Babà al rum, Baba au rhum, Rum Baba and Savarin – facts and legends

 Go to Naples and eat Babà al rum. Neapolitans will claim them as their own.  But are they?

While I was looking for my Moulinex, a seldom used appliance in my top cupboard, I found other infrequently used appliances, like Baba and Savarin molds.

A Baba au rhum (as called by the French) is a rich yeast cake or sponge made with eggs, flour, milk and butter saturated in syrup made with alcohol, usually rum, and sometimes filled with pastry cream.

A Savarin is bigger version, baked in a ring mold and soaked in rum syrup and usually placed in the centre could be one or more of the following: pastry cream, Chantilly creme,  poached or fresh fruit. Raisins, sultanas or currants may be included in the dough.

The Neapolitan Babà al rum are usually made as mignons (small shapes) but the larger Savarins are also popular in Naples.

My partner has been experimenting and baking mainly with sourdough but also with fresh yeast. He bought too much yeast. I am not one to waste ingredients, so I suggested that he makes some rum babà – a very easy process but with enjoyable results. I gave him a few recipes and suggested that he may also like to look at how the French made them as well as the Neapolitans.

Before his bread baking sessions, my partner likes to find bakers/chefs demonstrating how they make the bread on YouTube, and he did the same this time when he was preparing to make the babà. Among the many YouTube videos he found, he showed me a very amusing one that had a highly reputed Italian pastry chef pinching up pieces of baba batter and twirling around his fingers to almost flick the very elastic batter into molds. Another YouTube demo featured Rita Chef who introduced her lesson on make babà with stories, about the origins and the legend of babà. Both chefs in these YouTube sessions speak in Italian so my partner didn’t quite understand Chef Rita was saying.

Chef Rita, does mention France and Poland but the account of the origins of babà is slightly twisted.

Chef Rita tells us that a sovereign who lived in Poland did not enjoy what his chefs had made as a dessert … a dry cake. The angry sovereign forcefully pushed the cake to the end of the table. And guess what?

At the end of the table was a bottle of rum and when the cake hit the bottle, the rum was spilled on the cake. In Chef Rita’s version of events the sovereign and his courtiers at the table were ‘inebriated’ by the combined fragrance of the cake and the rum and so the cook was given a reprieve and ordered to experiment with the ingredients and perfect the making of a rum-soaked cake.

At the time, this Polish sovereign was reading and enjoying the Arabian classic, A Thousand And One Nights. You can guess what’s coming … he called the dessert Ali Baba.

In a further twist to Chef Rita’s story, the Polish sovereign was later exiled to France. There the French chefs refined the recipe and soaked it in a syrup with alcohol of some sort, but it was only when it came to Naples that the Ali was dropped from Ali Baba and rum was added.

The Neapolitan chef’s story is very amusing, but there seem to be more realistic accounts about babà. Here are some:

  • Poland and Ukraine have a tall, cylindrical yeast cake called babka meaning “old woman” or “grandmother” and in most Slavic languages; babka is a diminutive of baba.
  • There are many similar versions to the Babka in Eastern Europe but also the Gugelhupf of Alsace Lorraine, France.
  • The deposed King Stanislas Leszczynska was exiled from Poland and came to France in the 1600s because Stanislas’s daughter married King Louis XV.
  • King Stanislas Leszczynska either returned from a trip to Poland with a Babka cake or he found a Gugelhupf version in the area. The alcohol he added to sweeten and moisten it may have been Hungarian sweet wine.
  • Stanislaus’ daughter’s pastry chef, Stohrer, went with her to Versailles and he added rum for the first time. Later he opened a pastry shop in Paris, Patisserie Stohrer and the Rum Baba became famous and claimed the French it as their own.
  • Rum Babà was brought to Italy by visiting French pastry chefs.
  • The legends vary in different texts but this one seems the most popular: Stanislas found the French cakes too dry and dipped them in rum. The chefs then experimented using brioche dough, and some added raisins.
  • In Larousse Gastronomique it says that a Parisian Maitre Patissier omitted raisins from the dough, giving the cake another shape and soaked it with a syrup made with secret ingredients and created and called it the Brillat-Savarin (celebrated French gourmet and writer on gastronomy), which later became simply savarin.
  • Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion says that in the 1840s one of the Julien family of Parisian pastry-makers, set his mind to experimenting with the baba recipe and he named this rich and tasty dessert in honour of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826).

