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Baba au rhum (or rum baba)—a classic dessert dates back to the early 1800s—is, essentially, a piece of enriched, yeasted batter baked until golden, then soaked in a boozy syrup (traditionally, you guessed it, with rum). In this recipe, I still use yeast for flavor, but I add baking powder to produce an even lighter, loftier baba (which can soak up more of the syrup). Speaking of syrup, I used bourbon (plus orange zest and vanilla bean) in lieu of rum and dried fruits. The result is a tasty nod to the classic with a flair of its own.
Want to give it a go? Here’s what you need to know:
Babas are made with a thick batter that’s heavily enriched, a.k.a. loaded up with ingredients that help to make the baked babas tender and evenly golden; in this case, milk, butter, eggs, and sugar. The batter is usually yeasted, which produces a particularly lovely bread-like flavor that's all the more lovely when served warm. It might remind you more of a sponge cake, since it's light in texture and able to soak up plenty of the flavorful syrup.
To make the batter, start with the egg yolks and half the sugar called for in the recipe. Whip them in an electric mixer until pale and thick (3-4 minutes); this is also known as “ribbon stage,” because the aerated yolk mixture will stream from the whip into in the bowl in a thick ribbon. You’ll need the mixer bowl again later (clean!)—so wash it quickly if you don’t have a spare. (You can also use a hand mixer and a regular bowl later, to avoid any meringue danger.) Warm the milk and butter in a medium pot. Because I flavor my batter with vanilla bean, I add it here in the milk, which helps the flavor disperse. You don’t want the milk to be too hot. Test it with your finger; it should feel warm but not hot. If it’s hot, let it cool a bit before proceeding. Add the milk/butter mixture to the egg yolks and stir to combine. Then, add the dry ingredients—flour, baking powder, yeast, salt (and for my version, plenty of orange zest).
Finally, the batter is lightened with meringue. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment (clean!!!), whip the egg whites on medium speed until they start to get frothy, 1-2 minutes. Slowly stream in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue to whip on medium-high speed until the mixture reaches medium peaks, 2-3 minutes more. Add about 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter. Mix to combine; this will help “temper” or lighten the batter. Fold in the remaining egg whites in 2 additions, very gently, just until incorporated.
Preparing the Mold
I like to use popover pans to make my babas. I like how tall the finished babas are, plus I always love to find multiple uses for pans that are generally for a single purpose. My popover pan has 6 cavities, and this recipe is formulated for that pan. But you could also use a muffin pan, which will yield closer to 12 smaller babas. Grease the cavities with softened butter, then coat with an even coating of all-purpose flour. Once you’ve made your batter, fill the prepared popover pan 2/3 way full (if you’re using muffin cups, fill the cups about 3/4 of the way full).
Transfer your filled pans to the oven and bake the babas for 20-23 minutes. The babas should rise very tall—at least 1 inch above the rim of the pan. They should also be very golden brown, and evenly so, all over. While the babas cook, make the soaking syrup (read on). Once the babas have baked, unmold them immediately. I use a small offset spatula to help me release the babas from the pan and transfer them to a cooling rack. Let them cool for a few minutes, but no more than 10. You want to soak them while they’re still warm, but cool enough to easily handle them.
While the babas bake, make the soaking syrup. My mixture uses bourbon, water, dark brown sugar, orange zest, orange juice, vanilla bean, a cinnamon stick, and cloves. Making the syrup is easy: Bring all the ingredients to a simmer, stir to dissolve the syrup, then let it infuse for 10-15 minutes before using. Soak the warm babas in the syrup while they are still warm. Be generous—really dunk them. After you’ve dunked each one, dunk them all again. By the time you’re done, the syrup should be gone.
Glazing + Finishing
I like to add an optional glaze to my babas by warming up a little apricot jam and brushing it on them after they’ve been soaked. But it is totally optional. Either way, serve the babas warm, with plenty of whipped cream.
- softened unsalted butter, as needed for greasing the mold
- 3 large (170 g) eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup (99 g) granulated sugar, divided
- 1/4 cup (57 g) whole milk
- 3 tablespoons (42 g) unsalted butter
- 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
- 1 1/4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons (8 g) baking powder
- 1 teaspoon (4 g) instant yeast
- 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) fine sea salt
- zest of 1 orange
Soaking + Finishing
- 3/4 cup (170 g) bourbon
- 1/2 cup (113 g) water
- 1/2 cup (106 g) dark brown sugar
- zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 cloves
- apricot jam, as needed for finishing (optional)
- whipped cream, as needed for serving (not optional)