By Marsha Fottler.
One of the essential culinary rituals that accompanies the annual Mardi Gras season in Europe, South America and U.S. cities such as New Orleans is the King Cake. It’s a party dessert that keeps the party going and going ensuring that the good times roll.
The season of Mardi Gras (Jan. 6 through Feb. 16 this year) always begins on Epiphany or the day that the three kings or wise men came to the end of their starlit journey at the manger of the Christ child. It ends on Fat Tuesday with a full-out, all-day-and-night party of monumental proportions. The very next morning (Ash Wednesday) starts a month of Lent, a traditional Christian time of self denial and atonement. It’s called paying the piper and a hangover is usually somewhere in the mix.
In between these two dates, the Mardi Gras or Carnival season is marked by spectacular parades, by-invitation-only formal balls, parties in restaurants and work places and plenty of home entertaining. The King Cake is a symbolic element of it all.
The dessert itself is a yeast brioche-like coffee cake either twisted or shaped into a circle. Cinnamon or cream cheese are the customary flavors. The top can be plain or decorated with white icing or colored sugar sprinkles in bright yellow, purple and green, the official colors of Mardi Gras. The more garish, the better. Mardi Gras is about excess.
Although the look of the cake can vary, one thing remains the same. The token inside. In ancient days in France and Spain, it would be a bean. In more recent times, the token is a tiny ceramic or plastic baby meant to reference the baby Jesus. The baby is buried deep inside the cake. Near the end of the party, the cake is cut and passed around. The person who gets the piece with the token inside is the host for the next party. And so it goes with the token deciding who will organize the celebration next week. Friday is usually King Cake Day in the schools of New Orleans. The token winner brings in a cake the following week for the class to share. The same policy applies to offices all over the city.
Making a King Cake from scratch is labor intensive. Most people don’t bother relying instead on their favorite local bakery. That’s what we did when I was a child growing up in New Orleans. But authentic recipes abound online. Alternatively Cajun Wholesale (online) sells a mix for $8.99, which is much cheaper than ordering a finished cake online which is about $40. And if you’re near a Fresh Market, that specialty food store’s bakery has lovely King Cakes (one pound), fully decorated for $8 each. That’s where I’m getting mine this Mardi Gras season. As the Cajun French always say, Laissez les bon temps rouler, y’all.
Flavors and More – February 2010