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Naples takes its baba very seriously, so much so that the term has entered everyday language. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if a Neapolitan wants to compliment you on your sweet and helpful character, he will say “si nu' babbà” (you are a baba) and the same can also be said of a particularly charming object or a marvellous view. In short, the baba is so highly appreciated that it has become an authentic icon of the city (and not only as a dessert).
With its unmistakable mushroom shape, apparently inspired by the dome of St. Sofia’s Church in Constantinople, the baba is a leavened oven-baked sweet soaked in an alcoholic liquid (traditionally rum or limoncello).
Despite the fact that everyone associates it with the South of Italy, baba – whose name allegedly derives from that of Ali Babà – originally came from Central Europe: it would seem that, at the Duke of Lorraine’s court, Polish-born Stanislao Leszczinski, father-in-law to Louis XV of France following the King’s marriage to his daughter Maria, was rather partial to a slice of kugelopf, a typical Alsatian sweet whose dough is similar to that of panettone without the dried fruit and candied peel. Legend has it that, tired of the usual taste of Madeira sponge cake, he dipped it into a Marsala-type liqueur and voilà, the forerunner of baba was served up. A few years later, the court pastry chef Nicholas Stohrer opened a pastry shop in Paris – where the royal family had moved to in the meantime – at number 51 rue Montorgueil: people continue to queue up in this shop today to buy baba, served in the shape of a doughnut with fresh fruit in the centre and soaked in rum instead of Madeira.
It was then brought to Naples by the “monsù”, as the chefs serving the aristocratic Neapolitan families were called. This brings us up to the memorable date of 1836, when the baba appeared as a typical Neapolitan sweet in the first Italian cookbook written by Angeletti.
The sweet had hardly been born when the first disputes began regarding the correct way to make it. One of the most ferocious arguments has to do with the liquor used to soak it in after baking: rum, as tradition dictates, or the limoncello typical of the Amalfi coast? Even though the latter, with its citric component, effectively offsets the impressive quantity of sugar dissolved in alcoholic liquid, the purists don’t want to know. Basically, an authentic Neapolitan baba needs to comply with one rule only: it has to be delicious on its own. A dough leavened to cloud-like consistency, one night for it to dry out thoroughly and one long soak in a rum-flavoured syrup. Nothing else: no chocolate, fruit, whipped cream or jam brushed onto the surface to make it glossier.
Despite its noble birth, baba is a “democratic” dessert. It can be enjoyed without cutlery and with no need for excessive formality. It is a sweet for eating as you walk through town, three bites and it’s gone. Its interminable three-stage leavening process makes it a difficult sweet to make at home: here is a semplified recipe, but that’s why it is preferable to buy it from the right cake shop. How do you spot the real thing? Simple: no fuss and frills. Not too sweet but not too alcoholic either. Not too light (which would mean that it is dry inside), and not too heavy from excessive soaking.