At this year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival I had the pleasure of listening to one of my favourite bakers, Dan Lepard, talk about his life in the kitchen. As he shared his stories and baking tips we were treated to a few scrumptious snacks, including his take on the French classic, rum baba. This was something I'd never eaten before as, on top of it being a rare dessert option, in my mind these were just some kind of soggy cake, and as such never quite appealed. But as I took my first bite all trepidation dissipated and the presumption of trifle without the trimmings went unfounded. By the last, I was left wondering where this delectable sweet had been all my life.
The rum baba was first introduced into France in the 18th century by Stanislas Leszczynski, an exiled Polish King who took up the post of Duchy of Lorraine after losing his throne for a second time (not an entirely popular chap, it would seem). Depending on who you read, the original version of this dessert was first made either by an elderly cook's assistant who had to substitute French rum in making a traditional Polish sponge cake for her liege's evening banquet (hence baba, being Slavic for 'old woman'), or by the apprentice pastry cook, Nicolas Stohrer, who thought to enhance a dry Polish brioche by basting it with Malaga wine (the King subsequently naming this new dessert after the main character in his favourite novel).
However it came about, this small yeasted cake quickly evolved from frugality into sheer indulgence. A rich brioche dough became studded with sultanas and currants, and later went on to be doused with aromatised sugar syrup and lashings of hard liquor.
The dough used today is high in yeast content, which helps create a dry, spongey crumb that not only soaks up plenty of syrup, but lends the baba a nice, springy chew. Requiring little more than the most basic of ingredients baba are easy to make, wickedly handsome and, once liberally soaked, so hefty in weight that it's quite tempting to lob them from a great height just to hear the kersplat. Simple and yet so delicious, the citrus notes help balance the sweetness of the syrup, and with a dollop of vanilla-flecked crème fraîche when it comes to the perfect dessert, you could ask for little more.
An old classic and a new favourite, all rolled into one...