When Bangalore, India, went into lockdown in 2020, Vinesh Johny was grateful for the break at first.
Johny is the co-founder of Lavonne Academy of Baking Science & Pastry Arts, India’s first specialized international baking institute. As the school’s executive pastry chef and one of Asia’s most recognized talents, his hectic schedule is usually jam-packed with classes, meetings and engagements.
He used the downtime to run kitchen experiments with his wife, Joonie, who is also a professional baker. As the weeks dragged on, however, he began to worry. “That’s when it started to get a little scary,” he admits. “We still had to pay the bills, so we had to think about how we would move forward during the pandemic. That’s when we started to explore live online baking workshops.”
Since it was Lavonne Academy’s first-ever virtual class, Johny expected only a handful of people to join. He was shocked by the explosion of inquiries: “We had over a thousand people inquiring about 20 seats. We heard from students from across India as well as people willing to wake up in the middle of the night in places like the United States, Canada and Australia just to be part of our baking classes.”
In hindsight, he’s not surprised. Baking spread like wildfire during the pandemic and, in many places, basic ingredients like flour and yeast flew off the shelves. The sudden enthusiasm makes sense, says Johny.
“As humans, we love eating and feeding others,” he explains. “With no work or social life, no dining out or partying, no sport or extracurriculars… we all looked for ways to nourish ourselves, whether it was through a creative pursuit or just eating more sugar and butter!”
In the next four months, Lavonne Academy trained over 14,000 students online and Johny released a new cookbook, New-School Sweets: Old-School Pastries with an Insanely Delicious Twist, with American pastry chef Andres Lara earlier this year.
“We conceptualized the book as a modern-day cafe, with aspirational desserts for amateur bakers. We wanted to help people level up their baking game.”
For anyone keen to improve their home baking repertoire, Johny says that one of his favorite – and deceptively simple – recipes is babka, a sweet braided bread that originated in Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
“Although it looks very technical and difficult to bake, it’s actually quite easy,” he says. “Follow my recipe to the T, and you can’t go wrong with it!”
The Recipe: Caramel Babka
Dinnerware: BOMSHBEE’s Tinge Clay
- 2 cups + 1¼ tbsp (250 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp + 2½ teaspoons (25 g) granulated sugar
- 1½ tbsp (13.5 g) fresh yeast
- 2 tbsp (30 g) butter
- 1 egg, whole
- ½ cup + 2 tsp (130 g) water
- 1 tsp (7 g) salt
Milk Chocolate Caramel
- ¼ cup (55 g) granulated sugar
- 2 tsp (10 g) honey
- ⅓ cup + 1½ tbsp (100 g) heavy cream
- 2 tbsp (30 g) butter, softened
- ⅓ cup + 1 tbsp (60 g) milk chocolate
- ½ tsp (2.5 g) sea salt
Dark Chocolate Ganache
- ½ cup + 1 ½ tbsp (90 g) dark chocolate
- ⅓ cup + 1 ½ tbsp (90 g) heavy cream
- ¾ tsp (5 g) corn syrup
- 2 tsp (10 g) butter
⅓ cup (30 g) almond flakes
- Mix the dough ingredients in a stand mixer or bowl. Knead dough for 8 minutes at medium speed, or until it no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl.
- Perform a “window-pane” test. Take a small, flattened piece of dough, and gently spread it apart. If the dough forms a thin, translucent membrane without tearing, then the gluten is perfectly developed. If a clear “window” doesn’t form, keep for another minute or two and check again. Make sure that the dough temperature stays between 68-75ºF for optimal flavor and rise.
- Once ready, remove the dough and shape into a smooth mound.
- Place in a bowl dusted with flour, cover with cling wrap, and rest at room temperature for one hour.
- Once the dough has risen, firmly press or punch the dough to distribute air bubbles.
- Place dough on a flour-dusted surface. Roll into a 8 x 6 in rectangle, about 2/5 inch thick.
- Transfer to a tray, cover with cling wrap, and refrigerate for later.
- For the caramel, start by combining honey and cream in a saucepan.
- In a separate saucepan, heat sugar and stir continuously until it caramelizes to a deep amber color. Add softened butter to help deglaze.
- Add the warmed honey-cream mixture to the caramelized sugar, and stir until combined.
- Pour caramel mixture into a bowl with chopped milk chocolate so they melt.
- Add sea salt, then mix using a hand blender, if possible, to create a smooth emulsion.
- Refrigerate for 2 hours for best consistency.
- For the ganache, bring corn syrup and cream to a simmer in a saucepan.
- Pour into a bowl with chopped dark chocolate, so that it melts.
- Mix well and let cool to room temperature.
- Add remaining butter, and use a hand blender if available to produce a smooth ganache.
Put it all together
- To assemble, spread a layer of ganache onto the dough, leaving about an inch from the edges.
- Pour caramel into a piping bag, then drizzle all over the ganache.
- Roll the dough along its longer side into a log. Wrap in cling wrap and freeze for an hour so that the dough is firmer.
- Use a small, sharp knife to cut along the centre of the log lengthwise, so we get two long halves with the layers exposed.
- Twist the halves together to form a braid, and place into a loaf tin greased with butter.
- To proof the dough (which activates the yeast), leave in a bread fermentation box at 80°F and 60% humidity, or place in a switched-off oven with a bowl of hot water for about 2 hours. You’ll know it’s just right when the dough has doubled in size.
- As an optional add-on, soak some almond flakes in a bowl of water to prep for baking.
- Once the dough has been proofed, brush a layer of milk over the surface and sprinkle with moist almond flakes.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 392°F for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.