za'atar mini babkas

whenever i leave new york or tel aviv and i'm not running late for my flight, which i'm proud to say is more than half the time, i build time into my route to the airport to stop at breads bakery for a rugelach or three and a za'atar twist and cheese straw. and maybe a babka and marzipan cookie and if they're in season a sufganiyah or designer danish. and a chopped salad for balance. on the airplane i build a perimeter of crumbs around myself like a solar system of puff pastry stars which i always hope is strong enough to subdue armrest hogs so i won't have to pull out my sad excuse for stink eye. and then when i get home i have a bunch of za'atar souvenirs embedded into my clothes and it is great.

this is one of my favorite travel rituals and breads has become one of my very favorite bakeries in the world. everything there is so finely tuned and perfect, not in a flashy trendy way, just in a good quality something-you'd-want-to-be-lifelong-friends-with way. i love having my breakfast salad there and listening to the hebrew spoken all around me, and for the better part of 2015 most of my small amount of time spent in new york revolved around hunting down their shakshuka focaccia. i kept seeing it on their social media but finding it in person was like seeking out a unicorn! i'd rush over as soon as i had a free moment, run to the back, and examine the rows of sandwiches, usually to be disappointed. well, disappointed is a strong word when your consolation prize is a cheese straw and hummus. but i kept arriving too late for the lunch rush and missed out on that tomatoey eggy focaccia until finally i timed it just right and achieved focaccia gold and foamed at the mouth about it. donny witnessed it, i think i embarrassed him.

on another trip, to tel aviv, i met tahini hero adeena there and she introduced me to uri, the owner, and it was the best day ever. uri gave me a tour of the inner workings, through rooms filled entirely with challah dough and trays of rugelach. the walls were white and the lights were bright and i was convinced i was dead and this was the highest level of heaven.

uri is the nicest person. he is a pastry and bread genius, and every time he instagrams a photo of a new recipe he's working on i get all of the fomo and wish that amazon prime would just get their act together to deliver same day cross-country pastries.


now there is the breads book and all of his secrets are in there. ugh, it's so good, when i received it i wanted to fake my own death during my book tour so i could stay home and bake everything in it. instead i powered through until my chrismukkah break, when i finally got to tear it open.

i started with the challah.

i'm worried. i texted alana. the dough is so insanely dense, i think i added too much flour but i even weighed the ingredients so how could it be wrong? my arms hurt from kneading it. i am scared. what if it's dry?

in the challah section, there were new-to-me kneading techniques, different dry-to-wet ratios than i'm used to, and the dough just felt different. i feared for my challah and my very ability to understand directions. but i kept going on, following uri and co-author raquel's directions to a t.

and then!

it was the best challah ever and i swore off my own challah recipe. byeeeee.

it was fluffy like a cloud, light, moist but not wet. perfect for new year's eve day savory french toast and ski trip salami sandwiches.

that was my cue to trust every single recipe in this book, no matter how new or complicated the steps were.

the sufganiyot were next level, dense, and wildly flavorful. they didn't event need jam. and laminated dough was... ok let's get into this...

i took a little class at breads once! during tent. we made bunny rolls and babka and afterwards my friend talia and i delivered babka to food52, it was really jolly. during the class as the teachers were spreading gallons of nutella over 6 foot long stretches of dough, i kept getting distracted by the bakers behind them, going about their workday, rolling slabs of dough and butter through a dough roller in the corner. it looked kind of like a huge pasta machine. every fold came out so evenly and smooth, it was so satisfying to watch and it looked so easy. so last week, as i muscled through my first solo dough laminating expedition, i kept thinking about that dough roller and wondered if eggboy would build me one. laminating dough is quite the arm workout!!! you fold and then roll and then fold and roll again. the butter can't be too soft or it will ooze out the sides and the dough can't be too warm or it will fight you when you roll it. but just like shakshuka focaccia hunting and almost running late for a flight in the name of rugelach, it is worth it.

worth it if the kitchen is your favorite room in the house and worth it if you like a buttery challenge. and excellent pastries.

this za'atar variation is just one recipe in an entire babka chapter of breaking breads that mainly features sweet fillings, like nutella and halva. they all use the same dough, of which there is a basic option (a buttery enriched dough) and an advanced option (laminated dough). because the za'atar twists at breads use a laminated dough and because i sleep on a bed of butter, i went that route. you'll find both options below. i baked half of these in a mini loaf tin, rather than the freeform shape that the recipe advises because i knew that my clumsy hands would kind of screw them up and they did! but of course they still tasted great and i froze some of them which i plan to put into a ribollita at some point.

from start to finish, this process takes about two days. it is long. it wins the award for the longest recipe on my name is yeh. but all of these directions are necessary and clear and if you follow them correctly you'll be rewarded with flaky little loaves of herby savory glory.

good luck!

za'atar mini babkas

from breaking breads by uri scheft and raquel pezel

makes 14 mini babkas


for the basic dough:

120g (1/2 c) whole milk

20g (2 1/2 tb) fresh yeast or 6g (2 tsp) active dry yeast

280g (2 1/4 c) alll-purpose flour + extra for dusting and kneading, sifted

220g (2 c + 2 tb) pastry or cake flour, sifted

2 large eggs

75g (1/3 c) granulated sugar

large pinch fine salt

80g (5 tb + 1 tsp) unsalted butter (at room temperature)

all-purpose flour for rolling and shaping

for the advanced dough:

