24 May 2019

His Majesty the Baba

by Simona Vitagliano

In mini or pie format, stuffed or simple, with rum or limoncello, the baba reigns over the tables of the Neapolitans and has become, over time, a true symbol of Neapolitan gastronomic culture.

And yet, as often happens, this dessert does not have bell origins but is very distant … even Polish!
Ready to take a trip back in time?

A sweet born by chance

Stanislaus Leszczinski had been the king of Poland, but was deprived of his kingdom and exiled in the Duchy of Lorraine, to Lunéville, a town in the North of France almost on the border with Belgium and Germany. The sovereign, father-in-law of Louis XV of France (we are in the eighteenth century), was a passionate inventor of innovative culinary recipes, above all because he lacked several teeth and had to revisit the preparations to make them softer.

In reality, other versions speak of a king not toothless, but saddened and annoyed by what happened to him, so much so that he became capricious and demanding: wherever the truth lies, the fact is that the typical kugelhupf prepared by cooks with mastery of culinary art does not he was very pleased. It was a recipe from Alsace based on very fine flour, butter, sugar, eggs, brewer’s yeast and sultanas and the sovereign, who loved to drink at the table and had the habit of raising his elbow a little, found himself in spite of himself to give life to a new variant that would then become so famous to arrive to the present day; Stanislaus, in fact, while drinking a small glass, was seized by a sudden desire for dessert: the waiter proposed for the umpteenth time his hated kugelhupf, an offer that was badly received so much that he threw the plate in the air and threw it violently against the bottle of rum, spilling its contents onto the cake, finding itself strangely intrigued by the new “creation” that was dreading before his eyes. Under the astonished gaze of all, thus, he tasted that composition of fortune and found it exquisite. So tasty that it became his favorite dessert, with the ease of servitude! He decided to call it first “drunk kugelhupf” and then Alì Babà , taking up the name of the protagonist of the famous story of the “Thousand and One Nights”, among his favorite books, from which the today’s appellative.

This improvised and casual recipe began to spread outside the confines of the Duchy, but it was only in Naples, according to some, that the typical mushroom-shaped single portion was conceived which consecrated it typically Neapolitan preparation. In fact, the king’s daughter, wife of Louis XV, lived in Versailles and was followed by the family pastry chef, the Polish Nicolas Stohrer, who “emigrated” the variant of Stanislaus’ cake which became so famous that it made it worthy even of a mention in Voltaire’s writings. Arriving in Paris, where Stohrer had her pastry, still exists today, it would be here, instead, that according to others she would have been given the mushroom shape, in addition to the donut shape that we know well because it is often the protagonist of the Neapolitan Sunday lunches.

With the arrival to the throne of Louis XVI, husband of Marie Antoinette and brother of Maria Carolina of Austria, wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, king of the Kingdom of Naples, the passage of hands was even faster and easier through the brief moment by Gioacchino Murat, who brought the babà  to be a typical Neapolitan dessert as early as 1836, as evidenced by a manual of the kitchen of the time. At the end of the century, this delight for the palate was already empress of the tables of Naples well and, over time, turned into modern sweet street food, dominating the windows of all our pastry shops.

The black baba

In this climate of evolutions and inventions, the Gambrinus has also given its very personal contribution, producing a new variant called “black baba”.

An idea by Michele Sergio, set up by his staff, born, just like the original recipe, by chance. It is he himself who tells how it happened: “A few months ago I was in Piazza del Plebiscito and I happened to see a group of children who made fun of their friend of games of clear Asian origin (probably Sinhalese). Suddenly I memories of childhood came back to me, from when it happened to me to be mocked by my friends for the rather dark color of my, even Neapolitan, skin. And here is the idea! From yarn to the Laboratory, there I told the pastry chefs that – considered that every Neapolitan dessert has its own history and its meaning -, it was necessary to make one against racism; what better sweet Neapolitan, the more classic, if not the baba? Yes the baba, but black! A baba completely soaked in chocolate which, then, gives a little touch of class: whipped cream to the taste of English soup and flakes of dark chocolate to make the most recent symbol irresistible, but certainly not the last – unfortunately, given the anchor current need to combat racial prejudice – the fight against racism “.