This is a mashup of my two favourite retro desserts: baba au rhum and black forest cake – the result is, in essence, a very, very boozy black forest cake. The baba is flavoured with chocolate, soaked in a syrup of kirsch, rum and a bit of maraschino cherry syrup, and then served with plenty of whipped cream and a cherry kirsch compote.
Baba au rhum is classically a rich, yeasted cake soaked in a rum syrup. Recently I’ve been making babas based on the recipe in the Duchess Bake Shop book by Giselle Courteau. She dries out the babas for a couple days until they’re thoroughly desiccated and ready to absorb a startling amount of syrup. It’s a method that ensures the flavours of the syrup penetrate throughout the entire cake! I like to do an adaptation of her method by letting the babas dry overnight. They absorb quite a bit of syrup, but not quite as much as when I tried fully drying them out for days.
The syrup I made is primarily flavoured with kirsch, the classic cherry eau de vie, a spirit distilled from cherries and what I typically use in black forest cake. You could use all kirsch instead of part rum, but I like doing a mix. Mostly because kirsch is very expensive, but also because some rum in the mix tastes quite good to me! A touch of maraschino cherry syrup adds a subtle retro hint (though this is very optional and can be added to taste depending on your views on maraschino cherries).
As with any sugar-syrup soaked dessert, baba au rhum also has the potential to be very sweet. I’ve reduced the sugar quite a bit to control the sweetness, while still having plenty of flavour from the kirsch/rum/maraschino to not taste watery. (Any leftover babas should definitely be stored in the fridge as unlike a wonderfully super-sugared classic baba, they’re not preserved in sugar!)
I have come to realise that my family prefers a very alcoholic baba au rhum (my grandma especially has strong feelings about this). As do I – it doesn’t taste right unless there is the sharpness of the alcohol to cut through the cream and sugar. But if you’d prefer a less alcoholic version you can always simmer the syrup to boil off some or all of the alcohol while still leaving the flavour.
black forest baba
Baba dough adapted from the baba au rhum in Duchess At Home by Giselle Courteau.
special equipment: small fluted pan – each cavity with a volume similar to a standard muffin cup (alternatively use 4 mini brioche tins or 4-6 muffin cups)
chocolate baba dough
- 1 tbsp lukewarm water
- 1 scant tsp instant or active dry yeast
- 1 large egg
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 65g all-purpose flour
- 10g cocoa powder
- 45g soft butter
- 1 1/4 cup (300g) water
- 70g granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp rum
- 1/4 cup kirsch
- 1-2 tsp maraschino cherry syrup (optional – just if you like the taste!)
- 120g cherries, pitted and quartered or halved
- about 70g softly whipped cream (unsweetened, or sweetened to taste depending on your preference) + extra for the side if desired
For the babas, mix the lukewarm water and yeast together in a small bowl with a pinch of the sugar. (Even if using instant yeast, still be sure to do this step to pre-dissolve the yeast before adding it to the dough. I find sometimes the yeast will not dissolve otherwise.) Allow to sit until it bubbly. Then combine this with the remaining ingredients apart from the butter, stirring with a wooden spoon until a soft and sticky dough is formed.
You have a couple options as for how to incorporate the butter. I did a slap and fold method by hand, but you could also use a stand mixer (it just might be a bit challenging due to the small amount of dough).
For working with the dough by hand, scrape the dough out onto the countertop. In order to not incorporate any additional flour you’ll just need to relax and allow the dough to stick to your hands and the counter and everything. I promise it will be okay!
Begin by developing the gluten a bit more. With one hand on either side, pick up the half of the dough closest to you and fold it in half by laying it over the half of dough further from you. Have one hand at the top border of the dough and one hand at the bottom border of the dough and pick up the dough again, turning it 90 degrees so your hands are once again on either side of the dough. (I mean to pick up the dough the best you can – you might be leaving quite a bit of it on the counter.) Then slap it back down on the counter – keep your hands on the dough, stretching the half of the dough towards you so you can fold it in half by laying it over the half of dough furthest from you. Then pick up the dough again and repeat this process of slapping and folding, rotating the dough 90 degrees each time. After a few minutes of this, you’ll be ready to add the butter. Note that this dough is quite weak due to the relatively high proportion of cocoa powder, so just try to get it to a stretchy state and don’t try for the windowpane test.
Spread a bit of soft butter on the dough like you’re thickly buttering a piece of toast and then proceed to do the slap and fold technique – eventually the butter will work its way into the dough. Once it is incorporated, spread a bit more butter on the dough and repeat. Continue until all the butter is incorporated.
Scrape the dough off the counter (use a bench scraper if you need to) and transfer the dough to a bowl and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, butter 6 cavities of a small fluted pan (alternatively you could use 4 mini brioche pans or 4-6 cavities of a muffin tin).
You have two options here too. Option 1: transfer the dough to a piping bag with a large opening. Use this to pipe a dollop of the dough into each of the 6 cavities, using a pair of kitchen shears to cut each portion of dough after it is piped out of the piping bag. Or, you can do this by hand. Divide the dough into 6 pieces (each piece will likely be around 27g). With wet hands to prevent the dough from sticking, shape each piece into a ball, placing it smooth side down into the fluted cavity.
Either way, cover the tray with plastic wrap and allow to rise until puffed and filling out each cavity, around 1to 1 1/2 hours.
Closer to the end of the rise, heat the oven to 375F. Bake the babas for around 15 minutes or until very baked through. Tip the babas out of the pan onto a wire rack. Let the babas cool and leave them out on the counter overnight to dry out; after that, put them in an airtight container.
For the kirsch syrup, place the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar, then remove from the heat.
Stir the rum, kirsch, and maraschino syrup into the syrup. This is also an opportunity to taste and adjust to your preferences! Feel free to adjust the amount of kirsch and rum as desired. If you prefer the alcohol cooked off, at this point you can bring the syrup back to a simmer (my family prefers it as is).
Let the syrup cool until just warm. (If you’ve made the syrup ahead of time you can rewarm it slightly on the stovetop.) Dip the babas into the warm syrup. Dip each side of the baba for a few minutes, or 5-6 minutes in total. When you pick up the babas, they will be quite heavy. If you feel a hard, unsaturated area still in the baba, leave them for longer.
Set each baba fluted side up on a wire rack set over a tray and allow to drip dry. If you start running out of syrup, you can collect the syrup in the pan below the draining babas and add it back to the saucepan. You can also transfer the remaining syrup to a bowl with a smaller diameter so the level of syrup is deeper and able to better submerge the last baba. If not serving right away, you can store these in the fridge. Bring back to room temperature before eating.
For serving, begin by preparing the cherries. Combine the cherries with a splash of kirsch in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook until cherries are tender.
Transfer the unsweetened whipped cream into a piping bag fitted with a very large round tip and pipe a dollop of cream on each baba. Put a piece of cherry on top. Serve with more cherries on the side and extra cream, if desired.
Updated August 2022.