Sweet Potato Babka

Lots of people have been getting into bread making during the quarantine period and whether it’s sourdough, making bread rolls or learning to make bread, it’s been great to see everyone get into baking. But of course with that came a huge shortage of flour. I wanted to bake bread like everyone else but didn’t feel like using up my last bit of bread flour until I knew it would be easier for me to access. Now I’ve been able to find some regularly, I decided to get back into bread baking and my experimental side is coming out again with an unconventional twist on a traditional enriched bread, this is my Sweet Potato Babka!

Babkas are an incredibly popular bake made from a yeasted dough and a filling. The babka is finished with a drizzle of syrup after it comes out of the oven which gives it a sticky glazed effect as well as making the bread even softer and moist. The trademark of a babka is how it is shaped; the dough is rolled up with the filling and cut down the middle lengthways to give two portions of dough which are braided together and baked in a loaf tin. It is this shaping process that is a hard process for this particular recipe as the sweet potato filling has a tendency to leak out when you braid the dough and the dough is really soft too, which is because I use the tangzhong method for my dough.

I chose to revisit the tangzhong method for my babka, which I used to make my Chinese Tear and Share Buns as well as my Sweet Potato and Taro Buns. Tangzhong is a paste made by cooking out flour with water or milk which is added to the dough. Because the flour has gelatinised and absorbed the liquid, this liquid is trapped in the mixture which gives the final bread a higher moisture content. It is commonly used in Asian breads and it makes the final bread super soft and fluffy. I have found that the tangzhong method gives a dough that is easier to work with and is not that difficult to make either.

For the tangzhong:

  • 30g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml cold water
  • 25ml runny honey

For the bread dough:

  • 420g strong white bread flour
  • 7g fast action dried yeast
  • 25g granulated sugar
  • 7g table salt
  • 1 large egg
  • About 100ml warm water
  • 40g margarine or very soft unsalted butter

For the sweet potato filling:

  • About 400g sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
  • 25g soft light brown sugar
  • 50ml sweetened condensed milk
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of mixed spice

For the syrup:

  • 100g granulated sugar
  • 75ml water

To make the tangzhong, mix together the flour and water in a small saucepan until there are no lumps. Place over a medium heat and cook until it has thickened to a paste, stirring constantly to prevent lumps forming. Leave the tangzhong to cool while you prepare the other ingredients (see next step). Once prepped, add in the honey to the tangzhong and stir until combined. Add 50ml of the warm water for the bread dough, stirring until smooth.

In a mixing bowl, add in the strong white bread flour. Place the yeast to one side of the bowl, the sugar and salt to another side of the bowl. Use your finger to mix them into the flour nearby and make a well in the centre. Add the egg into the well and use a spoon or your fingers to beat the egg, gradually incorporating more flour as you mix. Open the well up more and pour in the tangzhong mixture as well as a splash of the remaining water. Gradually bring everything together into a rough raggedy dough. Turn out the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough together until it forms a dough that is soft, smooth and workable but not sticky. This should take around 3 to 4 minutes. Flatten out the dough slightly.

Spread the margarine or unsalted butter on top of the dough and fold the dough on top of itself and continue to knead the dough, incorporating the margarine evenly, adding more flour when the dough becomes sloppy and hard to handle. The dough has been kneaded enough when you shape the dough into a ball and you press a lightly floured finger in and it springs back – it should take a good 5 minutes of kneading once the fat has been fully incorporated. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover with clingfilm and leave to prove until doubled in size, about one hour on a warm day.

Meanwhile prepare the sweet potato filling. Steam the sweet potato cubes for around 15 to 20 minutes or until a knife easily inserts into the sweet potato. Leave the sweet potato to cool slightly before weighing out 300g into a large mixing bowl and using a masher or a fork to mash the sweet potatoes. You can use a processor for this step but I like to keep some texture in the filling. Whisk in the sugar, spices and condensed milk until the filling is evenly mixed. Set aside uncovered to cool down until required.

When the dough has proved, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for 1 minute to knock back and then roll out the dough into a large rectangle measuring 9 inches by 14 inches, trimming off any excess if required (these can be used to make individual babkas). Spread the sweet potato filling into an even layer, leaving a small border around the edge. Roll up the dough from the longest side to form a tight spiral and then use a knife to trim the log down the middle lengthways.

Place the two pieces of dough cut side upwards in a cross and braid the dough by alternating the pieces. Tuck the edges together and carefully lift the shaped babka into a 25cm loaf tin which has been well greased and lined with a strip of baking parchment along the long edges which hangs over the edge, squashing the dough slightly to make the babka fit in the loaf pan. Cover the babka with clingfilm and leave to prove for about 45 minutes or until the babka has risen.

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. When the babka has proved, brush the surface lightly with milk and bake the babka for around 35 to 40 minutes until the surface has turned a rich golden brown and a skewer inserted into the deepest part of the loaf comes out clean.

While the babka is baking, prepare the syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved. Once the babka has baked, brush the syrup liberally over the babka. You won’t need to use it all but the surface should look well glazed afterwards. Allow the babka to cool fully for at least 2 hours in the tin so it can absorb the syrup well. Once the babka is completely cool, lift it out from the tin using the parchment and use a sharp knife to slice into the babka.

The babka should be stored in an airtight container and will keep for around 3 to 4 days.

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