kris: How did you come up with this recipe? Tell me why you love this flavour combination?
Alex: Babkas are very popular in Israel. Every bakery carries them, especially on the weekends. They’re the perfect match for your coffee on Saturday morning. Typical babka would be filled with chocolate or poppyseed paste.
In my white chocolate and cardamom recipe, I gave a twist to the standard flavours. What was guiding me is that I love flavour combinations that make you stop and think of them as you eat. I love it when you take a bite and the flavours continue to develop in your mouth. For example, sweets that aren’t just sweet but have layers of flavour that reveal themselves on your pallet as you continue to eat them. This babka filling has those qualities: the white chocolate gets caramelized on the outside and gives some depth to the chocolate flavour. Gentle hints of cardamom add another layer to the bouquet, and the texture of the dough is soft on the inside and a bit crunchy on the outside. It’s a beautiful combination.
Kris: If people want to know morePrint
This white chocolate and cardamom babka reveals layers of sweet, airy dough filled with twists of cardamom-flecked white chocolate–a perfect accompaniment to an afternoon cup of coffee.
For the Dough
- 120 g / ½ cup room temperature milk
- ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
- 6 g / 2 tsp active dry yeast
- 500 g / 4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 75 g / ⅓ cup sugar
- Large pinch of salt
- 80 g / 6 tbsp room temperature butter
For the Chocolate Filling
- 500 g white chocolate cut into pieces
- 1600 g / 12 tbsp room temperature butter
- 3 tsp cardamom
For the Simple Syrup
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
For the Dough
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix together vanilla and milk. Mix the yeast into the milk and then add flour, eggs, sugar, salt, and butter in small pinches.
- With a dough hook, mix all the ingredients together on low speed. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, as needed. If the dough is very dry add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. If the dough looks too wet, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together. This should take about 5 minutes.
- Increase the speed to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 7-10 minutes.
- Transfer dough to work surface and, using your hands, gently shape into a smooth ball. Place dough into a clean bowl and cover the bowl with a wet towel. Set it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- After this short rest period, press the dough into a 1-inch thick rectangle. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours before proceeding.
For the Chocolate Filling
- Shortly before rolling out the dough, make the chocolate filling by melting all of the ingredients over double boiler.
For the Simple Syrup
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat and set the syrup aside to cool.
Assembly and Baking
- You have 2 options: You can divide the dough and freeze one for later or proceed with recipes as is. This recipe is enough for two loaves of babka.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease two loaf pans. Place a sling of parchment paper across the width of each.
- Unwrap the cold babka dough and set it on a lightly-floured work surface (you need at least 4 feet of workspace). Roll the dough into a 9×24-inch rectangle (it should be just about 1/4 inch thick). If the dough starts to spring back, it means that it needs to rest. Let it rest for 5 minutes before trying again.
- Spread the chocolate filling evenly over the dough, leaving a one-inch border at the edges.
- Working from the top edge, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Then, holding the cylinder at the ends, lift and stretch it slightly to make it even tighter and longer.
- Using a sharp knife slice the cylinder in half lengthwise so you have 2 long pieces, and set them with the chocolate layers exposed up. Divide the pieces crosswise in half, creating 4 equal-length strips.
- Take two strips and overlap one strip on top of another to make an X, making sure the exposed chocolate part of the dough faces up. Twist the ends together so you have at least 2 twists on each side of the X. Now that you have this twisted braid, bring the two ends together, you can place it into the prepared pan, exposed chocolate–side up. Cover the pan with wet towel and repeat with the other pieces of dough.
- Set the pan aside in a warm place and let the dough rise 2 to 3 hours, depending on how warm your room is. Dough should spring back when pressed.
- Place babkas in the oven and bake until dark brown and baked through, about 35-40 minutes. Check on it halfway through. If the babka is getting too dark, tent it loosely with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil.
- Remove the babkas from the oven, and while they are still hot, brush the surface generously with cooled simple syrup.
The recipe makes enough for two loaves of babka. You can divide the prepared dough and freeze one for later or proceed with recipes as is. If you are only baking one loaf, you’ll want to half the white chocolate cardamom filling, as well.
Don’t forgo the simple syrup. It makes the top of the babkas shiny and beautiful and also locks in the moisture so the cake doesn’t dry out. You may not need to use all the syrup—save any extra for sweetening iced coffee or tea.
If you’re looking for another babka recipe, this hazelnut and vanilla bean one is as easy as it is delicious.