The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star.— Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a 19th century French gastronome who became one of the most celebrated food writers of all time. His most famous work, The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy is a “historical, philosophical, and epicurean collection of recipes, reflections, and anecdotes on everything and anything gastronomical,” according to its current publisher, Penguin Random House. First published in 1825, his book has never gone out of print.
Sometime in the 1840s, it is said, a Parisian pâtissier by the name of Julien, experimenting with the Eastern European baba, invented a similar yeast-leavened cake baked in a large ring mold and soaked in syrup and named it after Brillat-Savarin. Instead of having dried fruit baked in it like a baba, the center hole in the savarin is filled with fresh fruit and cream.
The savarin is one of many yeast-leavened cakes that come mostly from continental Europe. Among the most well-known are the Kugelhopf or Gugelhupf, from central Europe, and the panettone from Italy. Some people also classify brioche and babka as yeasted cakes; others call them breads. To each his own.
This signature challenge was for an old-fashioned, European-inspired yeast-leavened cake. Fillings and decorations were left up to the bakers. Chetna, Nancy and Martha all made savarins with various flavored syrups and fillings, Luis made a Kugelhopf, Richard made a Gugelhupf, and Kate made a babka.
My savarin features the bright spring flavors of rhubarb and elderflower, adapted from this recipe. While some savarins are served with crème fraiche, I used a recipe I found here using whipped cream and yogurt — its tanginess serves as a foil to the sweetness of the rhubarb-and-elderflower-syrup-soaked cake. I also made a rhubarb compote as an accompaniment, using a recipe from New York Times Cooking.
The cake is made from a simple batter of flour, sugar, eggs and yeast — with a little bit of liquid and flavoring — beaten together to make a thick, sticky batter. After beating for about 5 minutes, I added softened butter a little at a time, beating continuously until it was fully incorporated. I then let the dough rise until doubled.
After the first prove, I transferred the dough to a greased Bundt pan and let it rise a second time. It was supposed to rise to fill three-quarters of the pan, but my dough rose so rapidly the pan was almost full by the time I put it in the oven. I was afraid it would overflow, but it just rose to about ¾ inch above the pan.
I made the soaking syrup by roasting fresh rhubarb sprinkled with sugar, elderflower cordial and lemon zest. I then added the resulting liquid to more elderflower cordial and simmered it down to a syrup. When the cake was done, I took it out of the pan, poured about half the syrup into the pan and carefully put the cake back in the pan to soak up the syrup. I also poked holes in the top of the cake and poured the rest of the syrup over the surface, allowing the syrup to soak in.
To make the rhubarb compote, I gently cooked rhubarb and sugar just until the fruit was soft, then removed the rhubarb and let the liquid cook until it was syrupy. I poured the syrup over the rhubarb and let it cool. I then whipped the cream, added a little bit of elderflower cordial and folded in the yogurt.
When combined, all the elements of this elegant dessert worked really well together. The syrup moistened the bread-like cake and gave it a more delicate crumb structure. The compote added sweetness, which was offset by the tangy cream. It was a delicious combination of flavors and textures that made it perfect for a springtime tea. I was able to enjoy it with friends on our screen porch as the newly mown grass and budding trees soaked up a gentle rain.
Rhubarb and Elderflower Savarin
Savarin recipe adapted from TeaAndMangoes.com
Credit for rhubarb compote: Cooking.NYTimes.com
For the cake:
For the soaking syrup:
- 1 lb. rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch slices
- ½ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- ½ c. + 2 T. elderflower cordial, divided
- ¼ c. granulated sugar
For the rhubarb compote:
- ¾ lb. rhubarb, cubed
- ¾ c. sugar
- Red food coloring (optional)
For the elderflower cream:
- 1¼ c. heavy whipping cream
- 2 T. elderflower cordial
- ½ c. full-fat plain yogurt
- To make the cake: Put the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large mixer bowl. In another bowl, mix the elderflower cordial and eggs together; then pour into flour mixture and beat well for about 5 minutes to make a thick, sticky batter.
- Gradually add the butter, beating until the mixture is smooth, elastic and shiny. Finally, fold in the lemon zest. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let rise for one hour.
- While cake is rising, make the syrup. Heat oven to 400°F. Put the rhubarb in a roasting pan and sprinkle with ½ cup superfine sugar. Combine lemon juice and 2 T. elderflower cordial and drizzle over rhubarb, then sprinkle with lemon zest. Cover with foil and roast in the oven for 15-25 minutes, just until soft. Remove from the oven and strain the rhubarb from the liquid. (You can reserve the rhubarb to add to the compote if you like.) Measure 2/3 cup of liquid from roasting the rhubarb and pour into a saucepan (reserve the rest). Add ½ cup elderflower cordial and ¼ cup sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil and allow to simmer until thickened to a syrup. Strain and set aside to cool.
- Grease a 9-inch savarin mold or Bundt pan. (I use Nancy Birtwhistle’s lining paste recipe here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL5ydEOCSgE.) When the batter has risen, stir it down, then pour or spoon it into the prepared pan. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise for 25-45 minutes, until it fills three-quarters of the pan.
- Heat oven to 350°F. Remove plastic wrap from pan and bake cake for 20–25 minutes until the savarin is risen and golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
- While the savarin is baking, make the compote. Combine rhubarb and ¾ cup sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until rhubarb starts to soften but before it falls apart. Use a slotted spoon to transfer rhubarb to a bowl. Cook remaining liquid until it thickens to a syrup, about 5 more minutes. (If your rhubarb is not very red, you may want to add a few drops of red food coloring to make they syrup pink.) Pour syrup over rhubarb and let cool. (You may add reserved rhubarb and liquid from making the soaking syrup if you like.)
- Remove cake from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for 5–10 minutes. Poke holes in the surface of the cake with the skewer to help soak up the syrup.
- When savarin is cool enough to handle, remove it from the pan and pour half of the syrup into the pan. Place the savarin pan inside a baking pan with sides to catch any spillover, then carefully place the cake back into the savarin pan to soak up the syrup. Gradually pour the remaining syrup over the surface of the cake, letting the syrup soak in and trying not to let it overflow. Leave cake in the pan for about 5 minutes to let it soak up the syrup.
- Carefully turn savarin out of cake pan onto serving platter. Pour any leftover syrup from the savarin pan or the spillover pan over the cake and leave it to cool completely.
- For the filling, whip the cream to soft peaks. Stir 2 T. elderflower cordial into the yogurt and gently fold it into the whipped cream. Transfer to piping bag fitted with an open star tip and pipe the cream into the center of the savarin and pipe stars around the bottom edge. Spoon some compote on top of the cake. Slice and serve with additional compote.