When it comes to European pastries, there’s plenty to choose from: some might favor the (Imperial) Austrian traditions, others would pick French pâtissierie over everything else, and Turkish-inspired sweets are popular all over the Mediterranean.
These boundaries are often fuzzy, however, and some recipes simply elude classification. One such is the babà, the notorious pastry.
The babà is a mushroom shaped cake, made with a buttery, yeast-based dough, soaked with liquor, typically rum. It is sometimes served with cream or pastry cream, lemon being a popular dressing choice. It’s one of the most characteristic sweet snacks in Naples, and Southern Italy at large – but what are its origins?
As with any good fairy tale, we begin with a king: Stanislaw Leszczynski, King of Poland. The story goes that the king, or more correctly, former king in exile in Lorraine, was served a local cake, a Gugelhupf. Stanislaw eventually tired of the cake’s taste, and dunked it in sweet wine. The result left him so happy that he gave the experiment a name, “babà”, inspired by the book he was reading, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Then, when the former-king became father-in-law to Louis XIV, the king’s cook, Nicholas Stohrer, introduced the babà to the court of Versailles.
This is what the legend claims, at any rate. The narrative mirrors other mythical origins of recipes, especially French ones, linking their creation to famous people, often as a result of a lucky mistake. This account is obviously a make-believe. Even the detail about the alcoholic dunk is quite improbable, as the oldest recipes flavoured the babà with saffron and sultana, and the alcoholic dunk appeared only later, as punch became fashionable in the Old Continent.
Still, the fantastical tale probably holds a kernel of truth: Stohrer did open the oldest pâtissierie in Paris, which is still open to the public, and made the babà famous and fashionable in in the country. He could have been inspired by the Gugelhupf of the tale, common in central Europe. The Gugelhupf, or Kugelhupf, Kouglof – and known by many other names – is a ring-shaped yeast cake. It probably originated in German-speaking lands, then became popular in all central Europe, including Poland and France.
The long journey of the babà came to an end in Naples. The chefs of the aristocratic families of the Kingdom of Naples were influenced by the fashionable French cuisine, an influence demonstrated by the title of respect awarded to talented chefs and cooks in Southern Italy: monzù (or monsù in Sicily), a word derived from the French “Monsieur”. Needless to say, the French culinary repertoire imported to Naples now included the babà.
The lovely pastry thus started out as a German cake, was then modified to the benefit of a Polish king during his exile in France, and subsequently imported by Neapolitan cooks: a long journey, crowned by the immense popularity it now enjoys.