My partner used a combination of recipes but in the end this is what he did:

The recipe is for 6 babas and one small savarin, or 8 small babas

220g flour, 12g fresh yeast, salt, 50g sugar, 2 eggs, 70ml milk 100g butter

Stir the yeast, a little sugar in the warm milk together into a mixer bowl (to use with a dough hook in your electric mixer) and allow the yeast to dissolve and froth (about 5 minutes).

Mix in 25g of flour, place in a warm place until double in size.

Once the dough has risen, slowly start mixing the dough and gradually add the remaining flour, sugar, salt in a bowl and then add eggs, one at a time, blending after each.

Progressively add butter and beat it until the dough then increase speed to high speed and beat it until it is smooth and glossy and almost coming away from the sides.

Cover the dough with a tea towel and allow to rise in a warm space for about 30 mins.

Divide dough among 8 greased dariole moulds, cover with a tea towel and set aside to prove until dough reaches tops of moulds. Use 180 C oven and bake until golden.

Turn out to cool completely, prick them all over with a skewer then place them in a large airtight container until required.

All of the recipes use an incredible amount of sugar (400g per litre), we used 2 litres of water 400g sugar 400ml rum and we found that sweet enough.

For the rum syrup, in a saucepan mix water, sugar, lemon zest from1 lemon and juice from 1/2 lemon and over medium heat stir until sugar dissolves, then simmer until syrupy (5 minutes). Add the rum and gently place the babas in the syrup, turning lightly until soaked through.

Drain them and leave until ready to serve.

I presented them with poached pears and egg custard.

To Make Custard:

3 egg yolks, tablespoons caster sugar infused with a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt 2 tablespoons of cornflour, 400 ml of milk, rind of 1 lemon, and a cinnamon stick.

In a saucepan, mix the egg yolks with the sugar and slowly add the flour, salt and a little milk to make a smooth paste – a whisk could be useful. If you do not have sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean, use a little vanilla essence (not artificial).
Add the rest of the milk and incorporate to dilute the mixture evenly.
Using a vegetable peeler remove the rind in one piece from ½ lemon. Add this to the milk mixture. Add the cinnamon stick.
Use low – medium heat, stir it constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon and slowly bring it to the boil- the custard should have thickened.
To make a creamier pastry cream, add a few pieces of room temperature butter while the custard is warm. Add a bit at a time, and whisk until well blended.
Cool before using. To prevent a skin from forming, I place a piece of baking paper or butter paper on its surface.
You may like this Italian dessert:

ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

PIZZAIOLA (Steak cooked alla pizzaiola with tomatoes and herbs)

Pizzaiola is a classic and very simple Neapolitan dish: young beef, ripe tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, oregano, garlic, seasoning and parsley.  


These are the simple flavours of Naples, the home of pizza (Campania region of Italy) and like a well made Neapolitan pizza the ingredients are simple and few. There may be some complimentary variations when i napoletani  (Neapolitan people) make this dish, for example the addition of basil or some finely chopped anchovies.

If you look for a recipe on the web, you may be grossly misinformed. And if you want the real thing, pizzaiola is cooked on the stove, no mushrooms, bacon, cheese slices, capers, olives or any other embellishments.

I  have always made pizzaiola as my mother made it and was interested to compare her recipe with those of others. I have varied resources about Italian regional cuisine but because it is a Neapolitan dish it is not widely represented by all of the classic food writers, for example it is not in  The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene –Pellegrino Artusi 1820–1911), nor in any of my resources by Marcella Hazan or Bugialli. However I was pleased to see that some of the old, celebrity lions and lionesses (e.g. Waverly Root, Ada Boni, Elizabeth David, Anna Gosetti della Salda) include the recipe in their collections.

In some of the recipes, the steak is sealed quickly in hot oil before it is added to the rest of the ingredients. My mother always added the steak raw (as in some of the older recipes) – this results into a much lighter and fresher flavoured dish.

