A Sweet Treat Fit for a King: Baba, or Poland’s Gift to the World of Pastry
default, Stohrer's rum baba, photo: Stohrer / publicity materials, center, rum_baba_stohrer.jpg
‘Si nu' babbà’. You may hear these words in Naples when you do something kind. The word babbà is used to describe something particularly charming or delicious – just like the cake of the same name, which is one of the city’s culinary symbols.
The babbà arrived in Naples from the north of France, and according to one of the legends, its name derives from the legendary Ali Baba... But are you confused as to why we’re writing about all of this here? The sweet travels of the babbà actually began in Poland, where the name brings to mind the traditional Polish babka cake. Its full story has a Polish king at the centre – but let’s start at the beginning.
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The Polish babka is a sweet yeast cake, traditionally served for Easter. In Henri Babinski’s cooking encyclopaedia Gastronomie Pratique, published in 1907, we can read that baba à la polonaise is the mother of all similar cakes known in France. The Polish word baba and its diminutive, babka, mean either ‘grandmother’ or ‘old woman’ (or even just ‘woman’, in some contexts).
The cake is shaped like a cylinder with a hole in the middle; sometimes, the sides display corrugations that resemble the pleats of a skirt. The cake was traditionally made with an inconceivable amount of egg yolks – think a litre for the fluffy ‘tuille babka’. The dessert reigned on Polish tables as early as the 17th century, where they were enjoyed by the aristocracy, as well as Polish kings – or at least one of them.
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Stanisław Leszczyński was Poland’s king from 1704 to 1709 and then again from 1733 to 1736. After the first loss of throne, he had to flee – first, he went to Sweden; then to Zweibrucken in Germany; and finally, to Wissembourg in France. He came back, but then, in the 1730s, he lost the War of the Polish Succession to Augustus III of Poland. He was given the provinces of Lorraine and Bar, however, from his son–in–law, King Louis XV, who had married Stanisław’s daughter, Maria, in 1725.
While he wasn’t Poland’s most popular king, the French remember Leszczyński fondly. His court at Lunéville became a famous cultural centre. In Nancy – the capital of Lorraine which he, a great urbanist, redesigned – he founded an academy of science and a military college. His statue stands at the beautiful Place Stanislas in the centre of the city.
There are a few versions of the story about the actual invention of the rum-soaked babà, which apparently happened during Leszczyński’s stay in Wissembourg. According to one, Leszczyński was served an Austrian cake, Gugelhupf, at one of his elegant dinners. Finding the cake to be too dry, he poured wine over it.
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Another version of the story states that the former king found himself quite bored in this calm setting, and so, while spending his hours reading, often asked his cooks for something sweet. Typically, he would be served the above-mentioned Gugelhupf, which he soaked in wine – but he still wasn’t convinced. Finally, he decided to add a drop of rum, which he always kept nearby. Or perhaps he spilled it on the cake by accident, turning the dry pie into a lovely, moist, alcoholic dessert.
A golden, frilly, spongy exterior that was only just taken from the form. It brought to mind something between a turban and a pagoda… Stanisław understood from the very beginning that it would fulfil his desires. He touched it to feel its elasticity: it turned out to be soft. Its tenderness and the smell it emanated made it into something new entirely. Even without tasting it yet, he knew that he invented a sweet that had nothing to do with any other in that particular time and place, a rare balance between consistency and lightness. A bit like his life…
That’s how Leszczyński’s invention of the cake is imagined by the Italian architect, urbanist and foodie Fabrizio Mangoni, who created a theory that compares human characters to … sweets. He actually toured Europe with his monologue about the many travels of king Stanisław and the cake the king allegedly invented.
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Finally, there’s also a variation of the story which assigns the invention to Stanisław’s pastry chef, Nicolas Stohrer, who supposedly soaked Gugelhupf in Spanish Malaga wine, adding some raisins and crême pâtissière. Stohrer is a very important character in this story: After Stanisław’s daughter Maria married King Louis XV, the pastry chef travelled with her to Versailles.
Five years later, he opened the first pâtisserie in Paris on 51 Montorguel street, which remains a true institution, open to this very day. One of the sweets he sold was Leszczyński’s babka, soaked with rum instead of wine – baba au rhum. Apparently, he was the one to give it the characteristic mushroom shape the cake is known for today.
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This yeast specialty arrived to Naples from France thanks to the monzù. This Neapolitan word derives from the French monsieur, or the name given to professional chefs who worked in aristocratic villas in Campania and Sicily in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They were taught by French chefs sent to Naples by Marie Antoinette as a gift to her sister, Maria Carolina of Austria, who had married King Ferdinand IV of Naples. It’s said that the queen wasn’t fond of the rustic, southern diet and missed the French delicacies such as babà, which soon became one of Naples’ many culinary staples.
The classic version of the dessert is plain, but some pastry chefs serve the cake with fruit and whipped cream. It’s usually soaked in rum, of course, but another version became quite popular in Sorrento – babbà al limoncello, made with the traditional, sweet lemon liqueur. On Capri, meanwhile, it’s filled with lemon cream.
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And yet, the Neapolitans – so fond of simplicity and so protective of their regional dishes – mostly appreciate the following version, which is possibly most similar to what King Stanisław I Leszczyński himself would have eaten.
Recipe for 10 little babà
polish culture in italy
polish culture in france
For the pastry:
20g of nutritional yeast|
4g of salt
For the rum syrup:
Start by dissolving the yeast in 2-3 tablespoons of warm water. Mix it with a third of the flour. Work the dough by hand until it’s smooth, and then leave it to rest for half an hour.
When the dough has risen, put it in a bowl and add the eggs and room temperature butter. Mix everything with your hands. Add the rest of the flour, sugar and salt. When you have a soft dough, work it in the following manner: hold it between your fingers, lift it and beat it in the bowl until bubbles form. Leave it to rise for 40 minutes, and then put it in 10 small, buttered moulds (6cm in diameter, 5-6 cm high). Again, leave the dough to rise, and in the meantime, heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Bake the cakes for 15 minutes. Take the babà out of the oven and leave it to cool. Make the syrup by boiling the water and sugar for a couple of minutes. Put one babà at a time on the plate, and pour the syrup over them. Before serving, soak with a few drops of rum.