Rum babas, or baba aux rhum as the French call them (I always feel like I should roll my Rs when I say it), are of Polish descent but have been claimed by the French, as well as the Italians. It started with a babka cake (babka meaning old woman), which is made with a yeasted batter. Apparently, the Polish King Stanislaus I was exiled from Poland to France in 1709. According to legend, he brought a babka cake with him, but it had dried out on the journey, so he decided to moisten it with alcohol. (Good thinking, King!) His daughter, Marie Leszczynska, married King Louis XV in 1725, and her pastry chef brought the dessert to Versailles. Five years later, this pastry chef, Stohrer, opened his own pastry shop in Paris, which is still open today and is the oldest bakery in Paris.
Traditionally, the rum baba is made in the shape of an over-sized champagne cork. If it’s made in a circular mold with a hole in the middle it’s known as a savarin. (But who am I to correct Paul Hollywood, whose rum baba recipe calls for just this type of mold!)
I went into this challenge without much trepidation. After all, I had the full recipe (unlike the GBBO contestants). I’ve made bread before. What could be so hard?
I followed Paul’s recipe exactly. I used bread flour (what the British call strong flour). I softened my butter. I had my eggs at room temperature. I used fresh yeast and was careful to keep the yeast away from the salt when adding them to the flour.
What I wasn’t counting on was how STICKY the dough was! The recipe says to knead it for 10 minutes before adding the butter. For this step, I highly recommend having both a dough scraper and a rubber spatula at hand. If it hadn’t been for those, most of the dough would have stayed on my hands or the pastry cloth. Somehow, I managed to get it to a “glossy” stage, but not a very “smooth” one, as the recipe calls for. Working in the butter made it a little easier, but it remained pretty sticky, so I did most of the work with my dough scraper. At last, I was able to plop it into a (greased) bowl to prove (i.e., rise).
If I had remembered to watch the Great British Baking Show Masterclass (Season 5, Episode 1 on Netflix) on rum babas BEFORE I made these, I would have seen Paul Hollywood working the dough in the bowl with a spatula the whole time! Since I have the advantage of knowing what the technical challenges will be before making them, I might as well use whatever resources I can.
After the first prove, I piped the dough into my greased and sugared (not salted, eh, John?) pans. Since I don’t own savarin molds, I used my individual-sized Bundt cakes tin. I left the cakes to prove again for about half an hour before popping them in the oven. While they baked, I made the rum syrup. I was surprised that it called for 7 ounces (200 ml) of water and only 3-4 tablespoons of rum. It seemed like most of the rum flavor was diluted to the point that it just tasted like simple syrup.
When the cakes were done, I let them cool briefly in the tins before carefully prying them out of the pan. I poured the syrup over the warm cakes, turning them several times to get it evenly distributed. Even after nearly an hour of soaking, however, not all the syrup was absorbed, so I decided to leave the cakes in the fridge overnight, upside down. Obviously, the GBBO contestants didn’t have this luxury; they were only given three hours to complete their rum babas. But since the recipe says to chill the cakes in the fridge, I decided to wait till the next day to serve them.
The following day, when I pulled them out of the refrigerator, there was still syrup in the pan. Perhaps the shape of the Bundt pans provided less surface area for the cakes to soak up the syrup.
After making the Chantilly cream, I tried to pipe it on artfully (My piping skills are a bit lacking.) and garnish them with fruit. Again, with only my husband and myself as judges, we cut into the first one. It was definitely moist, and cooked through, but there was clearly a gap in the middle where the syrup hadn’t reached (points off for execution). Also, as I mentioned before, I could barely taste the rum. Mary Berry would have been disappointed! Still, I’d give myself 4.5 out of 5 for flavor and a solid 4 for appearance. Overall, not a bad bake!
Here is a link to Paul’s original recipe, but I have adapted it here for American bakers:
Paul Hollywood’s Rum Babas With Chantilly Cream
Adapted for American bakers
- 1 2/3 c. bread flour
- 1 envelope fast action yeast
- ½ t. salt
- 3 T. sugar, plus extra for lining tins
- 2 large eggs
- 4 ½ T. milk
- 7 T. butter, softened and cut into chunks
For the syrup:
- 1 ¼ c. superfine (or baker’s) sugar
- 3-4 T. dark rum (increase for more intense flavor)
- 7 oz. (scant 1 c.) water
For the topping:
- 1 c. heavy whipping cream
- 1 c. powdered sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, seeds only Fresh fruit, for garnish (I used strawberries, blueberries and kiwi)
- Place the flour in a large bowl. Put the yeast on one side of the flour and the salt on the other, making sure they don’t touch. (Salt can kill the yeast, making it inactive). Add the sugar, and stir until evenly mixed.
- In a different bowl, mix the milk and eggs together until well combined. Add three-quarters of the egg and milk mixture to the flour, and stir to combine. Mix in the rest of the liquid, and knead the dough in the bowl with a spatula until it’s smooth and glossy; this will take about 10 minutes.
- Add the softened butter, and work it through the dough thoroughly until it’s silky and stretchy. This should take approximately six minutes. Put the dough into a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set the dough aside to rise for at least an hour, until doubled in size. (Mine took about 1½ hours.)
- Grease and sugar four 4½-inch fluted rum baba tins (or savarin molds). (Coating the molds with sugar will help the fragile cakes come out of the molds without sticking.)
- Turn the dough out of the bowl, and knock it back by kneading it a few times. Place the dough into a piping bag with a large plain nozzle. Pipe the dough into the four molds, trying to get them all as equal as possible.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Allow the dough to rise for a second time until it has expanded almost to the top of the molds. Be careful not to overprove at this stage, or you will get a muffin top around the edges. (Mine took about half an hour.)
- Bake in the preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes.
- Meanwhile for the syrup, put the sugar and rum in a small saucepan with water and bring to a rolling boil.
- When the babas are done (They should be golden brown, but you can also insert a toothpick in the thickest part of the cake to see if it comes out clean.), take them out of the oven and allow them to cool a little before carefully removing them from their tins. They will be very fragile.
- Place the babas into a deep dish and pour half the syrup over them. Allow them to soak up all of the liquid; then turn them over and repeat with the rest of the liquid. Transfer to the fridge to chill.
- Meanwhile, whip the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla seeds. The cream must be firm enough to pipe and hold its shape. Transfer to a piping bag and keep in the fridge until needed. Prepare the fruit as desired.
- To serve, pipe the Chantilly cream, using a star nozzle, into the middle of the babas. Garnish with the mixed fruit.