Cakes and Desserts
The development of the art of Neapolitan confectionery developed over the arc of a number of centuries, on the foundations of traditions originating in the monasteries. The arrival of the “monzù” (from the French “monsieur”) that is, the foreign cooks at the Bourbon court and the palaces of the aristocracy, did not transmit, as one may suppose, the production of sweets and cakes of royal origins - except for just one, the baba. The city, in return, however, donated the sumptuous pastiera and a whole series of other specialities which today make up the main nucleus of an artisan tradition; in the eighteen hundreds, the experiences brought in by the immigration of Swiss confectioners led to the birth of shops which form part of the history of the city.
The historical origins of the baba go back to the King Stanislao Leszczynsky of Poland, father in law of Louis XV of France, who, exiled in Lorraine after being defeated in the Polish war of succession of 1733-38, dedicated his attention to the improvement of the typical Lorraine cake, the “Kugelhupf”, by soaking it in rum. He called it Ali Baba, simply because he was an assiduous reader of the “Thousand and One Nights”. The first part of the name was lost along the way, and the baba arrived in Naples in the retinue of the Bourbons.
Today, the baba can be found in all the Italian pastry shops but it is, however, still considered to be a classic of Naples. It is shaped like a small soufflé, in an individual portion and is made from very soft, risen cake mixture.
Larger, multi-portion forms also exist for family use. The fragrance of rum is essential.
The babas are produced daily and should be eaten immediately while still fresh, or the next day at the very latest.
A traditionally Neapolitan cake is the pastiera; it has ancient origins, probably coming from the monasteries, and today, it represents well the Neapolitan spirit.
At one time, the pastiera was traditional for the Easter festivities, but today it is the banner for the observant Neapolitan table and the essential gastronomic souvenir for those who have visited the ancient capital city of the Bourbons and want to take home a little of the brightness of Naples. And it is certainly a cake linked to the brightness of the sun and to the Mediterranean, right down to its last crumb; its fundamental ingredients being ricotta, buckwheat, orange flower water, citrus and candied orange rind, shortcrust pastry which is a must in Naples, flour, sugar, egg yolks and pork fat as the binding fat. It is not a cake which can be preserved for long, although the tradition in the families is that the pastiera – prepared for the solemn Easter recurrence – continues to be presented at the table for at least a week, a small piece at a time, especially at breakfast. All the Neapolitan confectioners produce it: some of the ingredients may vary since each guards his recipe jealously, but it is just a matter of very subtle variants which only those who live in Naples are able to distinguish.
There are more precise records regarding the sfogliatella (puff), born in the 1700’s in the kitchens of the monastery of the Croce di Lucca as a welcome cake offered to the visiting prelates. It was, in fact, a strip of very thin puff pastry which was wound around itself to enclose a filling of ricotta, sugar and small pieces of citrus and which took on the appearance of a seashell. Later on, the sfogliatella was reintroduced in a slightly larger size by the nuns of the convent of Santa Rosa who enriched the filling with patisserie cream and fruit jam. We also know the official date of when the first sfogliatella was produced outside the convents: it was in 1818, when Pasquale Pintauro, innkeeper of a tavern in via Toledo, decided to produce a continual stream of sfogliatelle, thus serving them to his customers still hot. This had an enormous success, with people cueing up along the street, waiting their turn. All the pastry shops in Naples imitated Pintauro, but he remains, however, the king of the sfogliatella.
There is an entire collection of literature regarding this very special, exclusively Neapolitan cake, the flower in the buttonhole of some greatly renowned pastry shops. It has been defined as a Baroque cake in which an architect has wanted to repeat his curly shaped mouldings in cuisine. In the way that this cake is made, some have even recognised how a master confectioner could have been inspired by a clam fisher’s passion for his seafood, the former reproducing the mysterious, spiral geometry in his puff pastry.
An example of cakes of poor, working class origins are the zeppole, «zeppole da pasticciere a delluvio. Chelle de Pintauro sogno cchiu' diffamate per l'antechera' de servizio». Thus, the abbot don Giulio Genoino wrote in his Callannario in 1834, concerning de tutte li spasse 'lle feste e l'asciute de lo popolo napolitano (‘all the entertainment, festivals and events of the Neapolitan people’). And, since the work was a calendar, the zeppole were registered in the day which was dedicated to them, 19th March, the festival for Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe). In Naples, this is a particularly important festival, with the sparrow market and all kinds of stalls to be found between via Sanfelice and via Medina. Zeppole are classic, homemade cakes and attained the honour of gastronomic fame when, at the beginning of the 1800’s, the confectioner Pintauro, already famous for his sfogliatelle, had the idea of frying them in public, on the pavement in front of his shop on the morning of Saint Joseph’s day. Since then, on 19th March, all the pastry shops in Naples fry zeppole. In the old version of the recipe, they are small rings made from water and flour, covered with powdered cinnamon and sugar.
In the modern version, they are richer: the mixture is made with the addition of egg yolks and stiffly whipped egg whites to make them lighter, and they are decorated with crème patissiere made with eggs, and cherry jam. They are eaten both hot and cold.