THIS MONTH: Baba au rhum
Louise Pickford dishes up a dessert of pure indulgence
When it comes to famous recipes, the facts about their origins are often long, complicated and much contradicted. Baba au rhum is no different and I have to admit, I always assumed that it originated not in France or even Europe but somewhere in the Middle East. It certainly sounds like something the Arabian Knights would have enjoyed, and not surprisingly, at one point in its long history, it was thought that its dome-like shape was inspired by Ali Baba in his tale A Thousand and One Nights.
It is, however, now more or less agreed by food historians that this decadent dessert was invented in France in the 18th century, by French pastry chef Nicolas Stohrer, for the exiled King of Poland, Stanislaw I. The king, living in Alsace-Lorraine, was in France for the marriage of his daughter to Louis XV and asked Nicolas to soak a rather dry kugelhopf cake (an Eastern European yeast cake baked in a tall dome-shaped tin) in alcohol to render it more palatable. It is known for certain that Nicolas Stohrer made and sold what we know today as a baba au
This recipe produces a cake with a wonderfully moist airy texture and lovely rich boozy flavour
rhum when he opened his long running and world-famous pâtisserie in Paris in 1730.
Unlike the original recipe, today’s babas are purposefully dry when cooked so that they soak up as much of the delicious rum syrup as possible. This recipe produces a cake with a wonderfully moist airy texture and lovely rich boozy flavour. Babas are traditionally baked in individual tins, either dome-shaped or in individual ring moulds.
Babas always bring a smile to my face. They so epitomise 1970s Britain, when French cuisine was de rigueur and bistros were hugely popular. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for being in London at the time and discovering this exotic dish that creates such fond memories, but most likely it’s for the way in which they were served back then, with a piped swirl of cream and that ubiquitous glacé cherry perched on top. Fortunately, if you go to any number of bistros in France today, this timeless classic is served just the same way. They may be kitsch, but they’re just delicious, so who cares?
For this recipe, you’ll need either a deep 12-hole muffin tin, or 12 x 80ml capacity individual metal pudding tins. Note also that dried active yeast is available from some larger supermarkets or health food stores, and shouldn’t be confused with fast-acting yeast.
Louise Pickford is a food writer and stylist with more than 25 cookbooks to her name. She lives in Charente with her food and lifestyle photographer husband Ian Wallace.