After all, before becoming a popular Neapolitan dessert, rum baba had been travelling from one country to another, from one culture to another, from one social layer to another for more than one century. Its “nomadic life” brought newer and newer meanings into it – from supposedly sacral bread, one of the purposes of which was ritual satiety after long fast (baba was most likely related to Easter gastronomic ceremonies) to a thing much of aesthetic delight (as being served up at the French royal family’s meal) and further – to a dish prepared by nearly each and every Neapolitan housewife. These transformations cover one more fascinating cultural-anthropological process – forming the meaning of food taste. The modern idea of taste – identification of pleasure of eating with pleasure of the food’s organoleptical qualities (as opposed to nutritious and sacral ones) – is not that long-standing acquisition. To the full extent taste became a valuable sign closer to the 18th century having passed such key stages as the epoch of chase for spice and forming a cultural type of court nobleman. It is remarkable that the rum baba's history (do not confuse it with prehistory, when baba was a solely ritual viand) started exactly in the 18th century.
There is a nice legend about this dessert’s birth. It is connected with the name of exiled king of Poland Stanisław Bogusław Leszczyński (1677 – 1766) whose daughter Maria Leszczyńska was French king Louis XV’s wife. Though the Polish sovereign was reputed a true Polish gentleman, intellectual and Maecenas, he was said, at the same time, to be of ill temper and good appetite. Once he was served kugelhupf; the pastry tasted too dry and plain to him and in a burst he threw the dish with the sweet thing breaking a bottle of rum. The pastry fell into the rum; Stanisław tried it and found it excellent. Under the legend, the new dessert evoked sweet eastern associations from the king so it was called baba – after an Arabian Nights character’s name, Ali Baba. Surely, the legend is beautiful, but one can hardly believe everything it tells. The version of Slavonic roots of the name baba sounds much more probable. There is a suggestion that instead of a kugelhupf there was exactly a baba on the dish (“Polish bun”, as the French put it). Perhaps, Stanisław brought it from one of his trips. Most probably, the pastry had already been dried up and King’s confectioner Nicolas Stohrer soaked it in Malaga wine (some sources mention Madeira), added some saffron and filled with custard. Those who believe the Polish confectioner to be the author of the rum baba recipe appeal exactly to this fact. By the way, talking of the origin of the name (and the dessert itself as well), the analogies with the Russian Easter baba, Belarusian and Polish babka, Czech babovkaare more than clear; besides, similar in shape and ingredients pastry was spread almost all over Europe – within the Germanic territory its name derived fromkugel (ball), and within the Slavonic one it derived from baba (in Byelorussia both names were current - baba and kugel, it being not improbable that "kugel" had appeared earlier). The searchers of true etymology of the name “rum baba” may get puzzled with the fact that Stohrer himself called his creation “Ali-Baba” in his memoirs, but still the Slavonic and “Middle-East” versions are unlikely to contradict each other, since the name of the traditional pastry (baba) performed in a new way could acquire sweet exquisite allusions. In addition, a good consonance is present.
Following Stanisław’s daughter to Versailles as her confectioner, Nicolas Stohrer brought his recipe to France. In 1725, Maria Leszczyńska married Louis XV and in 1730 her pâtissier founded Pâtisserie (later Pâtissier Stohrer) in Paris, Montorgueil Street 51. There baba soaked in mixture of Malaga and Tanaisie Liqueur was served. It was that house where for the first time Jamaica rum, so popular in France, was used for cooking that dainty. But it is not known for certain whether it was Nicolas Stohrer himself or his followers who hit upon that. At first, they soaked fresh baba and only later it was dried a little and some aromatized sugar syrup was added to rum. By the way, traditions of Babà Au Rhum are still alive in this house, today in Pâtissier Stohrer you will be offered both a traditional rum baba and variations on the author dainty’s theme: Ali-Baba with custard and raisins, Ali-Baba with saffron, Baba Chantilly.
Some years later (supposedly in 1844), being encouraged with Babà Au Rhum, Parisian confectioner Julien changed its shape and composition of the alcoholic soaking liquor (the latter was kept secret for a long time) and invented a renowned French analogue – Brillat-Savarin, named in honour of famous French gourmet and writer on gastronomy Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). There was going a legend that Brillat-Savarin himself passed that recipe to Julien. Very soon the dessert became popular but for a long time it was anyway called Babà Au Rhum.
After awhile baba came from Paris to Naples. And again we come across a biography of things (dishes in our situation) entwining into a historical-cultural flow. Pompous as it may sound, but Babbà al rhum became a part of heritage that Naples had acquired from Paris, one of symbols of interesting relation between these cities. The very name of the dessert is symbolic: babbà is both French (the last syllable is characteristically stressed) and Neapolitan (doubled “b” corresponds to the local pronunciation).
The relation of Paris and Naples arose from rivalry – when Marie Antoinette was given in marriage to dauphin and later king of France Louis XVI, and her sister Maria Carolina married king Ferdinand of Naples. To be more exact, the rivalry came from Maria Carolina who, being envious of her sister, by hook or by crook, found out about the French court tailors’ and chefs’ novelties and cultivated that pieces of luxury in her circle in every way possible. So in Italy an epoch of new cuisine began – the epoch of fashion of gâteau, pâté, béchamel, gratin, choux and other French specialties. Obviously, the baba was found among the fashionable culinary novelties, except that the definition “French” in respect of this dessert very soon ceased to be relevant. As early as in 1836, in the first Italian cookbook written by Angeletti for Maria Louisa of Parma Babba al rhum was described as a traditional Neapolitan dessert. Very soon this pastry stepped out the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and conquered the whole Italy.
Today, perhaps even to the greater extent than earlier, Babbà al rhum is a grateful ground for a range of culinary experiments, first of all, in its “last homeland” – in Naples. One of the trendy tendencies born on Capri and Sorrento coast and having a good chance to become a tradition is using Limoncello liqueur instead of rum. There are countless variations of sweet fillings and decorations of any kind: in Naples you can certainly treat yourself to a baba with cream, with Chantilly cream, with wild strawberry and chocolate. Besides, a sugarless baba is also much sought after: with lettuce leaves, slices of salami, prosciutto, capocollo and cheese.