What do you do when the world feels slightly off-kilter? Some days the ground seems less steady under my feet. Things I take for granted don't appear. Big things: people get sick, the newspaper is covered in sad stories. Little things: I pull a muscle and can't run for three days, my roof leaks, travel plans go awry.
Just as it's the little things that make life lovely, it's the little ones that spring up, quietly, to rock you. Too many small tilts off center, and life starts to feel tricky and hard to maneuver. The subconscious track your mind smoothly follows with regularity, that of a normal daily routine and expectations of the future, gets twisted and veers off onto dimly lit, unknown side paths.
It's important to have a touchstone. Something to anchor me when I feel unmoored or adrift. Being in a big city oddly has the opposite effect you'd expect when surrounded by people: Rather than community, you feel a painful and acute loneliness when you're wrapped up in your own particular and singular sadness.
For me, the luckiest and best part of the city is that one block away lives one of my sisters. It's close enough to run over in pajamas, close enough to go from phone call to linked arms in under 5 minutes, and close enough to feel like we inhabit a tiny slice of home.
Today, after a particularly fraught morning, I sent my parents this note: "took a run after talking to you, whipped up some bread dough since nothing soothes like baking, and am about to sit down to a solid hour of quiet writing with a cup of tea before my afternoon meeting. SO what more could I ask for after a slightly off-kilter morning?".
If you, too, find yourself feeling out of sorts, here's the ultimate baking project to occupy your hands and mind. And if you are perfectly happy and having a fantastic week, then this will only serve to make it better.
While this bread sounds and looks complicated, I assure you it isn't. I did a messy job of filling and braiding my loaf, but luckily the heat of the oven rights all wrongs, and it rose into voluptuous golden curves.
I recommend trying the filling as I've written it down here. Tahini is quite nutty, which means it pairs with chocolate just as nicely as peanut butter does. If you want to substitute something else, try a basic cinnamon roll filling.
Truly, I felt an immense amount of pride when this bread came out of the oven! It's really spectacular looking, and I have to say that it is STRAIGHT UP DELICIOUS. Light and tender, but dense in the center, with a rich, buttery taste and a not-too-sweet filling that tastes of deep, dark cocoa and nutty tahini. If everything in life was this good, I don't think I could handle it. Really, I'd just keel over with the sheer bliss of it all.
A few tips when it comes to baking: Try to be precise when it comes to shaping the logs. First, it helps to use a scale to measure and divide the dough into three equal pieces. This will ensure each log is an equal size. When you go to roll out each piece of dough, try and make them uniform. If the dough fights and bounces back shrinking, let it rest for a bit and try again. Don't roll the dough too thin -- you want it to be at least 1/8" thick, otherwise the filling will show through and the loaf will burst as mine did.
Chocolate Tahini Challah Babka
Adapted loosely from Bon Appetit
For the dough
1/2 cup whole milk
1 envelope active dry yeast
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
For the filling
1 cup cocoa powder
3/4 cup tahini
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
Warm the milk in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Whisk in the yeast and let sit for about 5 minutes until foamy.
Transfer the milk and yeast to a large bowl and whisk in the egg yolks, vanilla, and melted butter. Add the sugar, salt, and flour and mix with a spoon until the dough comes together messily. It doesn't need to be smooth. Using your hands, knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth and elastic.
Grease the bowl lightly and place the dough in it. Cover it with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let it sit in a warm place until the dough is doubled with size, about 1 1/2 hours.
While the dough rises, make the filling. Mix all the filling ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth. Taste and adjust for sugar.
Once the dough has risen, separate the dough into three pieces. One at a time, turn each piece out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 7" x 12" in size. If the dough fights you, let it rise for a few minutes until it is relaxed enough to roll into shape.
Using a spoon, spread the filling across the dough, leaving an inch or two around the edges.
Roll the dough lengthwise into a log, starting with the long edge closest to you. Using moistened fingers, pinch and seal the seam.
Once all three pieces are filled and rolled, transfer them gently to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Pinch the ends of all three together firmly, and then braid the three strands. Pinch the other ends together and tuck the pinched ends under the braid neatly. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you want the bread to be shinier, whisk together an egg yolk with some water and brush it over the top of the bread. This is totally optional!
Place the bread in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool.