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

MILLEFOGLIE or Millefeuille and CREMA PASTICCIERA or crème pâtissière

Millefoglie – a thousand leaves – is better known in Australia perhaps by its French name, Millefeuille.

As you can see in the photo, a Millefoglie is a magnificent and very fancy looking cake (a grand- finale- dessert), made with layers (or leaves) of thin and airy, flaky pastry. This one has three layers of pastry and two of different creams: the top layer is Chantilly cream, the other as you may guess by its delicate, green colour is crema pasticciera and ground pistachios. Look at the top of the Millefoglie and you have some crushed pistachios and some fresh strawberries. And there you have it, whether it is incidental, the red, white and green are the colours of the Italian flag.

Both France and Italy have perfected many versions of this sweet. In Verona they make Millefoglie Strachin. This is layered with Crema soufflé and as the name suggests, it is a light and airy cream filling. Icing sugar  is usually sprinkled on top.


In Italy the Millefoglie is associated with celebrations, for example birthdays, baptisms and communions, weddings; the square shape makes it easy to cut into portions. The puff pastry is probably the most laborious to make and because it is usually a large cake it is customarily made by pastry chefs and bought from a Pasticceria.

Mine was a gift and it came from Marianna’s pastry shop called Dolcetti. I have written about Marianna’s sweets many times on my blog because I think that she is very talented and makes a great range of delectable sweets.

This Millefoglie looks stunning and tastes as good as it looks. I do not like over sweet desserts and I would describe this as being delicately sweet.

I will not give you Marianna’s recipe – this is her secret, but there are many do-able recipes on the web. For those of you who are not keen to make your own puff pastry there are good ones on the market

I did not have to look hard for a recipe on my bookshelves either. Those of you who are old enough to have Le Cordon Bleu or Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine will find recipes for Millefeuille – for making the puff pastry, Chantilly cream and almond custard (not pistachio).

I also found a marvellous recipe in my copy of Grande Enciclopedia illustrata della gastronomia (Guarnaschelli Gotti).

There are many recipes for making crème pâtissière or crema pasticcera or pastry cream in books and magazines and on the web.

Here are two recipes from two belle dames of cuisine, one from Ada Boni and one from Julia Child.

See English – language version below the Italian.

Ada Boni’s crema pasticciera:

Per farcire una torta per 6 persone:

Zucchero in polvere, g. 90 (3 cucchiai colmi) – tuorli d’uovo, 3 – Farina, g. 75 (3 cucchiai) – Buccia di limone o vaniglina – Latte, l. 0,500 – Facoltativo: burro, quanto una noce.

Mettete in una casseruola lo zucchero e i rossi d’uovo. Mescolate con un cucchiaio di legno e aggiungete la farina e un pezzo di buccia di limone (evitando accuratamente la parte bianca) o un po’ di buccia di limone grattata, o una puntina di vaniglina. Mettete sul fuoco il latte e quando sarà quasi bollente versatelo a piccole quantità sulle uova, la farina e lo zucchero. mescolando e sciogliendo con una piccola frusta. Quando avrete aggiunto tutto il latte, togliete via la frusta e mettete la casseruola sul fuoco, mescolando continuamente col cucchiaio di legno. Vedrete che ben presto la crema si addenserà gradatamente. Continuate a mescolarla sempre e, raggiunta l’ebollizione, lasciate che la crema bolla per cinque minuti affinché possa perdere il sapore di farina. Appena tolta dal fuoco, se credete, aggiungeteci una noce di burro, ciò che le comunica una maggiore finezza. Mescolate ancora e mentre la crema si fredda non dimenticate di mescolarla di quando in quando per impedirle di fare la pellicola alla superficie.

Easy translation and interpretation of Ada Boni’s recipe:

3 egg yolks + 3 tbsp sugar + 3 tbs flour (I prefer to use corn flour) + 500ml milk.1 level tablespoon of butter, lemon peel, either grated or a thin shaving of the peel, vanilla extract (or 1 vanilla pod, halved lengthways and placed into the milk as it heats).

In a saucepan large enough to hold the milk place the 3 egg yolks with 3 tablespoons sugar and mix it with a wooden spoon until it is creamy. Gradually add 3 tablespoons flour and mix it again till it is smooth. Add a thin strip of lemon peel or grated lemon and or a little vanilla.

Heat 500ml of milk until it is nearly boiling. Pour the hot milk slowly into the egg mixture, stirring continuously and thoroughly so as to avoid lumps (I use a whisk).

Place the pan on the heat and simmer, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes, until the cream thickens. Take off the stove and add the butter. Keep on stirring from time to time as the cream cools so as to prevent a skin from forming.

My notes:

To prevent a skin from forming, what I do and that is to place a piece of baking paper or cling film on the surface. Leave the custard to cool and chill it before using. Omit the butter and instead you could whip about 150ml cream and fold a little at the time into the cold custard.

