Greater babka: Even Elaine Benes would have to admit, a savory babka is no ‘lesser babka’

Savory Babka With Ricotta and Herbs — this cheesy garlic-scented, herb-speckled version may just outshine the chocolate kind. (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)

If you feel the desire for a multiday bread-baking project, but chocolate babkas are too sweet, and crusty sourdoughs, too needy, I've got a loaf for you. It's a savory, ricotta-filled babka that's absorbing and meditative, but not at all fussy. Simply tearing the warm, garlic-scented bread with your hands will make procuring the yeast and flour well worth the search. And slices make for the best grilled cheese sandwiches, ever.

The difference between this babka dough and other savory bread doughs, like focaccia or pizza dough, is that babka is softer, eggier and a whole lot more buttery. But that same richness means it takes its time to rise, especially if the room is cool.

Your oven with the light turned on is an ideal place to let the dough rise. Or, if that's filled with yet another banana bread or a big lasagna, pick any warm, draft-free spot.

Think of your bowl of dough like a cat looking for a place to nap, and tuck it away on top of your fridge, in a nook of your couch, on that bright spot of sunlight on your carpet, wrapped up in a blanket. This first rise could take two or three hours, and the dough might not double in bulk. But it should puff noticeably.

Then, the second rise is best done in the fridge overnight. The long, slow fermentation develops the bread's flavor. But if you're in a rush, you can get away with four hours.

As for the filling, it's a simple and adaptable mix of ricotta spiked with parmesan, chopped herbs, alliums and optional ham or olives to make it saltier. If you don't have ricotta, any creamy fresh cheese will work: soft goat cheese, cream cheese or cottage cheese. Just make sure the cheese is at room temperature, or it will be too hard to spread.

Babka is shaped by rolling the filled dough into a log, and bringing one end of the log to meet the other, then twisting the dough.  (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
Babka is shaped by rolling the filled dough into a log, and bringing one end of the log to meet the other, then twisting the dough. (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)

Really, the only slightly tricky thing about this babka, if you've never made babka before, is shaping it.

There are lots of videos and how-to photos on the internet. But honestly, it doesn't matter how you shape it. As long as the filling is rolled in the dough, and that dough baked in a pan, it will be fine. With its buttery, parmesan-speckled crust, it will look gorgeous no matter how it comes out. And it will taste even better.

Cheesy Babka With Ricotta and Herbs

For the dough:

  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 ½ teaspoons active dry or instant yeast
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 2 ½ cups bread flour, or use all-purpose
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more as needed

For the filling:

  • 1 cup fresh ricotta, cottage cheese, soft goat cheese or cream cheese
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped herbs, such as basil, mint, parsley, thyme leaves or cilantro, or a combination
  • 1 green onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons chopped ham, prosciutto, salami or olives (optional)
  • Fine sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan on the stovetop, or in a bowl in the microwave, warm the milk until lukewarm, but not hot (about 110 degrees). Add yeast and pinch of sugar, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until slightly foamy.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, a food processor, or using a large bowl and a wooden spoon, mix the flour and salt. Beat or process in the yeast mixture and eggs until the dough comes together in a soft mass, about 2 minutes. It's OK if a little flour remains on the bottom of the bowl.

Add half the butter and beat until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Beat in the rest of the butter and continue to beat until dough is stretchy, another 5 to 7 minutes. At this point, all the flour should be worked into the dough. If not, add a teaspoon or two of water, and beat for another minute or so.

Butter a clean bowl. Form the dough into a ball and roll it around in the bowl so all sides are buttered. Cover the bowl with a plate or dishtowel, and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place, like the inside of a turned-off oven with the oven light on, until it puffs and rises, anywhere from 1 ½ to 3 hours. It may not double in bulk, but it should rise.

Press the dough down with your hands to expel the air, cover the bowl again and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours. (In a pinch, you could chill the dough for 4 hours, but it won't develop as much flavor.)

Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients until smooth. Taste and add more salt and black pepper, if needed. (If you used ham or olives, you probably won't need more salt.) Filling can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead and refrigerated.

This savory babka is filled with ricotta and herbs. (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)
This savory babka is filled with ricotta and herbs. (The New York Times/Johnny Miller)

Butter a 9-inch loaf pan, then line with parchment paper, leaving 2 inches of overhang for pulling the babka out later.

Put the dough on a floured surface and roll it into a 9-by-17-inch rectangle. Spread the filling evenly onto the dough, going all the way to the edge. Starting with a long side, roll into a tightly coiled log. Bring one end of the log to meet the other, then twist the dough, pinching together the ends to seal.

Place dough into the prepared pan. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 ½ hours, until puffy. (It won't quite double.)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush the top of the babka with more softened butter and sprinkle with parmesan. Bake until the top is deeply golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center will read 185 degrees. The babka should sound hollow if you tap it on the bottom once it's unmolded. Transfer to a wire rack.

Babka is best served still a little warm.

Makes 1 loaf.