Happy Franny Day!
Today my daughter comes home from her exchange year in Italy. Okay, it was really only 9 months, but it felt like a year. Francesca was gone for her birthday cake and ours, Thanksgiving turkey and pie, Christmas fruitcake, and Easter hot dogs. She even missed opening day (hence the Easter hot dogs), when the Red Sox did in fact beat the Yankees.
I think she has some making up to do. Luckily, Baba au Rhum is on my 10 cakes in 2010 list. Of course, I really should have written babà (the Italian spelling). I sincerely hope Francesca forgives me. And helps me make and eat a babà on Friday.
The babà is, by circuitous route, a Neapolitan specialty. The Polish King Stanislas, exiled in early 18th century Alsace, is said to have introduced the idea of soaking a too-dry kugelhopf (babka in Poland) in rum. Or Madeira (legends can be imperfect, messy even). Legend adds that he named the new cake after Ali Baba, a favorite character of his.
The baba au rhum was eaten (happily, I imagine) in France, and about a hundred years later, the Parisian Julien brothers made some changes. Dried fruits (often present in the baba) were removed; the cake was baked in a ring mold, and soaked in either rum or kirsch syrup. It was also rechristened as ‘savarin’.
An aside: I just learned savarin is my brother’s favorite cake; my mother made a bunch of large kirsch-soaked savarins to fete him at his recent birthday (one of those big, round-numbereded ones). I was happy not to miss the party.
Somewhere along the line (with all those kingdom-uniting royal marriages), French cooks brought the baba to Naples. I like to imagine it was served at the palace in Caserta, a small city near Naples. Francesca lived only a kilometer or two from La Reggia, the Versailles-like palace in Caserta. She had many picnics on those palace grounds.
Maybe the babà was never served at La Reggia. It was, however, served to Francesca at many cafes in Caserta and Naples. And later this week Francesca and I are going to serve it at our house. Together.
For more on the babà , do check ‘The Babà, a star of Neapolitan pastry’ on the Luciano Pignataro wine blog. He writes about Neapolitans and their language by way of the babbà (the Neapolitan word). I especially liked the passage about the Neapolitan expression, “si nu’ babbà”:
Si nu’ babbà, when said to a person, indicates someone of a sweet and generous disposition, or else skilled in doing something particularly difficult…And that’s my Francesca—sweet (as long as the Red Sox are winning) and generous. And anyone who’s been an exchange student knows that besides being one of the best experiences of his life, it’s also difficult. And Francesca did it well.