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?
Note: 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
- Prep time 1 hour 5 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Makes 12
- For the babà:
2 1/4 cups
strong white flour (also known as bread flour or baker's flour)
medium sized eggs, cold from the fridge and beaten
butter, room temperature
- For the syrup:
lemon or orange peel
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 2-2 1/2 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.