Julia Child’s crème pâtissière:

1 cup sugar

5 egg yolks

½ cup plain flour

2 cups boiling milk

1 tablepoon butter

1½ tablepoons vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks and continue beating for 2–3 minutes, until the mixture is pale yellow and forms a ribbon.

Beat in the flour, then gradually pour the boiling milk in a thin stream of droplets, beating continually.

Pour the mixture into a heavy saucepan, and set it over moderately high heat. Using a wire whisk, stir continually, reaching all over the bottom of the pan.

As the sauce comes to a boil, it will get lumpy, but will smooth out as you beat it. Once the mixture comes to a boil, continue

beating over moderately low heat for 2–3 minutes to cook the flour; be careful not to scorch the bottom (regulate the heat down, and keep stirring!).

Remove from the heat, stir in the butter, and the vanilla.

Dolcetti window

Dolcetti is a Sicilian inspired pasticceria focused on bringing the tradition of sharing exquisite sweets with family and friends to Melbourne.

A few of the other posts on my blog about Dolcetti and Marianna:


Christmas Dolci and Dolcetti and Pistachio Shortbread

Christmas at Dolcetti in 2014 (and Recipe for Spicchiteddi – Sicilian Biscuits)

Zeppole, Fried Sweets

Dolcetti is a Sicilian inspired pasticceria focused on bringing the tradition of sharing exquisite sweets with family and friends to Melbourne.

Marianna’s website: Dolcetti




ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

I use Alchermes (or Alkermes) to make the famous Italian dessert zuppa inglese (literally translated as English soup). 

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian version of the English trifle generally made with sponge cake, moistened with fruit syrup or/and sweet sherry, layered with cream/and or custard, jam, and most times red coloured jelly made with jelly crystals.

Trifle is still being made in UK and countries like Australia (that initially inherited much of the British cuisine). Over time there have been some little variations to the recipe, for example I have often eaten trifle in Australian homes that included preserved fruit – particularly canned peaches. Recently fresh fruit has become a popular edition, particularly strawberries, that in Australia can be purchased cheaply and all year round.

There are many stories about how this English dessert came to be part of Italian cuisine. Some say that perhaps Italian diplomats tasted trifle on a visit to London and this may have been their interpretation of this dessert. Others say that it probably eventuated in the kitchens of the well-off English; there were many living in Florence in the late 1800’s till the lead up of the Second World War.  Most of them employed Italian staff; perhaps some signori inglesi missed some of their cooking from home and this was what their Italian kitchen maids prepared as trifle. They had to use Italian ingredients – savoiardi (sponge fingers – mostly used in layered Italian desserts) and Alchermes the ancient Florentine, red liqueur commonly used to moisten and flavour cakes. Fresh cream was (and is) rarely used in cakes in Italy, but pastry cream called crema pasticcera (also crema inglesecrème anglaise) is very common. And it is easy to see how this sloppy mess could be calledsoup”(zuppa).

I have seen modern Italian versions of recipes for zuppa inglese, which include red fruit (like berries) and many include chocolate. My mother’s version sometimes included grated dark chocolate on the top; I think that this was partly for decoration, but chocolate was never part of the dessert. Other modern versions may have a sprinkling of coffee beans and I wonder if the makers are getting confused with tiramisu, which because it contains coffee is often decorated with coffee beans.

I often make zuppa inglese especially when I am stuck for ideas, or have little time to prepare a dessert; it is so easy to prepare and never fails to impress.

I still use the traditional way to make it. I always assemble it in layers: sponge fingers moistened with Alchermes (either homemade or purchased at a good wine shop), cover these with crema pasticcera, repeat x 2-3 layers finishing with a layer of sponge fingers.

I use a large glass bowl to assemble the layers of ingredients (it is a pretty dessert) and keep the zuppa inglese, in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight before I intend to present it – it gives the dessert time to settle and the flavours to develop.  I finally cover it with a layer or tuffs of panna montata (literally meaning cream made into mountains – isn’t the Italian language marvellous!). it is also known as Chantilly cream, whipped cream with a little caster sugar flavoured with vanilla bean –Italians would never think about using plain cream in cakes.


In the Zuppa Inglese above I have placed a sprinkling of crushed pistacchio nuts and chioccolate on top .

At some stage during my research about Alchermes I found out that the name is likely to have been derived from the Arabic “al” (a) and “qirmiz” (worm). This is because it contains cochineal, which gives the liqueur its red colour. Cochineal used to be made with a particular insect which was crushed and dried, this produced a rich, red dye.

In the photo I have included a bottle of purchased Alchermes (32% volume). I also make my own and there is a recipe on a previous post. I usually purchase the savoiardi but in the photo are savoiardi courtesy of a friend’s neighbour (her version as the shop bought variety are not usually ribbed) .The only recipe for this dessert is for the crema pasticcera:


3 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons caster sugar infused with a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt 3 tablespoons of cornflour, 1 litre 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 (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. Cool before using. To prevent a skin from forming, I place a piece of baking paper or butter paper on its surface.
SEE: How to make Alchermes Alkermes the liqueur to make Zuppa Inglese