… Or maybe not, but still, one of the top five, honestly. Baba’ – for those of you not lucky enough to be born in the right place of the world – is a yeast based pastry soaked with sugar syrup and rhum. This is not a proper description of course, it is like saying that the Mona Lisa is a canvas painted with a few oil colors, including black, brown, and yellow. The name, baba’, is the way in which in Naples people say ‘something delicious’. And we are talking about Naples, where they invented pizza. Baba’ is linked to the french savarin, apparently it came to Naples from the french chefs of the wealthy families. But it has its own unique flavour and consistency, and I never met a Baba au Rhum similar to the ones in Italy when abroad. Since I have always been fond of them, and since I have always loved preparing yeast based pastry, I have tried many times to cook them at home, with really disappointing results. Easily the recipe calls for too much butter, that will make the delicate flavour stodgy, or for wrong raising times / yeast quantities, getting too airy a dough that will not soak properly. A true baba’ not only has the most delicate flavour, but the real magic is the perfect spongy consistency, soaked but still firm, melting in the mouth but not under the fork.
Finally I found the recipe, and yes, it is THE recipe. I didn’t change a thing. They turn out perfect. But I have to warn you, it is not an easy job. It requires a day’s work, hard physical labour if you don’t have an automatic mixer (I don’t), and some experience and intuition with yeast based doughs. But belive me, the result is worth a hundred tries. Its distinctive factors are the relatively small amount of sugar and butter and the presence of the egg whites, that give bite to the dough without making it heavy. The traditional shape requires very high cylindrical moulds, around 4 to 8 cm high, but if you can’t find them, use a high donut one, or bake a large baba’ with a kugelhupf mould (all these shapes are quite traditional, the donut one being very useful if you want to serve it with a dollop of cream). Aluminium moulds work perfectly, don’t use the non stick ones, they are not worth the extra money and indeed, they are too thick.
Thanks to Adriano, for the perfect repice.
Yields about 24 small ones or 12 large ones.
For the dough:
350 gr bread flour
5 medium eggs
75 gr butter, softened but not too much
2 tablespoon sugar
7 gr dried instant yeast
6 gr salt (don’t reduce it! It is fundamental)
1 lt water
500 gr sugar
zest of one lemon and one orange
dark rhum, to taste (a lot!)
six tablespoon of apricot jelly
four tablespoons icing sugar
two tablespoons water
two leaves of gelatine
Mix the yeast with 30 grams of warm water, and add 25 gr of flour to it. Leave to rise for about an hour.
Separate the yolks from the white of the eggs, and keep the covered yolks in the fridge. Break the whites and mix them with as much flour as needed to get a loose and sticky, but not running, consistency. It will be about 100 grams. Let it rest for half an hour as well.
Now the hard labour begins. If you have a mixer, use it. If you don’t: mix in the egg whites mixture the yeast mixture, an egg yolk and a little flour (about one sixt of what is left). Mix and mix and mix, dont’ worry if it is sticky. When strings appear in your mixture, add another egg yolk, the sugar and another sixt of flour. Mix again, and again add an egg yolk, the salt and a sixt of flour. Same thing for the forth and the fift egg yolk: you should have a sixt of flour left. Your dough will be very sticky but not running, and some strings will be present. Add now the butter, which must be not too soft: if it melts, it will be easier to incorporate it, but the consistency will not be right. Now the serious labour begins. Don’t despair if your butter does not seem to want to melt at all with the dough. Just keep mixing, and you will see that the butter lumps will disappear, sooner or later. Add the remaining flour: the resulting dough should be very smooth, tend to stay in one piece (it will not stick to the container any more, although it will stick to your fingers) and smell wonderful.
Let it rise until the volume doubles. It usually takes about four hours in my very cold house.
Butter the mould thoroughly (it is very easy if you melt a little butter and use a brush).
Now put a little flour on the working surface, let the dough slide on it, and working very carefully so that it will not stick to the surface, with some flour on your hand, put one angle in the centre of the dough. Repeat until the whole thing has been folded very well. Now cut the dough with a large knife in twelve or 24 parts, depending on the size of your mould. Try to get regular ball shaped pieces. Drop them delicately in the moulds. This part is tricky because you want to be able to get a regular shape, but you don’t want to add flour to the really soft dough. The best advice I can give you is to use flour on the external part of the dough. If you don’t apply any strong pressure you should be able to handle it quite easily from the floured outside, and the dough will stay very soft on the inside. You can then brush off most of the external flour. If you are not delicate enough the dough will break the flour surface and you’ll have to add some flour to the whole thing.
Let the individual baba’ rise well until the surface of the moulds. This will take about an hour or so. Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Prepare the syrup in a tall pot (the taller the better): boil the water and sugar with the orange and lemon zest. Put the moulds in the oven for about 15 minutes, if small, or 25, if large (I don’t have cooking times for the large mould yet). When the baba’ looks golden, try and take them off their mould. If they are ready you should have no problem in sliding them off, and they should be an even golden colour. If they are not, pop them back in the oven for a few more minutes.
Take them off the mould and plunge them in the syrup straight away. Help them soak well by pressing them gently. When they are well soaked, put them upside down to rest. I usually use an oven dish so that I can lay them standing upright agaist the border. Spoon them again with more syrup if they seem to run dry. Prepare the glazing: soak the gelatine in cold water for ten minutes, melt it with a little water, add the apricot jelly and sugar, and let everything melt. Brush the glaze all round the baba’, paying attention not to break them if they are too much soaked.
They will be better the day after. When you want to serve them, make sure they are really well soaked with syrup. The best thing to do is to add a large splash of rhum at the last moment.
I like them as they are, but a lot of people eat them cut in two with some whipped cream in the center.