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#ThatTranslatorCanCook week 42: Rum baba

This week’s recipe was a unique pudding. The retro rum baba, or baba au rhum. For the uninitiated, it’s a yeasted cake that’s liberally doused with a rum syrup after baking.

As for the history of this dish, according to, it all began when Poland’s Kind Stanislas was faced with a dry ‘baba’ (a type of Polish cake), and solved the problem by pouring Malaga (fortified wine) all over it. A French pâtissier Nicholas Stohrer later swapped Malaga for rum, and the dish as it’s known today was born.


My source recipe comes from a friend’s cookbook, Cuisine de bistrot, published by Marie Claire (thanks Leïla!).

The use of imagery – or perceptions of a non-native speaker

In this translation, I was struck by a few words which I thought of as loaded with imagery. Unlike English, which has a whole host of terms specific to baking and cooking, French seems to make more use of more general words. Two examples from this recipe are: arroser and frissonner.


Generally-speaking, this verb means to make something wet, as in ‘to water plants’, or ‘hose (down)’, ‘spray’ or ‘sprinkle’ something. Applied to the context of cooking, we could translate it with ‘baste’ or ‘moisten’. It may well be just the fact that I’m a non-native speaker, but my first mental image of this word involves a watering can. So, when I apply that to my recipe, in my mind’s eye I see a miniature watering can pouring syrup over my cake. And that sounds rather sweet. Again, maybe this is probably because I haven’t seen it written in umpteen different recipes like a native speaker might have. It’s not yet normalised to me.


This verb describes a small movement. We could translate it with ‘quiver’, ‘shiver’, ‘tremble’ ‘shake’… and quite a few different words, depending on the context. But in my recipe, it described the syrup I was heating on the hob. Again, I like the image of my syrup ‘trembling’. Although this sounds wonderfully poetic, translating it as ‘trembling’ in the recipe isn’t much help to the English baker. The Larousse describes frissonner in cooking as ‘un léger bouillonnement’ (‘a light boil’), so I translated it as ‘simmer’.

I suspect that most native speakers wouldn’t give a second’s thought to the use of these words in a recipe, just as I wouldn’t give much thought to ‘rubbing in the butter’ or ‘pricking the base of the pastry’. Then again, maybe I just think about these things because I’m a visual learner and thinker (ironic, given my poor eyesight). Whatever the case, this is just one of the joys of speaking and (continually) learning another language – the discoveries of new applications for certain words, or new combinations of words, which often give insight and clues into the culture/s behind the language.


I accidentally added less butter than I was meant to, resulting in a slightly dry baba. But the bottom, where all the syrup had soaked in, was still delightfully sweet, rummy, and rich in parts.

Rum baba soaked in rum syrup
Rum baba served with yoghurt

Recipe ideas and substitutions

One annoying thing about this bake, is the tins. Most recipes are for individual babas, which means individual moulds of some description. Apparently, beyond baba moulds, you can also use savarin tins, or dariole moulds… But if you’re anything like me, you don’t have any of these, and aren’t inclined to buy them. (If I bought a different mould for all the French recipes I wanted to try, my kitchen would be overflowing).

If you can get around this problem, this BBC recipe looks decent.

If it helps with any adjustments, I used one large sized cake tin, and baked it for 30 minutes overall.

  • If you can’t find bread flour, then substitute for regular flour, or vice versa.

  • Feel free to add in orange zest or lemon zest, they go wonderfully with the caramel rum flavour.

  • I wouldn’t recommend using a white rum instead, as the dark rum is much richer.

  • If you don’t have yeast, I’m sure you can fashion a sourdough version, with some adjustments.

Next week

No ideas yet – and I only have 10 more weeks to go – suggestions are most welcome!

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