“A baba is the ultimate dessert for sophisticated palates, despite its almost childish name ... That is, when it is well made.” So wrote The New York Times food writing doyenne Florence Fabricant in a 2001 feature about the return of the rum baba. This much-abused dessert-trolley standard, beset by misplaced glace cherries and excesses of piped cream, was then making its way back on to fashionable tables after a prolonged absence. But at restaurants run by one of the world’s greatest chefs, Alain Ducasse, the baba never went away. It was, after all, among his signature dishes, and a highlight of his fabled Monte Carlo restaurant, the Louis XV.
Ducasse, the possessor of a constellation of Michelin stars and co-proprietor of a string of restaurants across the globe, is known for taking rustic flavours and ideas and remaking them as refined restaurant dishes of dazzling clarity and balance. His baba au rhum is a perfect example; a modest pastry-shop dessert thought to have been devised as a means of using stale bread or cake, retooled as a simple but glorious three-star restaurant finale.
The Ducasse baba, Fabricant reported, was “the epitome”: a burnished cylinder served with a flourish of silver and linen, the cake perfectly glazed, split in half at the table, the freshly cut surface drizzled with hand-selected rum. Many Ducasse restaurants around the world still serve the baba. Now, as then, it is served with vanilla-spiked cream, very softly whipped—and not piped, but simply spooned on.
A feature of the Ducasse baba is the choice of rums offered at the table, all sourced from individual premium producers. Some are from former French colonies in the Caribbean such as Martinique, the home of an especially fine rum made directly from sugar-cane juice known as rhum agricole. Rums vary enormously in style and flavour: white, golden,
dark and spiced rums will each have an impact. It is important to choose a rum you like, because the secret of a good baba lies in ensuring the cake has been lavishly soaked in aromatic, alcoholic syrup until it is plump and swollen.
Some experienced baba cooks advise that the baba takes up syrup best and most enthusiastically if it has been allowed to dry out for a few hours prior to being plunged into its boozy bath; that is certainly an option, but it is not critical. If anointing at the table with a final pour of rum, a bottle with a stainless steel pourer of the kind sold for olive oil will help avoid accidental over-pours. Without the rum, Ducasse’s sommelier told Fabricant, the cake would be too sweet: “You need the alcohol for balance.”