The inventor of the babà was nothing less than a king: Stanislaw Leszczynski,
king of Poland and father-in-law to Louis XV, king of France.
The brilliance of the invention
Legend has it that the sovereign, after dipping a slice of kugelhupf (the Austrian sweet halfway between a panettone and a brioche that he was very fond of) into some Madeira, he found the combination so delicious that he wanted to eat it that way always ever after. The Polish king’s great passion for gastronomy did the rest. The basic dough was enriched with currants and saffron, and was leavened three times after vigour beating to obtain the lightest possible cake.
A touch of the exotic
The form of the new sweet was inspired by the dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, while the name was chosen to refer to Ali Babà, the protagonist of the Arabian Nights. It was finished with the final, decisive touch: the steeping syrup, necessary to keep the sweet soft and prevent it from drying out quickly.
Madeira or rum?
The king had chosen Madeira, but at the court of France, Jamaican rum was the rage, one of the many delicacies that arrived from the American colonies. And that was that. It was in fact the French and Polish pastry chef, Nicolas Stohrer, who followed Stanislaw’s daughter Maria to the court of Versailles after her marriage to Louis XV in 1725 and perfected the sweet in the form we still know it today. Stohrer, who opened his own pastry shop on Rue Montorgueil in Paris (where it is still active today), created the babà in the mushroom, or chef’s toque, form as we still know it.
From the Babà to the Savarin
Later, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), a lawyer, politician and gastronome, introduced other variations to the sweet: he made it in a ring form to place fruit at the centre, eliminated the currants, added butter to the dough and brushed the finished cake with apricot jam to maintain the steeped liqueur even longer. Thus, the babà had become a savarin.
The babà is also evidence of the bond between Paris and Naples at the turn of the 19th century. By the mid-1800s, the sweet was already considered a typical Neapolitan speciality.
How to make the dough for babà
- Dissolve 15 g dry brewer’s yeast in 25 g warm water (A-B) and mix in 30 g Manitoba flour; cover and let rise in a warm place (C).
- Put 570 g sifted flour in the bowl of your stand mixer (D) and add the leavening mixture, which must have doubled in volume. Beat the dough vigorously and let rise for 30 minutes more. Then, with the mixer running, beat in 10 eggs one by one (E), add 30 g sugar, a pinch of salt and process the dough in the mixer for 15-20 minutes more.
- Beat in 320 g of softened butter (F) and continue beating vigorously for a few minutes more until the dough is soft, elastic and opaque (G).
- Set the dough to rise for 3 hours in a leavening chamber or in the oven (turned off) with the internal light turned on. Fill the special forms (H) halfway up after buttering and dusting with flour, then let rise until the dough reaches the lip of the forms. Brush the dough with beaten egg yolks and bake at 180-200 °C until golden.
- When the surface of the babà begins to darken, cover them with a sheet of parchment paper and finish baking. Baking time will depend on the size of the babà. To check on whether the inside is cooked, pierce a babà with a wooden skewer. If the skewer is coated with a layer of dough, more time in the oven is needed. If it is dry, remove the babà from the oven
Kugelhupf: a typical Austrian Christmas sweet, typically prepared in Germany, Switzerland and in Eastern Europe. Some variations of the recipe include raisins or walnuts.
Steeping syrup: this is a simple, but important preparation in pastry making, used to soften cakes, especially those made of sponge cake. The syrup can be alcoholic or not, and may be aromatized with vanilla, star anise, mint, etc.
Manitoba flour: soft grain wheat from the Canadian province of Manitoba. This flour is particularly rich in gluten. Today, the term “Manitoba flour” is used to identify all such “strong” flours.
How Much Do You Know…?
What category of sweets includes the babà?
The croissant was created in 1839, when artillery officer August Sang founded the Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris, where Austrian specialities, including kipfel, were served. This sweet rapidly became so popular that it was quickly imitated and renamed with a French word inspired by its half-moon shape: “croissant” (waxing moon).