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Author Notes: A beloved boozy treat from Naples, babà al rum are small yeasted brioche-like cakes swimming in a rum-spiked citrus syrup. Like many soaked desserts, babà benefit from being made in advance, making them a great party dessert as there's no need for any last minute preparing. See below on how to store them before or after soaking. —Emiko
For the babà:
- 1 teaspoon active-dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 2 1/4 cups strong white flour (also known as bread flour or baker's flour)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 6 medium sized eggs, cold from the fridge and beaten
- 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
- pinches of salt
For the syrup:
- 1 cup white sugar
- peel of 1 lemon or orange
- 9 ounces of rum
- 3 cups water
- apricot jam for glazing
- Combine the fresh yeast with the milk and 2 tablespoons of the flour until you get a small ball of dough. Leave in a bowl, covered in cling wrap and in a warm place, for about 30 minutes or until doubled in size. Note: I find active-dry yeast most reliable for this recipe. You could use fresh yeast in the appropriate conversion but try not to use instant yeast here as the proving stage is important. Also, use strong flour (bread flour), rather than soft flours (all purpose or cake flour), as it contains more gluten, making a very elastic dough that will rise well in the oven to create that perfect babà shape.
- Place the rest of the flour in a mixer with the ball of dough, then, with the mixer running, add the sugar and the beaten eggs. Keep the mixer on, working the dough for roughly 15-20 minutes or until the dough begins pulling away from the sides of the bowl and is very elastic.
- At this point, add the salt and then the butter, chopped into small cubes, one piece at a time, combining well after each addition, which should take another 15 minutes. The dough should become softer and paler. Remove from the mixer, cover the bowl with cling wrap and let the dough rise for three hours in a warm place.
- In the meantime, prepare the syrup by placing the citrus rinds in a saucepan with the water and sugar. Bring the boil and when the sugar has dissolved, take the pan off the heat. At this point or when cooler, you can add the rum (don't cook the rum as the alcohol will evaporate – unless you don't want this to be an adult's only dessert!). Set aside, covered, and allow the mixture to infuse until needed.
- Prepare the molds by buttering and flouring them well - for traditional babà use individual molds just over 2 inches in height and 2 inches in diameter on top, slightly tapered towards the bottom - a popover pan of similar dimensions works just as well. When the dough has risen, take apricot-sized balls (about 2-2½ ounces each; you can weigh the first one to get an idea) with your hands and place them in the molds (they should fill the moulds by about a third). Leave to rest in a warm place, away from drafts, until the dough forms a dome and rises to the top of the molds.
- Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes or until the babà has developed a deep golden-brown colour, on the darker rather than the blonder side. Let cool. At this point, you can store the babà in an air tight container for later (in the fridge they keep for a week; they also freeze well for 2 months), or you can proceed with the soaking.
- Heat the rum syrup until it is warm, then, off the heat, emerge the babà in the syrup, turning delicately until soaked through. Pull them out with tongs and squeeze the excess syrup out gently then place on a rack over a baking tray to catch any drips. Try to keep the babà vertical, or if on their sides, rotate them regularly so that the syrup soaks through evenly. Brush them with some strained apricot jam (if needed, heat or dilute with a bit of syrup) to give them a bit of shine. The rum syrup itself will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
- Just before serving, sprinkle some more of the rum syrup over the top of them and don't be shy about it. If not eating the soaked babà straight away, store them in the fridge in an air tight container for up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving as they are or, if you're feeling indulgent, cut them in half but not all the way to the bottom, pipe pastry cream through the middle and arrange some strawberry slices on top.
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