This is an incredible treat in an impressive presentation, but it can be a lot of work and mess to put together, so it is definitely for special occasions--like Christmas, thanksgiving, birthdays, and other holidays. This isn't the sort of thing the family should expect as a general rule!
But my goodness, it is delicious! (It's basically one enormous cinnamon roll...)
And the great thing about it is that you can use the dough recipe to make delicious sweet rolls. Though I've only made the babka twice, I've use the dough recipe and made sweet rolls to go with dinner many times. They're simple and when they come out warm and we put butter on them, it's almost impossible not to immediately grab a second...and often a third!
I got this recipe out of one of my favorite cookbooks, Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros. She presents recipes from a series of (I think) 5 different countries, intermingled with family history and stories. It's delightful to read, and her recipes are detailed and easy to follow because she gives more detailed descriptions than your average "golden brown" or "bake to perfection." What does that even mean? Well... Tessa Kiros pretty much tells you. Her recipes can be long though, and in the interest of respecting copyright laws, I will summarize this recipe for you here:
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbs yeast
1 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup veg oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbs ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 tbs butter, softened
(feel free to be generous with these ingredients, it doesn't hurt to have extra!)
1) Mix the flour, salt, and sugar together.
2) In another bowl, mix well the yeast, milk and oil. Let it sit until the yeast begins activating. Then pour the liquids into the solids and use a mixer (with a dough hook!) to mix well until combined. (Of course if you don't have a dough hook, you can knead it with well floured hands.)
3) Add the eggs and mix a little longer to combine them. The dough should be thick and sticky. Turn it out onto a floured surface and work in with flour until it is still sticky but not sticking to your hands. Knead it for about 10 min. Let it rise, covered, in a warm place for about an hour and a half.
4) Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make a rectangle about the size of a large cookie sheet (10x18) or so. Be sure to have a well floured surface beneath the dough.
5) Brush about half the butter over the surface of the dough and evenly sprinkle half of the brown sugar mixture over it. Putting your hands along the longest edge, roll the dough up into a long sausage-like roll. Set aside and repeat with the other half of the dough. Braid the ropes together, pressing hard on the ends to keep them together. Twist the dough braid to tighten the loaf (as you see in the picture at the top.)
6) Put the dough braid onto a large greased pan and let it rise again. Now, Tessa says to mix one egg yolk with a couple tsp of milk and brush it over the top and then sprinkle some more brown sugar on top. While this is lovely and puts a wonderful crust on the top of the babka, I find that by this point I'm just ready to be done. So I do away with the egg yolk, and just brush some milk or sometimes butter on top and sprinkle some "extra" cinnamon sugar on top.
7) Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes. If the ends are done but the middle is not, cover the ends with tin foil to keep them from burning. Let cool a few minutes before taking it out of the pan.
It's amazing served warm plain, or with butter. It won't last long, so eat it within a couple days. (Another good reason to just have it on special occasions, when there's usually extra family around!)