Happy Thanksgivukkah!: Thanksgiving Babka

Five years ago when I volunteered to bring some baked goods to a party with a "Jewish New York" theme, one of the organizers suggested a babka as an option. I didn't seriously consider that idea for even a second. Not only had I never tasted a babka in my entire life, but I avoided yeasted breads like the plague. Fast forward to this Thanksgiving and I had still never tasted a babka, but I now feel a lot more confident working with yeast -- and when I saw a photo of a cranberry Thanksgiving Babka in the Washington Post, I knew immediately that I wanted to give the recipe a try.

To make the dough, you proof some yeast with water and sugar, and then add in more sugar, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, butter, canola oil, egg, and an egg white (the recipe calls for margarine, but I used butter instead). You beat the ingredients until everything is incorporated, and then let the dough rise for an hour.

While the dough rises, you make the cranberry filling by cooking dried and fresh cranberries with cranberry juice and sugar; and then adding apricot preserves, orange zest, fresh orange juice and allspice.

You divide the dough into two pieces and roll out each piece into a 12-inch by 14-inch rectangle. I found this dough extremely difficult to work with. Although it had definitely risen substantially before I rolled it, I had to roll it very thin to get it to the specified size. And because the dough has canola oil in it, it was oily and felt really strange. In any case, I spread each rolled piece of dough with a mixture of butter and brown sugar, followed by cranberry filling.

I rolled up each piece of dough, but this was comically difficult. Because the dough was so thin, it was completely floppy, and I really had to fight with the dough to get it to do what I wanted without getting it stretched out of shape or having cranberry filling spill out everywhere. When I finally managed to get my two rolls of dough, twisting the two rolls together was the hardest part; they were both pretty fragile. Somehow, I managed to get the job done and move the (still very floppy) twisted rolls into a pan.
I put the babka in a large greased loaf pan; it was 10.5 inches long -- I didn't have an 11- or 12-inch long pan as specified in the recipe, but my pan worked out just fine. After getting a brushing of egg yolk, I popped the pan in the oven and crossed my fingers.

The loaf came out very dark, and it didn't rise that much. I let the babka rest for a bit before I cut into it and tried a warm slice -- I really liked it! There was a lot of tart cranberry flavor, and although the bread portion was not terribly flavorful, it was moist and the babka overall was tasty. If I hadn't made the loaf and tried a piece blindfolded, I might have thought this was a quick bread; the crumb was not particularly light.

I was unable to prevent some cranberry filling from seeping out of the rolled dough and into the bottom of the pan, but this turned out to be fortuitous, because the caramelized bits of cranberry along the edges of the pan were delicious.

The best thing about this bread was was beautiful cranberry swirl visible in every slice. I have to say that it's difficult for me to judge how well this turned out, since I'm not familiar with the ideal taste or texture for a babka. But I do know that a slice of this cranberry babka was the perfect way to kick off Thanksgiving!

Recipe: "Thanksgiving Babka" by Paula Shoyer, printed in the November 20, 2013 Washington Post.