A little over a month ago, I finished the fabulous book The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor. O’Connor tells the true story behind the painting of Adele Block-Bauer by Gustav Klimt – his famous golden portrait, named Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, which now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York – and its restitution to the Bloch-Bauer family. The book follows the timeline from the end of the nineteenth century, when Gustav Klimt and his fellow Secessionist painters were making a great splash in Vienna’s high society, through the horrors of World War II, into the post-Holocaust fate of the gilded painting of Adele. The entire book was enthralling, mostly due to Ms. O’Connor’s attention to every last sumptuous historical detail that makes the history come alive. One detail, in particular, caught my eye more than any other: the description of Gustav Klimt’s luxurious breakfast: “every morning Klimt downed strong coffee and enormous breakfast. ‘Whipped cream played a major role,’ along with Gugelhopf, a rich cake of rum, raisins, and cherries in the shape of a Turkish turban, recalled the painter Carl Moll, who sat at the open-air table with Klimt and their fellow artists, plotting the future of Austrian art” (p. 7). Definitely a breakfast worthy of a great artist.
Not only does this description sound so good (rum, raisins, cherries, whipped cream – need I say more?) but it also struck me that O’Connor’s re-telling of this history should include such a singular gastronomic detail. Her mention of Klimt’s breakfast, though, works to highlight the ways that beautiful rich foods like gugelhopf were as symbolic of their time as were Vienna’s groundbreaking artists. Luxurious, over-the-top dishes like gugelhopf, eaten as they were for the first meal of the day, reflect exactly the values of wealth that were important not only to fashionable, rebellious artists like Klimt, but also to the social class of late 19th century Vienna that patronized them. As O’Connor explains, that social class was none other than the Jewish bourgeoisie; and this enlightened Viennese Jewish upper middle class often sat alongside artists like Klimt enjoying the rich, fruit-studded gugelhopf. The cake itself symbolizes the social mores, hierarchies, and tastes of the time – which, as O’Connor demonstrates in the book, were mostly being dictated by the wealthy Viennese Jewish nouveau riche.
Okay, you say, we get it – gugelhopf symbolizes late 19th century Viennese society. But what does this bourgeois gugelhopf have to do with the homely babka? As shown by the abundance of those chocolate-swirled rectangular chocolate breakfast loaves popularized by food purveyors like Zabar’s, the United States Jewish community has always had a love affair with the yeasty pastry known as babka, so there's the jewish connection. On further digging, however, it turns out that gugelhopf is simply the Austrian version of the beloved babka. This article from Tania Ralli in the Chicago Tribune sums it up perfectly: “whether you call it kugelhopf, kougelhopf, gugelhopf, kouglof or any of the other names this shapely cake goes by across Central Europe, it is the same slightly sweet, light, yeast bread”; to riff on Shakespeare: babka by any other name would taste as sweet, whether that name begins with a k or a g.
It also turns out that both babka and gugelhopf – whichever name you choose to call this delicious breakfast pastry – share a tendency towards the aesthetic. While, as Gil Marks explains, the “venerable non-Jewish version [of babka], baked in a ‘Turk’s head pan’ (a scalloped-edged tube pan that resembles a turban) is similar in texture (spongy) and shape (tall and cylindrical) to an Alsation kugelhopf” the name of gugelhopf’s more homely, Polish sister, babka “literally meaning ‘grandma’s cake’…was derived because cake’s tall, fluted sides, formed in a traditional Polish pan, were reminiscent of an old woman’s skirt, and/or because grandmother’s were the primary bakers of this treat” (p. 32). Here we can see that even the creation and names of these pastries prioritize a certain look – in particular one that’s symbolic of the time and place they come from: for gugelhopf, that place is the elite cafes of imperial Vienna, and for babka, it’s the kitchens of Polish-Jewish grandmothers. In that way, though these two yeasted breads share a great deal in common, especially their connection to the jewish community, it becomes clear that each pastry also represents the two very different realities of these contemporaneous Jewish communities.
In that way, both the babka and the gugelhopf visually represent the realities the Jewish communities that prepared them: the homely, comforting babka demonstrating the struggle of lower-class Polish Jews in the harsh shtetl while with the stately gugelhopf, towering with whipped cream, reinforces the comfort and pleasures of the assimilated, bourgeois Viennese Jews. Each are a lesson in how the food we eat, even through its appearance, can reveal who we are and how we live, even as we consider ourselves part of a single community.