Like my mother, I like to add potatoes to pizzaiola (patate all pizzaiola is also a classic Neapolitan dish and often the two are combined) and the potatoes and the meat cook at the same time. Usually in Italian cuisine dry oregano is preferred (because it is stronger tasting), but for pizzaiola the fresh oregano is also liked – use a generous amount of fresh oregano and cut it finely.

Lean, young beef, sliced thinly is best. I use thinly sliced topside (as photo above) or girello (as in the photo below) and  I vary the amounts of tomato I use, for example I used 4 fresh tomatoes (photo above) whereas I used about 600g of canned tomatoes when I cooked the pizzaiola as in the photo below.

This dish is assembled in layers and then cooked. This recipe is for 4 people:

young beef/yearling steaks, very thinly sliced, trimmed of all fat (4- estimate one per person)
tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, 400g (1 can or fresh)
potatoes, peeled, then cut into thick slices, estimate 1 or more for each guest
extra virgin olive oil, 1/3 cup
garlic 3-4 cloves cut finely
salt and pepper to taste
fresh parsley cut finely, ½ cup
oregano, fresh ½ cup (or dried, 2 teaspoons).
Begin with a dribble of oil, herbs, garlic and seasoning.
Next, add a layer of tomatoes .
Continue with the layers and ensure that the ingredients are just covered with some tomato.
Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are cooked and the meat is tender. This is not a dish to eat the meat rare.




This photo is of the drink kiosk in Sicily directly opposite The Duomo  (cathedral) in Palermo

The cathedral was founded by the Normans (1184) on the site of a Muslim mosque. There had been a Christian basilica on the site before that. If visiting Palermo it certainly is worth seeing to appreciate the various architectural styles of the Duomo. The cathedral is steeped with history: the decorative Islamic parts completed during the Norman times, added to which are  Gothic, Catalan, Aragonese embellishments – various rulers of Sicily who built on rather than destroying and beginning to build again. I really love this aspect of Sicilian architecture.

This photo is of a kiosk in Catania.

There are drink kiosks all over Sicily and many are much older than the one above and they sell drinks such as coffee, drinks and Selsa (selz) – freshly squeezed lemon juice, seltzer water (sparkling) and a pinch of salt – great for hot weather and drunk since ancient times. Helping replenish the salt you lose when you sweat.

Some readers may be reminded of sorbetto = Italian for sherbet  a beverage from the Ottoman Turks (serbet, sorbet, charbe zerbet ) that was made from fruit juices or extracts of flowers or herbs, exotic ones such as violets roses,musk and ambergris, combined with sugar, water and snow or ice. Italians developed frozen confections  even further during the Renaissance and the term sorbetto  probably came about because of a combination Of the  terms above and sorbire (old Italian expression, to drink’). Salt-and-ice churns later replaced the snow and probably led to the making of granita.

This photo was taken in Naples and this Napoletana (woman from Naples) is shaving a block of ice., which she then pours into a glass. She then asks you to select a syrup of your choice, pours it over the ice, and hands you the drink. This too is from ancient times. Once, of course, it used to be done with snow or ice from mountains and stored in deep caves for these types of drinks.

You may have seen people shaving ice in Rome – it is called a grattachecca (from word gratta – to scratch) and it is prepared with grated ice and topped with syrup or juice. it is different to granita – this is syrup and water which is then frozen and broken up (or churned) when it is frozen. Granita should have enough sugar in it to keep it crystalline. Alcohol also does the same trick and at the moment there is one in my freezer made of good quality, sweet (but gone flat) sparkling wine (Zibibbo), a good glug of St Germain (elderberry liqueur) and very little fresh thyme (from my balcony). I was not going to waste the wine. I present this granita as a palate cleanser – a between courses treat.


EVERYTHING YOU SEE I OWE TO SPAGHETTI (A tribute to Sofia Loren, pasta alla puttanesca and pasta alla ciociara)


This post is written for a special friend who is living in London for a short time. Today is her birthday and I have sent her this card ‘Everything you see I owe to spaghetti’. The art work is by Angela Brennan, an Australian artist born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.

The quote ‘Everything you see I owe to spaghetti’ is one of Sofia Loren’s sayings and she probably does owe everything to spaghetti – she certainly seems to have eaten a lot of it.

