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Cake : I Want My Baba

November 10, 1994|VIANA LA PLACE

For years, my parents and their Italian friends threw a weekly party that followed the same format: laughing and talking and singing, eating, and a card game that lasted until 1 or 2 in the morning. They would take turns; each week a different couple would host the party and prepare a lavish buffet.

I always looked forward to the parties at our house. My father would go to Capri Market and buy paper-thin slices of rosy prosciutto, large rounds of pink mortadella with big creamy flecks of fat (which I always ate around), slices of sweet provolone, shiny black and green olives, and giardiniera , pickled vegetables. My mother would prepare lasagna, something she'd never heard of in Sicily but learned to make in America.

My father was also in charge of the drinks, which over the years evolved from cocktails to an easy and delicious punch made with orange juice, ginger ale, Champagne and strawberries. My mother served it in our big cut-glass punch bowl with matching little cups, and later on, in a gleaming silver punch bowl, also with matching cups. The punch bowl was always quite a sight, the exterior all misted and beaded from the icy liquid.

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The last marketing stop on the day of the party was the Gambino bakery. They moved their bakery around to various locations in the San Gabriel Valley. We were delighted when they opened in Covina, where I grew up, and sad when they moved again, to a town that involved a long drive. Even then, my father would take the time to drive there to buy Italian bread, the kind we liked with a sesame seed crust, and pastries: Napoleons, eclairs, cream puffs, cannoli, of course, and my very favorite, baba al rhum , or rum babas.

Those rum babas were truly special, swollen with so much rum syrup that another drop would probably have caused them to collapse into a puddle. I loved the smell, very sweet and rummy, and the shape, like a hat or a mushroom made out of the tenderest brioche. Hidden within the brioche was a shot of pastry cream and, crowning the confection, a bit of candied cherry.

By the time the friends arrived, the house was clean, fragrant and luminous, the chandeliers glowing. I think we were the only people in our neighborhood who had chandeliers (most of the neighbors in our suburban town furnished their homes in Early American). We had three chandeliers, one of which was so large and elaborate that you had to be less than 5 feet 4 inches tall to be able to walk underneath it! For parties, my mother would arrange flowers from the garden--camellias, calla lilies, roses--in vases on the dining room table, in the living room, and in the bathrooms, where there would also be neatly arranged fancy towels.

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Everyone would arrive--my uncle Franco and aunt Louise, Rosie and Louie, Lina and Dick, Ester and Eddie, Alda and Mario, and various other friends who would weave in and out of my parents' lives over the years.

I knew the party was in full swing when the house started to fill with cigarette smoke, a fragrance that in those days I associated with conviviality. It was a smell that made me happy. It was a smell that conjured up their voluble and happy conversation in Italian, a mysterious, beautiful-sounding language I understood only in a general sort of way, but not a word of which I could speak. I loved the sound of it and would listen for hours, lost in a happy reverie.

The Saturday night ritual involved first socializing, with some spirited joking, singing of Italian songs, and drinking of punch--not that this group needed punch to have a good time. They would talk about different foods they remembered from childhood and talk about the war, shared memories that never dimmed.

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The buffet would be served at around 8 p.m., followed by pastries and coffee. By the time the pastries were brought out, I usually had managed to eat at least half of one very large rum baba. Something about the flavor and texture of the sweetened-rum-soaked brioche and the luscious pastry cream fascinated me. I was less interested in the napoleons, eclairs and cream puffs, but always in the cannoli. In a refrigerator bursting with party food and drinks, there would be those unmistakable pink pastry boxes, double-tied with string, wedged between bottles of ginger ale and trays of lasagna, impossibly difficult to get to, which made the rum babas that much more tantalizing.

Then began the sometimes serious, more often comic business of playing poker, which would go on for hours. Looking back, it amazes me that these women, who also worked and had children to care for, could put together elaborate parties and find the energy to keep going until the early hours of the morning.

Over the years I've tried to find rum babas like the ones made at Gambino's bakery. They never seem to have a strong enough rum flavor, or they're not tender enough, or the brioche isn't drenched in enough syrup. But maybe it's just the taste of pink punch, the sound of laughter and Italian songs, the coffee and smoke and late-night snacking on leftover lasagna that I'm missing.

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