The Babka cake has been made in Eastern European countries like Poland and Ukraine for centuries. It’s a bit like a fortified French brioche, made with yeast, and cooked from a batter, which is baked into a cylindrical shape. Babka means “grandmother” or “old woman” and it’s a very sweet cake left to rise in the fridge overnight before being baked the next day. Lots of countries have a similar version to the Babka, like the Gugelhupf in the region of Alsace Lorraine, France.
King Stanislaus was exiled from Poland to the French town of Lorraine, where legend has it that he created the Rum Baba from the existing Gugelhupf cakes that were common at the time. The story is he either returned from a trip to Poland with a Babka cake or he found a Gugelhupf version in the area, thought it was a bit dry from the journey, and then had the idea of adding alcohol to it, to sweeten and moisten it. He used a Hungarian wine or sherry and possibly some apricots, although different sources tell different stories. Now, the Baba is often dried out a little as part of the recipe.
The dessert might not have ended there if it wasn’t for Stanislaus’ daughter, who married King Louis XV. Her pastry chef, Stohrer, went with her to Versailles and brought the dessert too. It was here that legend says he added rum for the first time. A few years later, Stohrer opened his own pastry shop in Paris, although the date this is said to have happened ranges across a period of many years. The Rum Baba was a huge hit. You can visit the Patisserie Stohrer in Paris, established in 1730 and the oldest bakery in Paris. The French declare that the Rum Baba was later introduced to Italy by visiting French pastry chefs where it is known as the Rum Babà (just don’t tell the Italians that…).
The Savarin is slightly different to the traditional Rum Baba. For a start, the mould is circular with a hole in the middle, lime is sometimes added to the batter and chantilly cream is always served as an accompaniment. Vanilla and orange are also sometimes added to the rum mixture. It was named after a French lawyer, Savarin, who loved food. The rule of thumb is that the dessert is a Savarin if it is shaped like a doughnut, and a Baba if it is shaped like a champagne cork.