She was illegitimate, born in Rome and raised in poverty by her single mother with the help of her grandmother. They moved to a poor neighbourhood in a small apartment on the outskirts of Naples to have family support. The napoletani are reputed to eat pasta at every meal (i.e. twice a day), and being poor, she probably ate pasta made with inexpensive ingredients.

Before her film career she appeared in publications called fumetti. These were very popular in Italy; they were photo-romance magazines, easy to read because of the pictures. Sofia also took part in beauty pageants, auditioned for film parts and as a movie extra in Rome. This was not an easy life, nor was it well paid and she probably had to eat a lot of pasta to survive.

In her early films she has often played the role of a prostitute (a puttana) or someone who lived in poverty. She ate a lot of pasta in these films (as a poor inhabitant of Rome or Naples) – some of you may have seen the Italian comedies L’oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples 1954) Ieri, Oggi, Domani, (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow 1963) and Matrimonio all’Italiana (Marriage Italian Style 1964).


Sofia Loren has also written cookery books and it is not surprising that there are several recipes about pasta.

One of her recipes is for pasta alla puttanesca, probably made more famous because of her film roles as a puttana. This style and recipe for pasta is like a puttana (whore) has time to make and eat in between appointments. Loren says that she made time to cook it in between film shoots.

The ingredients are poor and as found in anybody’s pantry (Italian of course) and the amounts are determined by one’s tastes and accessibility. Do not use large quantities of ingredients – it is a dressing for the pasta, the sauce compliments the pasta, and not the other way around.


Spaghetti or Pasta alla Puttanesca

Extra virgin olive oil, onion sliced finely, garlic cloves (peeled and sliced), anchovy fillets (sliced into small pieces), black olives( stoned), salt-packed capers (well rinsed and soaked for 30 mins before cooking) dried red pepper flakes, a little dried oregano, fresh parsley and a few red tomatoes (peeled and chopped) for moisture. Fresh basil leaves if you have them and grated pecorino cheese (southern Italians like pecorino, northerners have parmigiano).
The pasta is spaghetti and they are cooked while you make the sauce.
Soften the onion in a pan, in hot oil, add garlic and parsley and sauté for a few minutes to bring out the fragrance. Stir in chopped anchovies and dissolve in the heat.
Stir in, olives, capers, red pepper flakes, herbs and seasonings. Add tomatoes and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. 
Dress the pasta with the sauce. Add grated cheese and eat.

You may also remember Sofia Loren when she won a Best Actress Oscar in her more serious role as the mother in Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara (Women of Rome 1960). The script was written by Moravia and in this film, as a poor woman of war torn Rome, she tries to take her daughter to safely.

 Spaghetti  alla Ciociara

Spaghetti alla Ciociaria is a regional recipe from Ciociara a region of Lazio, south of Rome.

This pasta is also made with inexpensive common produce, easily found on the land.

Olive oil, red peeled tomatoes, peppers (capsicums), black olives and lots of freshly ground black pepper to taste – Romans like pepper, think of carbonara.
It is a sauce for spaghetti and it is presented with grated pecorino (Romano).
Heat the oil, sauté the peppers till softened and beginning to caramelize. Stir in tomatoes, olives and seasoning. Cover and cook slowly for about 10 minutes.
Cook the spaghetti, dress it with the sauce and present it with more freshly ground pepper and the grated cheese. 

Another of Sofia Loren’s quotes is:

‘Spaghetti can be eaten most success fully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.’

My friend in London is celebrating her birthday at the River Café in London (Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray). The restaurant opened in 1987 emphases fresh ingredients and authentic northern Italian cucina rustica (home-cooking- style dishes).

Rose Gray, a founder and chef of the River Café in London, died recently of cancer. She was 71.

zucchini-flowers-B-P1010091-225x300 (1)

Zucchini flowers (female flowers) at the end of baby zucchini are abundant at present at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne where I live. I will mix some drained ricotta with a fork, add some grated parmesan and stuff the zucchini flowers with this mixture. I will dip the zucchini and flower quickly in a simple pastella (a runny batter made with a mixture plain flour, a little salt, a dash of oil, water and then allowed to rest for a couple of hours) and fry them in hot oil.

I think that a couple of these on top of the Puttanesca will do the trick. Not traditional, but seasonal and suitable for any celebratory occasion.