200g (1 stick + 5 tb) unsalted butter (at cool room temperature)

for the za'atar filling:

30g (3 tb) sesame seeds

400g (1 1/3 c) labne

1 red jalapeno or fresno chile, finely chopped (seeded for less heat)

20g (1 tb + 1 tsp) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing

 110g (1 c) feta cheese, crumbled

60g (1/2 c) pine nuts

50g (1 c) fresh oregano leaves

25g (2 1/2 tb) za'atar, plus extra for finishing

for the egg wash:

1 large egg

1 tb water

pinch fine salt


make the basic dough:

add the milk to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. use a fork or your fingers to lightly mix the yeast into the milk. then, in this order, add the flours, eggs, sugar, salt, and finally the butter in small pinches.

mix on the lowest speed, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, and to pull the dough off the hook as it accumulates there and break it apart so it mixes evenly, until the dough is well combined, about 2 minutes (it will not be smooth).

if the dough is very dry, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time; if the dough looks wet, add more all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together. increase the mixer speed to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth and has good elasticity, 4 minutes.

stretch and fold the dough:

lightly dust your work surface with flour and turn the dough out on top; lightly dust the top of the dough and the interior of a large bowl with flour. grab the top portion of the dough and stretch it away from you, tearing up the dough. then fold it on top of the middle of the dough, give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the stretch, tear, and fold. continue to do this until you can stretch a small piece of dough very thin without it tearing, about 5 minutes. then use your hands to push and pull the dough against the word surface and in a circular motion to create a nice round of dough. set the ball in the floured bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.

chill the dough:

set the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and press it into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 24 hours. 

[at this point you've completed the "basic babka dough." if you'd like to skip to the sesame seed toasting and filling steps, that is ok! but if you're in this for the long haul and want to make the "advanced babka dough," go onto the next step.]

prepare the butter:

set the 200g butter on a large piece of parchment paper. use a rolling pin (or your fist) to smack and whack it into a 7-by-8-inch rectangle that is between 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch thick. use a bench knife to square off the corners and then pound as needed to fit the measurements. set the butter aside.

add the butter and make the first fold:

place the dough on a lightly floured work surface, lightly dust the top, de-gas the dough by pressing down on it, and then roll the dough into a 7-by-16-inch rectangle with a short side facing you. place the butter on the bottom half of the dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border at the bottom. fold the top of the dough over the butter to meet the bottom edge, pull the corners so they align perfectly, and use a pastry brush to brush away any excess flour from the surface.

fold and chill the dough:

rotate the dough so the seam side (which was facing the bottom) is now facing to the right. lightly flour the top and underside of the dough, and roll it into a 9-by-16-inch rectangle. use a bench knife or a chef's knife to square off the edges (save the scraps to add to the dough). then use your finger to mark the dough into equal thirds. use a pastry brush to remove any excess flour from the dough. fold the bottom up to the top mark and the top down and over to the bottom edge to create a simple fold. try to keep the edges and corners as perfectly aligned as possible. lightly dust the dough and the work surface again, and roll the dough just enough to flatten it slightly. at this point, the dough will probably bounce back when you roll it because you have been working the gluten a lot. now is a good time to wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then repeat  the simple fold two more times, refrigerating the dough between each time. wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 5 hours or overnight.

toast the sesame seeds: 

place the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium-high heat and toast them, shaking the pan often, until they are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. transfer the seeds to a small plate and set aside.

roll the cold babka dough:

unwrap the cold babka dough and set it on a lightly floured work surface. roll the dough into a 12-by-28-inch rectangle (it should be just a little shy or 1/4 inch thick) with a long side facing you. pull and shape the corners into a rectangle.

fill and roll the dough:

spread the labne over the dough in a thin, even layer. sprinkle it with the jalapeno, olive oil, feta, toasted sesame seeds, pine nuts, oregano, and za'atar. divide the dough in half horizontally so you now have two 6-by-28-inch pieces. working from the long bottom edge of one of the pieces, roll the dough up into a tight cylinder, pushing back on the cylinder with each roll to make it even tighter. lift the cylinder, holding one end in each hand, and gently stretch and pull to tighten it even more (it will stretch to about 35 inches long). repeat with the second piece of dough.

divide the dough into strips and make the mini babkas:

use a bread knife to slice each cylinder in half lengthwise so you have 4 long pieces, and then slice those pieces crosswise into 7 equal sections (about 5 inches each) to make a total of 28 strips. cross 2 equal-size pieces to create an X, keeping the exposed filling facing up. twist the ends together like threads on a screw so you have at least 1 twist on each side of the X (3 twists total). repeat with the remaining pieces. set twists in a lightly greased mini loaf pan.

let the mini babkas proof:

cover the pans with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free spot until the babkas have doubled in volume and are very soft and jiggly to the touch, 2 to 3 hours depending on how warm your room is.

preheat the oven to 350ºf.


make the egg wash by whisking the egg, water, and salt together in a small bowl. brush egg wash over each mini babka, and bake until they are dark brown and baked through, about 20 minutes; check after 15 minutes, and if they are getting too dark, tent them loosely with a piece of parchment paper. remove from the oven and, while they are still warm, brush with more olive oil and sprinkle with a little za'atar. serve warm or at room temperature.

this giveaway is now closed - January 23, 2017

want a copy of breaking breads? leave a comment here with the most challenging thing you've ever baked and i'll pick a winner at random next week. open to u.s. residents.