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Za’atar Twists

Za’atar Twists_Uri Scheft

Excerpted from Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Photographs by Con Poulos.

A savory babka? Why not? The babka is filled with labne--Lebanese strained yogurt with salt and lemon juice--plus chiles, feta cheese, and pine nuts add to the savory appeal. Plan ahead, if you’re making your own labneh, it takes 2 to 3 days to get a thick cheese-like mixture. (Labneh recipe below.)

Instead of twisting the babka dough and placing it in a loaf pan, you bake it free-form for individual twists or sticks. And because it’s freeform, some of the filling may ooze out onto the sheet pan, but those crispy bits are often the best.

  • Duration
  • Cook Time
  • Prep Time
  • 14 TwistsServings



  • 2 cups plain full-fat yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Basic Babka Dough:

  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry or cake flour
  • 2 eggs
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • Pinch of table salt
  • 5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter

Za’atar Twists:

  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • Basic babka dough, chilled 24 hours
  • All-purpose flour
  • 1⅓ cups labne
  • 1 red jalapeño or Fresno chile, finely chopped and seeded
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • 1 cup fresh oregano leaves or ⅓ cup dried oregano
  • 2½ tablespoons Jamie Geller Za'atar
  • Garnish: extra virgin olive oil and za’atar

Egg Wash:

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Pinch of table salt



1. Whisk yogurt, salt, and lemon juice together in a bowl. Line a fine-mesh sieve with a large doubled layer of cheesecloth, letting the excess hang over the edges of the sieve (you want quite a bit of extra material so you can gather the ends easily). 

2. Pour the yogurt mixture into the cheesecloth and gather the ends, tying them together with a long piece of sturdy kitchen twine. Suspend the yogurt by tying the string to a rod set over the bowl. Remove the sieve and let the yogurt drain into the bowl at cool room temperature, out of the sunlight, for 24 to 36 hours.

3. Untie the string, place the cheesecloth with the drained yogurt in a sieve, and set the sieve and over a bowl. Refrigerate the labne for another 24 hours before using. The labne will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 5 days to 1 week.

Basic Babka Dough:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, whisk vanilla into milk. Using a fork or your fingers, lightly mix yeast into milk. Add flours, eggs, sugar, salt, and butter in small pinches.

2. Mix for 2 minutes 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. 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. 

3. Increase mixer speed to medium, and mix for 4 minutes, until the dough is smooth and has good elasticity.

4. 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 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 for 5 minutes, until you can stretch a small piece of dough very thin without it tearing. Then use your hands to push and pull the dough against the work 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.

5. 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 1 hour, or up to 24 hours.

Za’atar Twists:

1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Place the sesame seeds in a small sauté pan over medium high heat and toast them for 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan often, until they are golden brown. Transfer the seeds to a small plate and set aside.

3. Unwrap cold babka dough and set it on a lightly floured work surface. Roll the dough into a 12- x 28-inch rectangle that’s about ¼-inch thick, with a long side facing you. Pull and shape the corners into a rectangle.

4. Spread labne over dough in a thin, even layer. Sprinkle jalapeño, evoo, feta, toasted sesame seeds, pine nuts, oregano, and za’atar over labneh. Divide the dough in half horizontally so you now have two 6-x 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.

5. 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, 5-inch sections for a total of 28 strips.

6. Cross 2 equal-size pieces to create an X, keeping the exposed filling facing up. Twist the ends together like the 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. 

7. Set 7 twists on one prepared pan, and the other 7 twists on the second prepared pan.

8. Cover baking sheets with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free spot for 2 to 3 hours, until the twists have doubled in volume and are very soft and jiggly to the touch.
After dough has risen, preheat oven to 350°F.

9. Whisk egg, water, and salt together in a small bowl. Brush egg wash over each twist, and bake in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes, until they are dark brown and baked through. Check twists after 15 minutes, and if they are getting too dark, tent them loosely with a piece of parchment paper. 

10. Remove twists from the oven and, while they are still warm, brush with more evoo and sprinkle with a little za’atar. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Excerpted from Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Photographs by Con Poulos.

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