People ask me if I use cookbooks. Yes I do. I’m a voracious consumer of food information and ideas, so if a cookbook piques my interest I will browse through it to see what I can learn. Rarely do I ever make a recipe exactly. Not even with my own recipes from my own cookbooks. Cooking is a fluid mode of expression for me so I look at recipes as variations. One of my favorite cookbooks of 2012 was the Ottolenghi and Tamimi collaboration Jerusalem. It’s a gorgeous book, filled with takes on the familiar and lovely presentations of the unfamiliar. I’ve been enjoying playing with the ideas in the book. The dough recipe makes two cakes so I made the first one exactly like the book, then I filled the second cake with hazelnut paste and chocolate and formed it into a round to differentiate it. And yes, I used all the syrup called for in the recipe.
Recently I decided to honor my mom on the occasion of her birthday with some traditional Eastern European food. I was fascinated by the pictorial demo for Kranz Cakes, what most of us know as the Babka. I’d made yeasted sweet breads before but the instruction to cut the filled roulade in half vertically before braiding was new for me. I was eager to try it. So after making the Chocolate Kranz as pictured in the book I decided to break out a can of hazelnut paste I had in my pantry and try one inspired by the Italian combination of hazelnut and chocolate called gianduia. I bought the hazelnut paste in the supermarket baking aisle, but you can easily find it online and at Surfas in Culver City and Costa Mesa.
The next day I ate babka while watching this Seinfeld episode.
Kranz Cake from Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi
– 4 1/4 cups (530g) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
– 1/2 cup (100g) superfine sugar
– 2 tsp fast-rising active dry yeast
– grated zest of 1 small lemon
– 3 extra-large free-range eggs
– 1/2 cup (120ml) water
– rounded 1/4 tsp salt
– 2/3 cup (150g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
– sunflower oil, for greasing
– scant 1/2 cup (50g) confectioner’s sugar
– 1/3 cup (30g) best-quality cocoa powder
– 4 1/2 oz (130g) good-quality dark chocolate, melted
– 1/2 cup (120g) unsalted butter, melted
– 1 cup (100g) pecans, coarsely chopped
– 2 tbsp superfine sugar
Syrup (enough to cover both cakes)
– 2/3 cup (160 ml) water
– 1 1/4 cups (260g) superfine sugar
For the dough, place the flour, sugar, yeast, and lemon zest in a stand mixer with the dough hook and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the eggs and water and mix on low speed for a few seconds, then increase the speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes, until the dough comes together. Add the salt and then start adding the butter, a few cubes at a time, mixing until it is incorporated into the dough. Continue mixing for about 10 minutes on medium speed, until the dough is completely smooth, elastic, and shiny. During the mixing, you will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times and throw a small amount of flour onto the sides so that all of the dough leaves them.
Place the dough in a large bowl brushed with sunflower oil, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight.
Grease two 2 1/4-lb loaf pans with some sunflower oil and line the bottom of each pan with a piece of waxed paper. Divide the dough in half and keep one-half covered in the fridge.
Make the filling by mixing together the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate, and butter. You will get a spreadable paste. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle measuring 15 by 11 inches. Trim the sides to make them even, then position the dough so that the long side is closest to you. Use an offset spatula to spread half the chocolate mixture over the rectangle, leaving a 3/4-inch border all around. Sprinkle half the pecans on top of the chocolate, then sprinkle over half the superfine sugar.
Brush a little bit of water along the long end farthest away from you. Use both hands to roll up the rectangle like a roulade, starting from the long side that is closest to you and ending at the other long end. Press to seal the dampened end onto the roulade and then use both hands to even out the roll into a perfect thick cigar. Rest the cigar on its seam.
Trim about 3/4 inch off both ends of the roulade with a serrated knife. Now use the knife to gently cut the roll into half lengthwise, starting at the top and finishing at the seam. You are essentially dividing the log into two long even halves, with layers of dough and filling visible along the length of both halves. With the cut sides facing up, gently press together one end of each half, and then lift the right half over the left half. Repeat this process, but this time lift the left half over the right, to create a simple, two-pronged plait. Gently squeeze together the other ends so that you are left with the two halves, intertwined, showing the filling on top. Carefully lift the cake into a loaf pan. Cover the pan with a wet tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The cake will rise by 10 to 20 percent. Repeat the whole process to make the second cake.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, making sure you allow plenty of time for it to heat fully before the cakes have finished rising. Remove the tea towels, place the cakes on the middle rack of the oven, and bake for about 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
While the cakes are in the oven, make the syrup. Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the sugar dissolves, remove from the heat and leave to cool down. As soon as the cakes come out of the oven, brush all of the syrup over them. It is important to use up all the syrup. Leave cakes until they are just warm, then remove from the pans and let cool completely before serving.