Yes, babka is usually sweet: chocolate and cinnamon are the most traditional flavors, as we learned many years ago from “Seinfeld” and Elaine.
But babka dough is delicious and versatile, and actually quicker to mix up than challah dough. By adding less sugar, you can make a dough that is the perfect vessel for copious amounts of garlic butter and cheese. Instead of the traditional twisted shape, this version will have you cutting small squares, brushing with garlic butter, and stuffing with cheese. Fold squares and then layer on top of each other to create irresistible pull-apart layers that are perfect for dipping in, say, some store-bought marinara sauce.
If making this babka seems like a daunting task, let me share a few shortcuts:
Don’t worry about “scalding” the milk while making the dough; you can just add straight from the fridge.
Buy a bag of pre-shredded mozzarella cheese or Italian cheese mix.
Buy Italian herb seasoning in the spice aisle.
Use pre-minced garlic you buy in the jar instead of peeling and mincing yourself.
To make the dough: Place the yeast and ½ teaspoon sugar in a small bowl. Add the lukewarm water and stir gently to mix. Set aside until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour and 1/4 cup sugar.
In a medium saucepan, scald the milk (bring almost to a boil, until milk is just simmering). Allow to sit for 1 minute to cool just slightly (or just add cold milk — see note above).
With mixer on low, add the water-yeast mixture, milk, and melted butter. Add eggs one at a time.
When the dough begins to come together, after 2 to 3 minutes, turn off mixer and scrape down the sides. Raise the speed to high and mix for another 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is shiny, elastic, and smooth. It may seem like a long time to mix, but the result is worth the wait. (You can also knead vigorously by hand for 10 minutes if you don’t have a stand mixer.)
Place dough in a greased bowl with a damp towel on top. Allow to rise 1 to 2 hours.
Prepare two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2 greased loaf pans.
Cut the dough into two equal parts (use a food scale for precision). Set aside one half of the dough.
Roll out the one piece of dough into a large rectangle. Using a pizza cutter or dough cutter, cut the dough down the middle lengthwise, then cut into approximately 3 inch squares.
Roll each square until slightly elongated with a rolling pin.
Brush each piece of dough with the garlic butter, then top with cheese. Fold into smaller squares/rectangles.
Once all the pieces of dough are filled with butter and cheese, place in a greased loaf pan so they are standing up. You can alternate with seam on top and seam on the bottom.
Repeat with the other piece of dough.
Lightly drape a kitchen towel over the top of pans. Allow to rise another 15-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°F while the dough rises.
Top with any additional cheese.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden on top.
Brush with remaining melted butter as soon as you remove from the oven. Serve warm with tomato sauce for dipping if desired.