Most weekday afternoons, I take the subway down from my apartment to Soho. I get on the 2,3 express train, switching to the local at 14th Street, and exit at the Houston stop. I walk two blocks to the quiet block of Sullivan Street just north of Prince, which is shaded by trees and lined with brick apartment buildings, their exteriors ribboned with the iron grates of fire escapes, that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Friends. It’s a comforting snippet of the city, one that feels oddly neighborhood-like despite its proximity to the grit and noise of the NYU area.
I enter the cafe (west~bourne) and sit at my usual place (corner table). I order my usual thing (citrus over tahini yogurt with fennel and mint). I write. I drink a matcha. I people-watch as fashionable New Yorkers duck in and out of the boutique across the street, and little kids emerge from the gelato shop one door up.
The chef at west~bourne gives me a wink and tells me that they’re about to swap out the fruit in my go-to order, since it’s always seasonally rotating. Instead of blood oranges and Cara Cara oranges, it’ll be pluots and strawberries. Spring! Summer! It doesn’t feel real to me after three days of pouring rain and 40-degree weather.
Lately, I’ve been reading China Dolls by Lisa See and I carefully stop myself after a chapter so I don’t rush through the novel too quickly, as I tend to do, and I prefer to savor it a little at a time.
I keep reading this poem by Ellen Bass (I’ve excerpted it below, but the full poem is here), because it seems simple and then every time, bam, it makes my heart skip and my breath catch at the end with how intensely it expresses so much in a few words, compressing a world of feeling into a couple short lines:
[The Morning After]
You stand at the counter, pouring boiling water
over the French roast, oily perfume rising in smoke.
And when I enter, you don’t look up.
I can’t see a trace of the little slice of heaven
we slipped into last night—a silk kimono
floating satin ponds and copper koi, stars falling
to the water. Didn’t we shoulder
our way through the cleft in the rock of the everyday
and tear up the grass in the pasture of pleasure?
If the soul isn’t a separate vessel
we carry from form to form
but more like Aristotle’s breath of life—
the work of the body that keeps it whole—
then last night, darling, our souls were busy.
But this morning it’s like you’re wearing a bad wig,
disguised so I won’t recognize you
or maybe so you won’t know yourself
as that animal burned down
to pure desire. I don’t know
how you do it. I want to throw myself
onto the kitchen tile and bare my throat.
I want to slick back my hair
and tap-dance up the wall. I want to do it all
all over again—dive back into that brawl,
that raw and radiant free-for-all.
This week has been a flurry of little errands—the kind you can easily keep forgetting to do unless you sit down and list them on paper: pick up more milk, get your car windshield wipers replaced, vacuum the living room rug, stop by the FedEx, mail a thank you letter.
I go to the Union Square farmers’ market to buy my weekly sourdough bread (I get mine from She Wolf Bakery: one sourdough batard and a quarter of their whole wheat miche).
The market is in that funny in-between season phase—vegetables have a jump start on summer over fruit, so tender herbs and baby lettuces and fresh greens are overflowing the stands, but fruit options are still mostly cold-storage apples. The mention of strawberries at west~bourne feels even more unlikely when I look around, choosing between Pink Lady apples and Empire apples and Macoun apples.
Although I am decidedly ready for sun and stone fruit and popsicles and sunburned shoulders and freckled cheeks and denim shorts, I would happily eat apples year-round (and I do).
And in that spirit, this recipe is an excellent way to put them to use in baking—and though it would certainly be a cozy winter baking project, it’s light and delicate enough not to feel out of place at all during warmer months.
I’m not really sure what to call it: babka? apple cake? twist bread? It’s definitely a bread, as it’s yeasted and has a distinctly bread-y texture and crumb. But it’s shot through with a ribbon of cinnamon and brown sugar and apples, which get all twisted up in layers as you shape the dough, and that gives it more of a dessert-like feeling.
Then, of course, I went ahead and topped the whole thing with a crumb/streusel, so you could almost consider it a crumb cake. I hesitate to call it babka because technically it probably isn’t, and New Yorkers seem to be very particular about that terminology. Plus, babka is generally denser than this loaf.
So, forget about the semantics of it all, and just bake it! Tell me what you’d call it…or just rip off a piece—warm from the oven—and stuff it in your mouth and mumble something about apples and that should do the trick.
**Note: If you did want to swap something in for apples, I actually think any chunky fruit compote would work beautifully in the filling. I need to test this more, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try it yourself!
Brown Sugar Apple Babka Loaf
Makes two 9” x 5” loaves
For the bread dough
1 tablespoon instant or active dry yeast
1/2 cup (106g) dark brown sugar
½ cup (124g) apple cider, warmed slightly
4 cups (480g) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (120g) buttermilk
3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, melted
For the filling
2 apples, peeled and diced
1 cup (113g) walnuts, chopped roughly (optional)
3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (160g) dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
For the streusel topping
¼ cup (50g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (53g) dark brown sugar
½ cup (60g) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ teaspoon almond extract
Lightly grease or line with parchment two 9” x 5” loaf pans.
Whisk the yeast into the warmed apple cider and let sit for about 5 minutes until foamy. While it sits, heat the buttermilk in a small saucepan until almost boiling, then set aside to cool slightly.
Add the flour, brown sugar, and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to combine.
Add the cider and yeast mixture, then add the buttermilk, eggs, vanilla, and melted butter. Mix until the dough comes together messily. It doesn't need to be smooth. (You can use the stand mixer, or just a wooden spoon and a large bowl if you prefer). Using your hands, or the stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth and elastic.
Grease a large 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 by mixing together all the filling ingredients in a medium bowl.
Once the dough has risen, divide the dough in half. One at a time, turn each piece out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a 16” square. 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.
Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough lengthwise into a log. Using moistened fingers, pinch and seal the seam.
Cut each log in half crosswise. Take the two halves and lay them across each other—to form a cross. Twist them gently together, spiraling them (they won’t twist much as they’re bulky—that’s okay), and then place them in the prepared pans. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Make the topping by mixing together all the topping ingredients until sandy and clumpy.
Sprinkle the topping over the loaves. (Note: If you want a lot of streusel, just double the topping recipe!)
Place the bread in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool.