The story of babà, the sweet that binds Naples, France and Poland

by Federico Quagliuolo
Babà pasticceria

The baba, the king of Naples, is Polish.

No, there is no need to shout scandal. One of the most famous desserts of the Neapolitan tradition has very distant origins and, due to the many and strange alleys of history, it arrived on the tables of Southern Italy to celebrate one of the many ties that Naples has with Poland.

In fact, originally the baba was round, being the son of the confectionery tradition of northern Europe. In parts of Poland it is found with the name of "babka"(Babcia reads), that translates as "grandmother".
In Poland, baba is in fact famous as "grandmother's cake”And it is a dish that it is prepared on the occasion of religious holidays: Christmas and Easter.
More generally, the donut-shaped cake is known throughout Europe as "Kugelhupf”And is still very popular in Austria and neighboring countries today.

La storia del babà, il dolce che lega Napoli, Francia e Polonia
A Kufelhupf, photograph by e20cibus

How was the Baba born?

The story has a protagonist and one legend charming, dating back to around the 17th century, when the king of Poland, Stanislao Leszczynski, lost the kingdom at the hands of Tsar Peter the Great.
The Polish monarch, however, was the son-in-law of Louis XV of France and he used his noble kinship to save himself in a friendly country.
When he arrived in France, thanks to the intercession of the king, he was also assigned the duchy of Lorraine and Bar, which were a sad sop for the king of the nation which, until a century earlier, was one very rich power of Eastern Europe with his infamous Winged Hussars.

So, to console himself, Leszczynski asked his personal pastry chefs to prepare the best dessert in the world. The Polish king was in fact a great lover of sweets, but he could no longer eat the Kugelhupf, which he believed too dry and not very consistent in flavor. The traditional dessert was in fact composed only of eggs, flour, sugar and yeast, it was often enriched with raisins (in the modern versions the impasso is instead made by adding chocolate).

So it was that the Polish confectioner Nicolas Stohrer, one of the most famous taste artists of all time, was called to ask for the experimentation of an innovative recipe: wet the Babka dough with Tokay wine, which was later replaced by rum. The newly invented dessert became the spearhead of pastry.

There Stohrer's luck it came thanks to Maria, the daughter of Leszczynski, who first did it he called to Versailles then, in 1730, he granted him the license for open a patisserie in the center of Paris.

According to other versions of the legend, the king had no teeth. For this reason he could only eat liquid or very soft foods. His cooks, having brought yet another Kugelhupf, were chased out of the dining room with screams and threats. In the heat of anger, the king threw the cake on the table, dropping rum on it. From there, the baba would be born.

For the curious, Stohrer's patisserie still exists. The Polish king, unlucky even in his private life, he died in 1766 while lighting a fireplace. Not without having done another "miracle of pastry“.

The French also attributed it the invention of madeleines. And they were successful!

Babà francese stohrer
Stohrer's French baba

The babà arrives in Naples and becomes a mushroom

In France, a bit like the bidet, the baba was a trend that did not become popular.

At the time of Leszczynski, Paris was one of the lighthouses of the world in terms of fashion and power and the kingdom of Naples, which had just become independent thanks to Charles of Bourbon, he often took inspiration from French fashions. An example is the royal palace of Caserta, built on the model of that of Versailles, as well as the importation of new and particular objects from the kingdom beyond the Alps.
Also the babà was one of these products introduced in Naples from the kitchens of the city nobility, extremely attentive to European fashions. The eighteenth century was in fact the time of the monsù, French chefs at the service of the nobles.

It was the art and skill of Neapolitan pastry to create the recipe for the modern dessert, which had an extraordinary success and it assumed, in subsequent processes, the characteristic shape of a mushroom.

In fact, in the French versions babas are round in shape.

To understand how the Neapolitans have always been phenomenal in make foreign excellences their own, just think that an entire village was built thanks to the goldsmith's art "stolen" from the French.

La storia del babà, il dolce che lega Napoli, Francia e Polonia
A Polish baba, photograph by Federico Quagliuolo

Why baba?

There are many theories on the origin of the name "babà".

According to a famous legend, the Polish king was a great fan of tales of a thousand and one nights. Thus, in honor of Ali Baba, the dessert took this name.

More likely, however, is the theory that derives the word from the Polish "babcia", which means "grandmother". The dessert, which is still called "grandmother's cake" today, was crippled into babà first in France and then in Naples, where it is called "Babbà“, With that double“ b ”that fills the mouth even more than the dessert.

Recipe

The preparation of the dessert is not at all simple and requires great dexterity and a lot of experience. Don't be disheartened if your first attempts aren't perfect!

We refer you to the site Scattidigusto for a long and detailed procedure.

Federico Quagliuolo

References:
https://www.baba.it/storia.htm
https://www.star.it/notizia/dove-e-nato-il-baba/
https://www.e20cibus.it/kugelhupf-di-casa-mia/
https://www.canalacademie.com/ida7714-Stanislas-Leszczynski-un-roi-gastronome-inventeur-du-baba.html?page=article&id_article=7714

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