The other day my brother and I were talking about his upcoming camping trip. Let’s just take a moment to note that I am related to someone who actually thinks biking 50 miles, going without a shower after biking those 50 miles and sleeping outside in a tent is a fun way to spend a weekend. Anyway, he was considering buying a new backpack when I jokingly suggested he borrow my circa 1996 mini Prada knapsack. I’d pay to see the look on his co-camper’s face if he showed up on his bike wearing that useless, tiny brown nylon thing. But I remember just having to have it back in the day. And for that I will always be embarrassed. Did I really need to wear my wallet, keys and lipstick on my back? It’s not like there was room for anything else. What was I thinking?
Why is it some things from our past become classics (pea coats, cashmere cardigans, riding boots) while others become cringe worthy (XXL sweatshirts, scrunch socks, high-top Reeboks)? And why aren’t we able to distinguish between the two when we are experiencing or wearing them?
In addition to the moronic knapsack there are so many other sartorial must-haves that really were shouldn’t-haves. Why did I think wearing a thigh-high mini skirt and chunky heeled, clunky loafers was a good look? The shoes would have suited Herman Munster perfectly, but when you have pitifully skinny ankles? Well, I just looked like a dominatrix clown. And who invented cowboy boot shoes? I resisted them completely at first but then let the trending tide carry me along like a sucker. People who don’t live within walking distance of a cow or a horse shouldn’t be allowed to wear cowboy boots, much less a shoe. Then there was the mud-colored matte lipstick phase which every woman I know, regardless of coloring, thought was a universal shade. Not true. Most of us looked like we’d fallen into a concrete mixer. Why didn’t anyone stop me?
You’d think Levi’s 501’s would be immune to the whims of trend but, no. My sister pulled an old pair out of her closet at our parents’ house a few weekends ago and tried them on. We both collapsed, laughing hysterically. Why was the waist under her arm pits? And why were they so baggy? How did either of us find anyone willing to date us in the 90’s while wearing mom jeans?
But it’s not just clothes and make-up that can feel dated. Have you ever stumbled upon an early episode of Friends? I laughed in 1994 and coveted their apartments. But now, with the flea market-y, mismatched look of Monica’s place, the gold picture frame hung playfully over the front door’s peep hole and the constant ironic cadence of “Uh, hello? Could I be more sarcastic?” I find it so grating. (Whenever I’m debating a home décor purchase I always sing to my sister, “Is it too ‘I’ll be There for You?’ and she knows exactly what I mean.) Also, the show is just not that funny, especially when you compare it to its Must-See TV neighbor, Seinfeld. When my mother and I were in Las Vegas we had the television on before bed and she actually said, “You know, this is really very funny.” (That sounded so incredibly pathetic. Who is in bed at 11pm when they’re in Las Vegas? We were.) Seinfeld is timeless. Just like I Love Lucy, it will always be funny.
When I decided to make babka for the Yom Kippur break fast I thought of one of my favorite episodes. You know the one. Jerry and Elaine are at the bakery trying to buy a chocolate babka to bring to a dinner party. They forget to take a number and by the time they get to the counter the only babka left is cinnamon. And not only is it “the lesser babka,” there is a hair on it. Elaine then gets back in line to return the hairy cake and after choosing another, the counter woman coughs on it, all while Jerry gets sick after eating a black and white cookie. Obviously I love the episode because it brings together two of my obsessions, baked goods and germaphobia. But the detail of "the lesser babka" is just so perfect because it is so true. Who could get excited by a cinnamon anything when chocolate is a choice? There is only one misstep here: I don’t know anyone who would serve a babka for dessert at a dinner party. It’s a brunch or coffee time treat.
Brunch. That’s another thing I did in the 90’s that I don’t do now. Back then it made sense. I slept till 11am and never wanted my first meal to be lunch. So the midday was spent either waiting outside an overpriced egg and pancake place decorated like a depression era farmhouse or lounging on a friend’s Jennifer Convertible sofa digesting scrambled eggs, fruit salad and, the favorite guest at everyone’s brunch, a Green’s chocolate babka from Zabar’s. That babka is the only thing I miss about the brunch years. It is both wonderful and disgusting. The loaf is so dense with chocolate that it weighs in at close to a pound and a half. Truly, it is so chocolately it borders on damp. Now you can understand why the only comfortable position to be in after eating it is prone. It basically orders you to take a post-brunch nap.
This recipe is the perfect compromise between decadent and appropriate. The crumb is light and just buttery enough without being greasy and the chocolate swirls hit the spot but don’t send you into a coma. There is also a wonderful sense of accomplishment inherent in tackling anything that requires both yeast and shaping your dough into a double figure eight. Don’t be scared! It is totally doable and you will feel like a professional. On Yom Kippur I will be repenting for so many things, among them the lack of sense that led me to follow stupefying fashion trends all those many years ago. Then I will break my fast with chocolate babka. It’s a classic.
Never Cringe Worthy Chocolate Babka
From Gourmet, December 2006
3/4 cup warm milk (105–115°F)
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons active dry yeast (from two 1/4-oz packages)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
2 whole large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
For egg wash
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream or whole milk
For chocolate filling
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, well softened
2 Four ounce good quality dark chocolate bars (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
1/4 cup sugar
Stir together warm milk and 2 teaspoons sugar in bowl of mixer. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If yeast doesn't foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
Add 1/2 cup flour to yeast mixture and beat at medium speed until combined. Add whole eggs, yolk, vanilla, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until combined.
Reduce speed to low, then mix in remaining 2 3/4 cups flour, about 1/2 cup at a time. Increase speed to medium, then beat in butter, a few pieces at a time, and continue to beat until dough is shiny and forms strands from paddle to bowl, about 4 minutes. (Dough will be very soft and sticky.)
Scrape dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Assemble babkas with filling:
Line each loaf pan with 2 pieces of parchment paper (1 lengthwise and 1 crosswise).
unch down dough with a lightly oiled rubber spatula,
then halve dough. Roll out 1 piece of dough on a well-floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into an 18- by 10-inch rectangle and arrange with a long side nearest you.
Beat together yolk and cream. Spread 2 1/2 tablespoons softened butter on dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush some of egg wash on long border nearest you.
Sprinkle half of chocolate evenly over buttered dough, then sprinkle with half of sugar (2 tablespoons).
Starting with long side farthest from you, roll dough into a snug log, pinching firmly along egg-washed seam to seal.
Bring ends of log together to form a ring, pinching to seal. Twist entire ring twice to form a double figure 8 and fit into one of lined loaf pans.
Make another babka with remaining dough, some of egg wash, and remaining butter, chocolate and sugar in same manner. Chill remaining egg wash, covered, to use later. Loosely cover pans with buttered plastic wrap (buttered side down) and let babkas rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until dough reaches top of pans, 1 to 2 hours.
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.
Brush tops of dough with remaining egg wash. Bake until tops are deep golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped (when loaves are removed from pans), about 40 minutes. Transfer loaves to a rack and cool to room temperature.
NOTE: Babkas freeze really well if wrapped thoroughly.
Yield: 2 babkas