Luscious chocolate babka bread pudding. A perfect dessert, for a Wintery weekend. (Or, really, anytime!)
By Dimity Jones
Store-bought chocolate babka cuts prep time for a luscious steamed pudding filled with nostalgia.
My mother didn’t believe in dessert. Oh, there was ice cream — the bargain-basement supermarket Neapolitan kind with the telltale pale pink and brown stripes (served with bottled caramel sauce), or maybe the occasional store-bought pie or birthday cake. But never an ooey, gooey (damn it!) sponge pudding, warm and wobbly to the touch. That came only after I left home.
Besides, steamed puddings were British, and this was the 70’s, and my mother didn’t want to be British. She wanted to be making Indian and Chinese food, and to be putting exotic nuts, and homegrown bean sprouts, and croutons fried in peanut oil into salads, for instance. In the 70’s the British were known to kill their food twice: Once when they slaughtered it, and a second time when they cooked it. My mother wanted no part of it, and as her subjects, my siblings and I went along for the ride.
But then off I went to boarding school, on a long winding train trip over mountains and into the night, to a Scottish Presbyterian school that lay in a pretty little valley. They made us wear Black Watch tartan kilts and tartan berets with pompoms on top. On the up side, though, they served steamed desserts every day, marvelous concoctions covered in hot melting jam and marooned in thick custard. That’s when I fell madly in love with bread puddings.
We would queue up outside the school dining room in our floor length wrap-around skirts that hid a multitude of sins, including bulging bellies from too much dessert. The skirts had pockets hand sewn on the inside, which we would use to sneak condiments into the dining room, and where we would also steal food out for later in the evening when we were absolutely starving again. But it was the steamed bread puddings I remember most: Dark chocolate ones the color of night, with milk chocolate sauce; sponge pudding imbedded with currants and ladled with warm vanilla custard; and dense yellow cakes overflowing with bubbly red jams.
When I later moved to New York, I would stand in line at Dean and DeLuca, the specialty food store on Broadway and Prince, like a curious child in a chocolate factory. There were fennel-flecked Finocchiona, and tall wedges of Parmesan, oily anchovies, and sweet pepper tapas, foie gras, venison rib racks… and packaged chocolate babka. For you non-Seinfeld fans who may never had heard of it — I certainly hadn’t at the time — babka is an Eastern European sweet yeast cake, folded and twisted with chocolate or cinnamon. Well, before I knew it, I was picking one up and taking it home with me. (I was not in a wrap-around skirt this time, since Dean and Deluca takes credit cards, and they even have bags to carry the stuff in.)
So it was the chocolate babka that became the starting point for a luscious steamed bread pudding of my own. When you slice the babka, it has rich rings of chocolate that help make for a wonderful flavor. The dessert is easy to make — decadence in a snap — and reminiscent of my schoolhouse puddings, wobbly with the custard that saturates it. This is a “cheater’s” chocolate bread pudding, a no-sweat method that is so simple and delicious. I always make extra custard to keep “topping it up” as it bakes. Something like basting, only you keep adding until the babka is drenched. A creamy old-school English custard and chocolate babka pudding: A bit of my New York home and a bit of my Anglo childhood. Now that’s a perfect combination.
Chocolate Babka Bread Pudding
These days I get my chocolate babka from Lilly’s Homestyle Bake Shop in Brooklyn. But no matter where you live, if you pick up a fresh babka, leave it uncovered for a day or two before using. As with any good bread pudding, a stale loaf makes for a better result. 4 to 6 servings
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla essence
4 medium eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 16oz. packaged chocolate babka
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. To make the custard, bring the milk and cream just to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add the vanilla. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until pale. Add the warm cream mixture, stirring gently. Slice the babka into half-inch slices. Dip each slice into the custard, then layer the slices in a 9 x 2 inch baking dish. Pour in enough custard until the babka is submerged. Press down and pour in more if you can. Bake for 45 minutes, or until done. Top up the dish with more custard as it soaks in, 2 or 3 times during baking. Serve warm.
Photography by Christopher Testani.
Prop styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart.
(Food styling/concept, recipe, art direction and text: Dimity Jones)