But what is a “baba” anyway?

It’s a grandmother. Or an old lady. That’s what “baba” means in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, or so I understand. What does a tall, cylindrical shape have to do with a grandmother? That’s a very good question, for indeed for much of their history, baba molds were extremely tall things. It’s said that in imperial Russia babas were routinely made in molds that were some 40 centimeters (16 inches) tall. A cylinder of that height certainly doesn’t remind me of a matron, more like something that the late Frank Zappa might have compared to a Telefunken U47.

So what’s the connection? Well, some food historians claim that shorter, stouter babas do indeed have a form reminiscent of a stooped old woman, especially if they have a bulbous top and are made in fluted molds that give the impression of a peasant woman’s skirt. I supposed that’s plausible, however it’s clear from the shape of those old copper molds (which I’m given to understand were sort of like Pullman pans, only round) that they were created to yield a perfectly cylindrical shape. So if a bulging, muffin-like top was considered bad form, in what way would the finished “baba” resemble a peasant woman’s hunched back? It is indeed a conundrum.

What does seem clear is that sweetened breads that are cylindrical in shape are very, very old. They may even pre-date Christianity in Central Europe. And of course whenever you combine popular food history with a bread of that antiquity, the door opens up to all sorts of wild speculative theories about pagan matriarchal societies, fertility rites, Atlantis, ancient Egyptian lightbulbs and Minoan moon landings. None of which interest me in the slightest. Speaking for myself, I’m content to believe that any real, substantive connection between a “baba” and an elongated cylindrical bread has long since been lost to us. These things happen. The fact that we can’t easily connect the dots between the word and the food doesn’t make it any less delicious.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the word “babka” comes from, it’s the diminutive form of “baba”, which means it’s akin to the term “granny.”

4 thoughts on “But what is a “baba” anyway?”

  1. great site — I’m a quasi-longtime lurker. for sad reasons I spent a month in Southern Italy at the end of last year and, in part to cheer myself up, enjoyed quite a number of baba-au-rhums. I was determined to make them when I got home (and bought a few forms while there for this reason) but haven’t gotten to it until now — thanks to you. two things:

    1. where I was (Lecce) they were served heavily soaked, split in two on their back and filled with piped whipped cream, stored wonderfully cold.

    2. I had assumed at the time that the name referred to “grandmother” (knowing the word “baba” from some folk tales as referring to old women/witches) was used in the possessive — such as “granny’s cake” (a cake that your granny often makes). your explanation — and a myriad of others on the web — confuse me further. still, I LOVES ME SOME BABA.

    1. I think you’re ultimately right about “baba” being the word for “grandmother.” Exactly how that applies to the dessert seems unclear. I can see why they might have been served split, since the syrup would soak in readily that way. As for the cream that’s a common way to eat babas nowadays in Italy and France, and probably in a lot of other places.

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