This savoury babka has a dough with enough structure to stand up to its filling. That filling, by the way, is a heady collection of kimchi, scallions, cheese and bacon. The kimchi brings its trademark funk and scallions a vital freshness, as the melting ooze of cheese rounds out the effects of both. The bacon pairs with a smear of gochujang for an unmistakable, umami-rich baseline.
As an additional draw, this bread transforms into some of the finest toast you could want. While some should be feasted upon warm from the oven, any leftovers are welcomed. Upon reheat, the bread takes on another character. The cheese crisps, the kimchi frizzles and curls, and the bacon sizzles and perks up. Glaze with cultured butter smudged with more gochujang and a pinch of crunchy salt and feast. Or, dress things up with a fried egg and greens.
The loaf is best in a standard or long Pullman loaf pan (13 or 16 inches long, respectively, and four inches wide), which will give a uniform shape and well-developed crust on all sides. However, two 9-by-5-inch tins can be used instead. If plaiting the split dough inspires trepidation, glaze the roll whole and bake as is, for a single-swirl loaf.
Servings: 1 large loaf
1 2/3 cups (393 ml) warm water, about 110 F, plus more for glaze
2 teaspoons honey, divided
1/4 ounce (7 grams) traditional dry yeast (1 package)
1 egg, beaten
18 ounces (510 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons medium-grain kosher salt
2 teaspoons sesame oil, divided
6 ounces (170 grams) bacon, finely diced
6 ounces (170 grams) Napa cabbage kimchi, store bought or homemade
8 ounces (227 grams) Monterey jack cheese, cheddar, American, or a mix, grated
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and sliced (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon gochujang, fermented Korean chili paste, optional
1/4 cup sesame seeds, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Pour the water into the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir in 1 teaspoon honey, then sprinkle the yeast over top. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If the yeast doesn’t bloom and bubble up, discard and try again.) Add the egg to the bowl, followed by about 3 1/2 cups (scant 16 ounces/450 grams) flour and the salt. Place bowl onto a stand mixer with the dough hook attached.
Set the machine on low and allow to run until the flour starts to clump together. Increase the speed medium-low and knead, adding the rest of flour by the tablespoon as needed, until the dough is smooth, pulls away from the sides of the bowl cleanly and collects around the hook, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form into a ball, collecting the ends together and pulling the surface taut. Brush dough with a thin coating of sesame oil, maybe 1/4 teaspoon total and place back in the bowl, smooth side down. Cover with a lint-free towel or loosely with clingfilm and leave until doubled in bulk, 50 to 60 minutes.
While the dough swells, fry the bacon in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring often. You are looking to render the fat before the bacon browns too quickly. Once crisp, drain the bacon on some paper towels and set aside to cool. Brush a thin coat of bacon fat on a 13-by-4-inch Pullman pan (see headnote), including the interior of the lid. Set aside.
With the back of a spoon, press the kimchi against a fine meshed sieve over a bowl or sink. Chop the wrung kimchi finely, then squeeze again. Upend the kimchi, cheese, scallions and bacon into a bowl and toss to combine. Dust lightly with flour and toss again.
Gently deflate the dough with a closed fit, then turn out onto a lightly-floured work surface. Roll out to a 14-by-12-inch rectangle, with the long end facing you. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining sesame oil with the gochujang. Spread the mixture across the dough, layer the filling on top and sprinkle half the sesame seeds to finish. Working slowly, lift a long side of dough up and over the filling, rolling up tightly and compressing lightly. Pinch the seam together to seal, and elongating and evening out the roll.
Using the same bowl from the gochujang, no need to dirty another, stir the soy sauce and last of the honey with 1 teaspoon water. Brush the glaze all over the roll and coat with sesame seeds. With a sharp knife, cut the roll down its length, turning the filling upward so it doesn’t fall out. Twist the two lengths around each other and tuck the plait into the prepared pan. Cover with a lint-free dish towel or loosely with clingfilm, and proof until risen, 30 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 375 F (190 C), with a rack in the middle position. Slide the lid on the pan, and slip into the hot oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid, bake until golden and an internal temperature of 190 F (90 C). Let cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn the loaf out to cool completely. Store leftovers in the fridge, in an airtight container or well wrapped.