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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Brioche-like cakes, drenched in a rum-and-citrus-syrup, from Napoli.
A beloved boozy treat that have found their way into pastry shops across the Italian peninsula, babà al rum (or rum babà) are small, yeasted, brioche-like cakes swimming in a citrus syrup spiked with plenty of rum. And as if that doesn't sound tempting enough, you can also find them filled with pastry cream or whipped cream and topped with fruit.
In Italy, these deliciously spongy, syrupy cakes are always associated with Naples, although their origins involve a journey from Poland to France, where they were perfected, before arriving in the southern Italian port city. According to Larousse Gastronomique, babà, which are often cited as a relative of the babka, were introduced to France in the eighteenth century via Stanislas Leszczynski, former King of Poland, who had the idea of soaking a rather unpleasantly dry kugelhopf (yet another similar cake) in rum. Others reported that instead of rum it was Malaga wine and yet another story goes that he was so pleased with his discovery that he named it after Ali Baba, the character from his favorite story. Either way, the French pâtissiers at the time quickly caught on and the modern babà was born in a pastry shop in Paris. Adopted by Neapolitans in the nineteenth century, they quickly became a specialty that is still a favourite today, present at the tables of every Neapolitan wedding and special occasion, not to mention every pastry shop for a rum-spiked treat at any time of the day.
The rich batter is usually made in individual moulds but can also be done in a bundt pan as one large cake, like the kugelhopf. Many older recipes, such as Pellegrino Artusi's recipe from 1891, include candied orange peel and raisins in the batter -- not unlike the Milanese panettone -- still a nice touch for those who like dried fruit. While waiting for the batter to rise, a simple syrup is infused with citrus rinds and a generous portion of rum. When the babà are cooked, they are soaked in the syrup and given a lick of strained apricot jam until they shimmer.
If you're feeling indulgent, cut them in half but not all the way to the bottom and pipe pastry cream through the middle and arrange some strawberry slices on top. Serving them for a party? Try a mountain of these, stacked with whole fresh berries to fill the gaps and a bowl of freshly whipped cream for guests to help themselves to. Either way, the best way to eat these are to get your fingers sticky. Go on, what are you waiting for?
Babà Napoletano al Rum
Makes 12 babà al rum
For the babà:
1 level teaspoon of 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 and beaten
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
Pinch of salt
For the syrup:
1 cup white sugar
Peel of 1 lemon or orange
9 ounces of rum
3 cups water
Photos by Emiko Davies