I remember this indulgently delicious rum-soaked Neapolitan dessert from my childhood, when it made frequent appearances on the Sunday dinner table along with other typical southern Italian sweets. The last time I had babà, kind of rum cake, was around 2003 in Naples, in a caffè in the Galleria Umberto I. It was, needless to say, a memorable experience.
Funny how some wonderful dishes seem to go out of fashion. Once upon a time, you could find babà in any Italian pastry shop, but these days, in the US anyway, you’ll have to hunt it down—or make it yourself. Good news is, while babà may be a bit time-consuming it is not at all hard to make. All this rum cake is, at the end of the day, is a sweet dough, enriched with butter and eggs, baked until golden brown and soaked in rum-laced syrup. Rich by itself, the resulting cake is often served with crema pasticcera (pastry cream) or whipped cream. It can also be garnished with mixed berries, which is a bit lighter and healthier. Babà makes a wonderful presentation for an important dinner, and it is often served for holidays like Christmas or Easter.
Makes one large babà, enough to serve 6-8 persons, or more
For the dough:
- 300g (10-1/2 oz) flour
- 2 Tbs dry active yeast
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) lukewarm water
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) mealy potato, steamed, peeled and mashed
- 75g (3/4 stick) of butter, softened
- A pinch of salt
- A pinch of sugar
- 3 eggs
For the rum syrup:
- 350g (12 oz) sugar
- 500ml (2 cups) water
- Rum, 150m (1/2 cup) or more, to taste
For topping (optional):
- Crema pasticcera (see this post for the recipe)
- Whipped cream
- Mixed berries, napped with a large spoonful of the rum syrup
- Extra rum
Proof the yeast by mixing it with 50g (2 oz) of the flour and the water in a small bowl. Cover the bowl and let it sit in a warm place (like inside of a turned off oven) for about 30 minutes. It’ll be ready when it ‘bubbles’ like so:
In the bowl of a standing mixer, using the paddle on low speed, mix together the rest of the flour, mashed potato, butter salt and sugar until it has taken on a grainy consistency. Then start adding the eggs, one by one. Stop the mixer and add the proofed yeast, then continue until you’ve achieved a uniform, very stick dough:
Grease a ring mold very well. (NB: Do this even if you’re ring mold is supposedly non-stick; trust me, it helps.) Gather up the dough into a ball with a spatula and place it in the mold, evening it out as much as you can. The sticky dough can be hard to handle, but persist; it is easiest to use your hands for the operation.
Cover the mold with a towel and let is sit for an hour or two, until it has at least doubled in volume, filling up the mold:
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Place the mold (uncovered) in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the dough has turned golden brown on top and a paring knife or toothpick inserted into it comes out perfectly clean. Remove from the oven and let the cake cool in its mold for about 10-15 minutes.
While the cake is cooling, make the syrup: Add water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for about a minute, then add a good splash (or two) of rum. Simmer for another minute or so. (NB: If it’s more convenient to make the syrup ahead of time, make sure to reheat it before proceeding to the next step.)
After the cake has cooled off a bit but is still warm, prick the top of the babà all over with a paring knife or other sharp object to perforate the surface. Spoon the rum syrup, little by little, all over the top of the cake and around the edges, too, so it runs down the sides and reaches the bottom of the mold. Continue until you’ve used up all but a few spoonfuls of the syrup. (If garnishing the babà with mixed berries, save another spoonful for that, too.) Let the cake sit in its mold for another 10-15 minutes to allow the syrup to penetrate it completely.
Turn the cake over on to a serving platter and unmold it. Spoon the remaining syrup over the top, and fill the center, if you like, with crema pasticcera, whipped cream or mixed berries. And now for my little special chef’s secret: if you want some extra oomph, drizzle more rum over the top of the cake, as much as you like…
When the cake has completely cooled, slice, serve and enjoy!
Babà is perhaps the best known Neapolitan dessert, but it is not, of course, exclusively Neapolitan. Most Americans know this rum cake as a French dessert. In fact, some sources say that it was probably invented in Poland, as a variation on a cake called babka. It is said that the 18th century King Stanislas the Good ordered that liquor, originally a sweet wine, be added to the babka to make it a bit less dry. How it made its way to Naples, I don’t really know, but I imagine it was probably during the French Bourbon reign over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It is another of many dishes showing that French influence in Neapolitan cooking.
Babà can be served in other kinds of molds and, when it’s served to you in a caffè or you buy it in a pastry shop, it is more than likely you’ll find it made as little individual cakelets. I’ve seen recipes that tell you to add currents to the dough, but I’ve never tried it that way. Ditto for using limoncello instead of rum, something I’ve read about but not tried.
The unusual inclusion of potato in the dough for this rum cake comes from Jeanne Caròla Francesconi’s recipe in her classic La cucina napoletana, which, as regular readers will know, is my bible for all things concerning Neapolitan cuisine.