We can all agree that extreme Christmas cookie-ing is a bonafide sport. Humble spritz cookies and ordinary gingerbread folks can’t hold a candle to painterly sugar cookies that are downright museum worthy. While equally deserving of royal icings, glitter-sugar, disco-dust, and dragées, Hanukkah boasts a much smaller repertoire. Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels, presents and faux gelt round out our options. We are limited to blues and whites, a little silver, a trace of gold. Hanukkah cookies outfitted in Christmas Red or Holly Green are Cookie Glamour Don’ts.
Instead, we commemorate the Festival of Lights with oil-based celebratory foods such as potato latkes served with applesauce, or doughnuts, known as Soufganiot. Filled with jelly or tossed in sugar, doughnuts hot out of a pool of sizzling oil announce celebration. One of the things worth celebrating (in addition to the miracle of an oil lamp burning for eight days) is that doughnut dough is relatively easy to make. It can rise overnight in the refrigerator, warm up on the counter in less than an hour, and then allow itself to be pinched and fried. The dough is also ideal for making Babka, a twisted yeast bread filled with chocolate, nuts, and occasionally fruit. For anyone preferring a non-dairy sweet, the dough can be prepared with warm water instead of milk, and non-dairy shortening can be used in place of butter in the filling.
Just barely recovering from post Thanksgiving Pie Disorder Syndrome, I couldn’t face another pie plate this week. Embarking on a brief pie-atus and Babka journey led me to a mash-up of many things sweet. This included the last of the Thanksgiving sweet potatoes and a few flavor cues borrowed from brisket’s traditional side-dish tzimmes. (For those unfamiliar, tzimmes combines sweet root vegetables with dried fruits and warm spices.) With Chet Baker pouring sweet as honey out of the Sonos speaker, time coaxing yeast dough into Babka is time well spent.
Many yeast risen doughs favor the addition of potato puree to help create a moist dough with a soft texture. Sweet potato puree proved totally compatible with a classic yeast doughnut dough enhanced with orange zest, cardamom, and a pinch of cayenne. Always looking for a reason to eat copious amounts of dried fruit and dark chocolate, the filling is a tangle of both. Two plump, chocolate-swirled, fruit studded loaves later, I officially declare that the next holiday is not only in the kitchen, it’s in full swing.
Babka was once something entrusted to flour-dusted grandmothers or weary early morning bakers. It is now so mainstream that you can find it wedged alongside pedestrian loaves in Trader Joe’s bread aisle and featured prominently in every holiday food mandate. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Mrs. Claus, evergreen with Babka envy, has asked Santa for a lovely chocolate-swirled holiday yeast bread this year. Stick with me, Mrs. Claus, and leave that well-worn tin of spritz cookies for those trouble-making children on the naughty list.