"Babcia" means grandmother in Polish, and this is a bread that my husband's grandmother would make for family gatherings. It was one item that Grandma made that my husband particularly liked when he was growing up, but until recently we thought the recipe was lost forever.
"I knew I got it right when I got an enthusiastic 'Oh, yeah' from my from my husband. This is the bread the way he remembered it, and this is what I'm declaring the final version."
What we didn't know was that many years back, when Grandma had visited her son (my husband's uncle), he translated and transcribed some of her recipes. Uncle belonged to a Polish social club that was putting together a club cookbook, and he submitted Grandma's recipes to the project.
When Uncle found out that I liked to cook, he sent us a copy of the cookbook. Much to my surprise, I found a recipe called "Polish Sweet Bread" with Grandma's name on it. I decided to give it a try, and immediately hit a few snags.
It's one thing to be able to cook something from memory when you've done it a million times. It's another thing to tell someone the recipe when you're not standing at the stove. Add to that the onset of Alzheimer's and the inevitable translation errors, and what I had in my hands was an incomplete and confusing recipe.
I forged on. First, I cut the recipe down to a manageable size. Then I matched the ingredients with the instructions. Then I baked. One of my changes to the original was to update the methods. For example, Grandma's instructions said, "knead about 20 minutes," and she wasn't talking about using a stand mixer.
My husband recognized the bread immediately, but I thought it wasn't quite right. Since Grandma wasn't working from a written recipe, her versions varied from batch to batch. My taste testers agreed that this could have been one of her versions, but I wasn't done with tweaking it.
That first updated version appeared in the November 2008 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier, a newspaper that I write for. While I knew that recipe was a good bread, it wasn't Babcia Bread, so I've been working on the recipe on and off ever since. Recently, I came up with a recipe that was very close in flavor, but the color was off. So I went back into the kitchen and came out with this version. I knew I got it right when I got an enthusiastic "Oh, yeah" from my from my husband. This is the bread the way he remembered it, and this is what I'm declaring the final version.
As far as what this bread is, I don't know what it's supposed to be or where the recipe came from. It might have been born as a baba or a paska or any other number of holiday breads. But this is what it became in my husband's family, where everyone simply called it "Babcia Bread" because there was no one else who made it.
The bread is slightly sweet and a little bit eggy, but it's not dessert on its own and not for sandwiches, either. It's perfect for breakfast with a bit of butter and maybe a sprinkling of cinnamon, or toasted and topped with fruit and ice cream.
Babcia Bread aka Polish Sweet Bread (Chleb Drozdzowy)
- 1 stick butter
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 1/2 teaspoons (1 package) yeast
- 3 3/4 cups AP flour, divided
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
Put the milk and butter into microwave-safe container and heat to melt the butter. The milk shouldn't boil, it should be just warm enough to melt the butter. Cool (if needed) to lukewarm.
Put the milk mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer, add the yeast and 1 cup of flour, and mix well.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for 15 minutes. It will rise a bit during this time.
Add eggs, and beat with the paddle attachment until well combined. Add salt, sugar and vanilla and beat well. Add the remaining 2 3/4 cups of flour, mix with the paddle to combine, then switch to the dough hook and knead well.
During kneading, the dough will begin sticking to the sides of the bowl and building up, until very little is left on the hook. Stop the mixer and scrape it down as this happens. It may take several times before the dough gives up on this sticking. Eventually, the dough will form a ball around the hook, with just a little "foot" of dough stuck to the bottom of the bowl, but the sides will remain clean. Keep kneading until the dough is smooth and shiny. It will be a soft dough, but it shouldn't be sticky or goopy at all. If it is sticky, add additional flour as needed, in small increments. It shouldn't need a lot more flour; this dough seems loose while kneading but holds its shape well after you form it.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest until doubled in size; it may take 2 hours, or more.
Sprinkle cornmeal on the bottom of a 10-inch loaf pan.
Knead dough again, shape, and put into a bread pan. You shouldn't need any flour to knead or shape this dough. It's not sticky at all.
Let it rise again until doubled in size. Again, It can take a long time to rise. Be patient.
Brush top with beaten egg yolk mixed with water, if desired, for a shiny top. You can slash the top, or leave it as-is.
Bake at 325°F until deeply browned, 45 to 55 minutes.
Let the loaf cool for five minutes before taking it out of the pan to cool completely on a rack before cutting.