The rum babà, from European courts to Neapolitan cafés.
In Naples we say “si ‘nu babbà” – literally “you’re a babà” – and that means “you’re a sweetheart”: the expression refers to a person “who is distinguished by particular pleasantness” (Treccani), nice and sweet as a babà, one of the most typical desserts of the Campania regional capital. Offered in standard size, larger or smaller, simple or soaked with rum or with sugared water, filled with cream or chocolate, the babà is an institution. It is “a small cake of leavened dough, sometimes mixed with currants and usually soaked in rum” (Collins Dictionary), with a golden and spongy surface and a characteristic mushroom shape. The ingredients are simple, but the preparation – whose main secrets are the dough technique and the leavening – is very elaborate.
Despite being a symbol of Neapolitan pastry, the babà, as Colella points out, is an imported dessert, Its origins, in fact, can be traced back to the European courts of the eighteenth century, and the etymological definitions present in both English and French dictionaries confirm it: the Collins Dictionary and the Trésor de la Langue Française agree that the term derives from the French word baba, which, in its turn, is a borrowing from the Polish babka, literally “old woman”.
Therefore, the name of this dessert seems to allude to the softness of the dough, which is more suitable for old peoples’ teeth; alternatively, it could derive from the babka’s skirts, whose shape is recalled in the pastry. Other sources, however, associate it to the figure of Ali Baba – one of the heroes of One Thousand and One Nights –, as originally the babà, flavoured with saffron and decorated with Smyrnaean and Corinthian currants, had a more exotic look. In this case, the form would refer to Byzantine and Middle Eastern architecture.
But who invented the babà, at least in its Polish variant (babka ponczowa)? The inventor – almost accidentally – was Stanisław Leszczyński, king of Poland from 1704 to 1735, and Duke of Lorraine. Among other things, Stanisław spent a period at the court of the Sultan of Constantinople, where he read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Legend has it that Stanisław, tired of the usual, dry Alsatian cake he was offered, threw it against a cupboard, breaking a bottle of rum that soaked it. Passionate about culinary experiments, Stanisław tasted it and fell in love with the new dessert.
Later, the word baba made its appearance in the French language, when Diderot recalled it in a letter to Sophie Volland in 1767, but it is only in 1835 that it reaches Paris thanks to the pastry chef Nicolas Stohrer, who went in the French capital with Maria Leszczyńska, daughter of the Polish sovereign and future bride of Louis XV. Sthorer made the dessert popular, removing saffron from the recipe; this way, the rum babà – as we have it today – was born. The Sthorer bakery is still located in Rue de Montorgueil.
In Paris there is also a variant, the Savarin, whose name derives from the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, inventor of a liqueur that accompanied fruit salads. In this case the Julien Brothers had the idea of enclosing the fruit salad in a doughnut-shaped baba painted with apricot jam to prevent the liqueur from escaping.
As for the city of Naples, the babà arrived with Murat and the monzù, the court cooks who served the noble families and who were sent in Paris to learn French culinary techniques. Here the French term baba adapted itself to the Neapolitan dialect: it took the final accent and doubled the intervocalic “b”. Amabile points out that it resembles a typical Neapolitan dessert as early as 1836 when the chef Angeletti describes the recipe with currants and saffron in the first manual of Italian cuisine. After the Italian unification (1861), the babà left the noble houses and arrived in popular bakeries, where it lost the candied fruits and gained the characteristic mushroom shape of the one and only Neapolitan babbà.
Amabile, F. (2001). Si ‘nu… babbà, Ed. dell’Ippogrifo, Sarno.
Colella, A. (2010). Manuale di napoletanità. 365 lezioni semiserie su Napoli e la napoletanità, da studiare una al giorno (consigliato), comodamente seduti…, Ateneapoli srl, Napoli.
Collins Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/baba.
Diderot D., (1767). Lettre à Sophie Volland, 24 sept. ds Correspondance, éd. Roth, t. 7, p. 141.
Manconi F. (2011). I viaggi del babà, http://www.festivaletteraturadiviaggio.it/altrove/cibi/viaggi-del-baba.htm.
Treccani. Online edition, http://treccani.it/vocabolario/baba/.
Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, http://stella.atilf.fr/Dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/visusel.exe?12;s=2941308210;r=1;nat=;sol=1.
Vitaux J. (2012). Stanislas Leszczynski : un roi gastronome inventeur du baba. Histoire et gastronomie, la chronique de Jean Vitaux sur Canal Académie, https://www.canalacademie.com/ida7714-Stanislas-Leszczynski-un-roi-gastronome-inventeur-du-baba.html?page=article&id_article=7714.
Nicla Mercurio, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope”