Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Screaming Red Baba

I was having trouble maintaining a straight face as I sat there in my first Superior Patisserie demonstration. It had to do with the fact that Chef Deguignet had hooked up a Wagner Power Painter and was spraying a rum baba with red tinted cocoa butter. More specifically, A LOT of red tinted cocoa butter. In the process, he was spraying the entire front row of students with the mixture as well.

As it was a warm Paris afternoon, I’d chosen my seat location in the middle of the demo room to stay comfortably close to the air conditioning vent. Yet I suddenly felt even more justified by my choice. I only had one (still white) uniform with me in Paris this week, and I was in no mood to spend an entire summer evening sponging off red dye – the weather outside was just too lovely to waste. Amazingly, through this whole spraying incident, the first row of students just sat there numbly, ineffectively shielding themselves behind their class binders as the power painter roared out a giant, red cloud of mist. Chef D then asked for volunteers to hold up the drop-cloth of plastic film whilst he continued spraying (what!?) and few punishment gluttons rose from the front row, putting them in even closer range to the spray nozzle. I just shook my head and smiled to myself. I was suddenly reminded of my first visit to Sea World and chuckled… at first I was really upset that I didn't get a tank-side seat; then the giant, jumping Shamu arrives on the scene and frankly I was oh so glad to be somewhere towards the back.

Funnier still was why Chef D had chosen to paint this otherwise traditional and attractive looking cake with so much red dye. I mean, the final garnish was going to be a series of fruits rouges, so it seemed to me that a natural toned cake would provide a better contrast for this. So I tried to sit there respectfully and observe as quietly as possible, when suddenly I was imagining hilarious punchlines to jokes not yet invented. All of these musings were about going off to Paris and coming home with a screaming red baba. It sounded like something that you’d never tell your mother and which might indeed require prescription medicine…certainly not something that would be eaten. When I was afraid the my convulsive giggling would risk my expulsion from class, I pretended to reach for something under my seat to conceal my emotions from Chef D.

Baba au Rhum is a mainstay of French patisserie, although according to Wikipedia the origins are from Eastern Europe. It is a light, yeast-leavened cake which is baked in a ring mold then heavily imbibed with sugar syrup and rum. The recipe’s arrival in France dates back to the 1700’s, when Marie Leczinska of Poland brought it with her to her royal post as Queen Consort to Louis XV. This adopted delice was therefore served up for a king who apparently had no teeth but liked his cakes nonetheless.

The cake preparation was simple enough. All the ingredients were mixed and placed into ring molds, the cake was left to rise in a slightly heated oven, and then it was baked. The baked cake ring is quite dry, and in this state can be preserved for several weeks before consuming. For serving, the baba is then plunged into a large bowl of sweetened rum syrup which softens the texture and makes it suitable to eat. For our babas, we infused the syrup with fresh grapefruit and orange segments which livened the taste of the rum and added a some flavor complexity. The baba was then filled with a crème diplomate, topped with assorted berries and garnished with powdered sugar if desired. Simple and quite attractive in its simplicity – apart from the red dye he’d sprayed all over it!

Then came the tasting session. The finished red baba just lay there looking like a giant inflamed blister alongside the natural colored babas. Chef D didn’t cut into it, and no one made a move for it. Rare indeed, as we are all generally fighting like schoolkids for any leftovers following a tasting session. I didn’t bother to take a picture of this red giant, but instead just share the photos of my own au naturel baba.

Funnily enough, I discovered the screaming red baba was still loitering on the school premises the following week. As class assistant, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen pantry to retrieve ingredients for our practical. There, behind a bin of lemons, I spotted the red baba looking ever flushed if slightly withered, shoved almost to the back of the cooler. I guess maybe someone might eat it eventually…then again, it could be easily left there until next December to dry and be converted to a Christmas tree stand. Endless creative possibilities were emerging, but I was still happier to forego the dye job and serve it up for tea time.

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