Week Thirty-Seven: Viennoiserie
Today’s Viennoiserie offering is a fairly uncommon food, one that you might spot on the occasional dessert menu. But honestly, there’s no good reason for it. A baba au rhum (rum baba) is so simple, so accomodating of schedules, and so delicious that there’s simply no excuse for any scarcity.
Babas were supposedly invented by Nicolas Stohrer, pastry chef to exiled Polish King Stanislas Leszczyńska (who arrived in France when his daughter married Louis XV). Or maybe they were invented by the good King himself. Or maybe by neither one. The true history is a little fuzzy (but you know how people like stories). Certainly, Nicolas Stohrer’s Parisian pastry shop, opened in 1730, and the oldest continuously-run pâtisserie in Paris, was the first to sell them, and the first to use the now-classic rum, in 1835.
Whatever the case, it’s fairly certain that the first baba was another bread or cake (possibly kugelhopf) that had dried out too much to be palatable. To remedy the situation, it was doused in a liquor-based syrup of some sort, and the resulting creation was a smash hit. The story says it was supposedly dubbed a “baba” after Ali Baba, the famous hero of One Thousand And One Nights, a favorite character of King Stanislas. But, more likely, it was named after the same Slavic word, meaning “grandmother” or “old woman”. (It was quite long ago; you really can’t blame people for remembering the more entertaining version.)
A nearly-identical version of baba is called the savarin, named after famed gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. They are made with the same dough, but a savarin is usually shaped like a doughnut, and is the larger of the two. Babas are more often seen in individual sizes, but are always thimble-shaped. Additionally, babas typically have currants or raisins added, whereas savarins do not. Here, I’ve made a plain version, so it’s a bit of a cross-breed.
These days, bakers and pastry chefs don’t wait for other items to go stale before making babas; these yeasted pastries are instead baked dry on purpose. Taste an un-soaked baba, and you’ll be left with a mouthful of cottony crumbs. But soak those styrofoam-like breads in a liquor-laden syrup, and they happily drink it in, transforming into saturated cakes. Heavy and nearly dripping with the stuff, one esteemed chef even suggests leaning forward as you bite into one (per his indulgent suggestion of eating one hand-held, on the go), lest you soak your shirt with the runoff syrup.
Despite the recommendation, babas are hardly ever eaten by hand, served plated instead, with a traditional cherry garnish. A bit of whipped cream would not be out of place, but it’s wholly unnecessary, as the pastry itself is so incomparably moist that it’s nearly wet. I found these a bit on the sweet side, but my sous-chef thought them just right. If you like, you can reduce the amount of sugar in the syrup recipe, or you can add some lemon juice to bring in some bitterness.
This recipe may look long, but it’s really incredibly simple. If you can make cookies, you can make babas au rhum. The method uses a stand mixer for simplicity, but it can just as easily be done by hand if you don’t have one. Also, I have seen many recipes that soak the babas whole, but I’ve cut the tops off. I tried to avoid it, but the syrup just didn’t soak through the top crust, leaving most of the interior dry as a bone. I imagine that if you have properly slender baba molds (or a popover tin), that problem wouldn’t be nearly as bad; my fat babas were baked in muffin tins, and just would not soak properly left whole.
With the tops cut off, however, the syrup had no problems infusing every crumb with its delectable flavor.
They may look a little slumped and homely, but one bite will show you that there’s nothing plain about these Janes. Could this be the perfect dinner party dessert? It’s soigné, easily made ahead of time, and simple as can be; I’d say it’s certainly in the running. All I know is I have a fridge full of them, and they’re sure calling my name.
Baba au Rhum
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg
Makes 12 individual babas, or 1 large one
For the dough:
3 ounces (about 2/3 cup) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces (about 1½ cups) cake flour
For the soaking syrup:
3 cups cold water
1 pound (2 1/3 cups) granulated sugar
1 orange, cut into quarters (optional)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons rum
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, yeast, and milk until smooth. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until fully risen and beginning to fall, about 1½ to 2 hours.
2. Oil 12 baba molds, or 12 cups of a nonstick muffin tin, for individual babas. For a single large one, oil a savarin mold, bundt pan (taking care to get in every crevice), angel food pan, or any other similar pan. Do not use butter, as this may pit the surface of the baba.
3. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl, and whisk in the butter, eggs, and salt until combined. Add the cake flour. Using the paddle attachment, beat the mixture at low speed until fully integrated. Increase the speed to medium-low, and beat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until smooth.
4. For individual babas, divide the mixture evenly among the 12 prepared tins. The dough should come about halfway up each tin. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature until each has risen to the top of the tin, about 30 to 45 minutes. For a single large baba, spread evenly in the prepared pan. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size, about 30 to 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400º F.
5. Bake the babas at 400º F for 20 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. Remove from the tins, and let cool thoroughly at room temperature. These can now be stored at room temperature for a day or so, if necessary (see note 4 below).
6. While babas cool, make the syrup. Stir the water and sugar together in a medium pan over medium-high heat until dissolved. Add the orange, lower the temperature if necessary, and simmer for 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, remove the orange, and add the rum.
7. To soak the individual babas (see note 2 below for instructions on soaking one large baba), cut the domed tops off each one. Discard these, or soak separately for baba “cookies”. Bring the syrup back to a boil, then turn the heat off. Place one or two babas in the pan of syrup, cut-side up, and press down to submerge. Each individual baba should take around 30 to 60 seconds to soak thoroughly. When done, no more bubbles should come out of the pastry. Make sure the baba is thoroughly soaked by removing from the syrup and cutting a small slit into the center of the baba, to look for any dry spots. If still dry, be sure to soak the remaining babas for a longer time.
8. Remove from the syrup and place, cut-side down, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet (to catch excess syrup). Let drain until no more liquid comes out. When all babas are soaked, if you have syrup remaining, you can re-heat it to boiling, then pour or spoon it over any babas that may need additional liquid (they will feel firm in the center when pressed lightly; thoroughly soaked babas will feel very soft). Serve as soon as possible, or refrigerate, tightly wrapped, until ready to serve.
1. The syrup will soak into the babas more readily if it is kept hot, just off the boil. However, you do not want to have the syrup on the heat while soaking the pastries, as the bubbling will disturb the soaking process, and the constant heat will reduce the syrup too thickly. You can reheat the syrup as necessary between soakings.
2. The soaking instructions are only given for the individual babas. For a single baba, cut the domed top off the pastry, and place cut-side up on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Pour or spoon the boiling-hot syrup over, until thoroughly soaked through. You can re-heat the runoff syrup caught by the baking sheet, if needed.
3. Though the recipe (and the name itself) calls for rum, any sweeter liquor may be used. Brandy, bourbon, kirsch, Poire William, or a combination would be good choices. (Maybe avoid using things like gin or tequila, though.)
4. Some like to let the unsoaked babas dry out for up to a day, uncovered, so as to better soak up the syrup. Proceed at your discretion. They will keep for a few days at room temperature in plastic bags. The syrup will also keep for several days, refrigerated.