So, I thought it would only be a fitting tribute to the multiple meanings of sweetened, yeasted breads and its Klimt connection to whip up my take on the babka, one that both the techniques and aesthetic tendencies of babka and gugelhopf in two yeasted loaves, swirled with apricot filling and studded with streusel. I like to think of it as a golden tribute to the golden lady – as well as to the different experiences of Jewish communities around Eastern Europe at the time. And it’s perhaps an even more delicious tribute if eaten with a strong cup of Viennese coffee while staring at the golden lady herself.
Apricot Streusel Babka
The recipe for this babka uses the dough from Yotam Ottolenghi's fabulous chocolate krantz cake recipe (improved upon and put into US measurements here by Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen) and the filing from this great Apricot Almond Linzer Torte from Gourmet magazine a few years back. The introduction to the linzer torte recipe, funnily enough, also mentions Vienna as the recipe's inspiration. And as Deb Perelman sums up so well in her blog post on the cakes: it's always kind of a mess. But don't worry, even though these loaves look a little shaggy, they always come out delicious. And they are certainly worth the effort, even though they are a multi-day affair (to let the dough rise long enough). My word of advice: make sure to use the dough attachment on a stand mixer in order to mix the dough for the full 10 minutes it needs; this is not a recipe to rush, because then the babkas will lose out on height and airiness. They're great for breakfast and even better around 4 pm with coffee.
4 1/4 cups (530 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons rapid rise or instant yeast
Grated zest of 1 small lemon (lime would also work nicely here!)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup water (cold is fine) and up to 1 to 2 tablespoons extra, if needed
3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (150 grams or 5.3 ounces) at room temperature
Vegetable or other neutral oil, for greasing
2 cups water
1 1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup brandy or cognac
16 oz. Pacific apricots (I use the California plate variety from Trader Joe's)
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
generous pinch of salt
For the dough: Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer. Add eggs and 1/2 cup water, mixing with the dough hook until it comes together; this may take a couple minutes. It’s okay if it’s on the dry side, but if it doesn’t come together at all, add extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass. With the mixer on low, add the salt, then the butter, a spoonful at a time, mixing until it’s incorporated into the dough. Then, mix on medium speed for 10 minutes until dough is completely smooth; you’ll need to scrape the bowl down a few times. I usually found that after 10 minutes, the dough began to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it doesn’t, you can add 1 tablespoon extra flour to help this along.
Coat a large bowl with oil (or scrape the dough out onto a counter and oil this one) and place dough inside, cover with plastic and refrigerate. Leave in fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight.
For the filling: Simmer water, sugar, brandy, and apricots in a small saucepan, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until apricots are tender and liquid is syrupy, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer mixture to cleaned food processor and pulse until almost smooth. Spread mixture onto a plate and chill until 15 minutes before you're ready to use it.
For the streusel: Mix sugars, flour, and salt in a bowl with a mixer on low speed. Once combined, add the butter and mix on medium speed until the mixture forms pea-sized clumps.
Assembling the loaves: Coat two 9-by-4-inch (2 1/4 or 1kg) loaf pans with oil or butter, and line the bottom of each with a rectangle of parchment paper. Take half of dough from fridge (leave the other half chilled). Roll out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches.
Spread half of apricot mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log. Sprinkle filling with 1/8 cup of sugar, if you'd like. Repeat with second dough.
Trim last 1/2-inch off each end of log. Gently cut the log in half lengthwise and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. Pinch the top ends gently together. Lift one side over the next, forming a twist and trying to keep the cut sides facing out. It will look messy but don't worry - after the loaves rise they will look fine.
Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise another 1 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. Repeat process with second loaf.
Heat oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove towels. Sprinkle place each loaf with half of the streusel mixture and place them on the middle rack of your oven. Bake for 30 minutes. A skewer inserted into an underbaked babka will feel stretchy/rubbery inside and may come back with dough on it. When fully baked, you’ll feel almost no resistance. If you babka needs more time, put it back, 5 minutes at a time then re-test. If it browns too quickly, you can cover it with foil. The streusel may cook a touch faster than the loaves as well, so don't be alarmed if you smell the streusel but the inside of the babka isn't fully cooked through: simply place a piece of tin foil on the loaves and let them bake for as long as they need. When they are done the streusel should be golden brown and if you tap the bottom of the babka it should sound hollow.
The babkas keep for several days at room temperature, or if you prefer, they freeze well and keep for about a month.