A king of a cake
The sweet and gaudy Mardi Gras treat is iconic, yet it inspires creative twists
Sweet and gaudy: Ring-shaped, gaudily decorated with golds, greens and purples, and always containing a hidden trinket of some sort, the king cake is a tradition as firmly rooted in French culture as New Orleans itself. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Ring-shaped, gaudily decorated with golds, greens and purples, and always containing a hidden trinket of some sort, often a tiny plastic baby, the king cake is a tradition as firmly rooted in French culture as New Orleans itself. That said, the iconic treat is increasingly open to interpretation and embellishment, as the city's home cooks, pastry chefs and bakeries put their own spin on it.
"King cake identifies us as a culture and a people," says John Besh, a New Orleans restaurateur and cookbook author who grew up across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell, La. "Every culture identifies with something. We're drawn to food; richer or poor, it draws us together."
King cake has to be one of the few foods left in the world that has a definite season. In New Orleans, king cake is served only during Carnival season, which began Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, and ends famously on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. (Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 12 this year.)
One tradition scrupulously observed in making king cake is hiding that trinket in the cake. It's still called a feve, French for "bean," which was originally used. Whoever gets the feve is tradition-bound to make the next king cake or host the next Carnival party.
Elizabeth Williams, president and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans and author of the new book, "New Orleans: A Food Biography" (AltaMira, $45), says the king cakes of her childhood were always ring-shaped. A ring symbolizes eternity, she notes, and is an easy shape to create. The colored sugars decorating those cakes were traditional to Mardi Gras. Williams says purple stands for justice, green for faith, gold for power.
King cakes of today are more varied and elaborate; some of it stems, Williams believes, from the desire of various bakeries to make their cakes stand out from the rest.
"There's a big divide here between people who want a real plain style — even though it's a braided fancy bread with colored sugar on top, that's considered plain — and the modern style which has a filling," says Judy Walker, food editor at The Times-Picayune and Nola.com.
"A Mardi Gras historian told me that king cakes were never a big deal," Walker adds. "But they have become a big deal as they've gotten more delicious. And I believe that. It's a much richer dough now."
John Besh's king cake
Prep: 30 minutes
Rise: 2 hours
Bake: 30 minutes
Servings: 10 to 12
Note: From "My New Orleans: The Cookbook," by John Besh
1 cup warm milk, about 110 degrees
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry yeast
3 3/4 cups flour, plus more for kneading
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon each: vanilla, lemon zest
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Purple, green and gold decorative sugars
1 bean or small plastic baby
1. For the cake, pour the milk into a bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour, mixing until sugar and yeast have dissolved. Allow to rest until bubbles have developed on the surface.
2. Whisk in the butter, eggs yolks, vanilla and lemon zest. Add remaining flour, cinnamon and nutmeg; fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients with a spatula.
3. When dough pulls away from sides of the bowl (you may need to add 1-2 tablespoons flour), shape it into a large ball. Knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic, adding a little flour if needed, 10-15 minutes.
4. Return dough to bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in volume, 1 1/2 hours.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Punch down dough; divide into 3 equal pieces. Roll pieces into long ropes, each about 2 inches wide and of equal length. Braid ropes around one another; form loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay loaf on a nonstick cookie sheet; let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.
6. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool, 30 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, for the icing, whisk together the confectioners' sugar, condensed milk and lemon juice in a bowl until smooth and spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if too loose, add a little confectioners' sugar.
8. Spread the icing over the cooled cake; sprinkle with decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the bean or plastic baby into the underside of the cake; slide the cake onto a platter to serve.
Per serving (for 12 servings): 451 calories, 19 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 121 mg cholesterol, 64 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 25 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
King cake with cream cheese and fruit filling
Prep: 45 minutes
Rise: 2 hours
Bake: 45 minutes
Servings: 10 to 12
Note: Ask Judy Walker, food editor at The Times-Picayune and Nola.com, for a favorite king cake recipe, and she reaches for this one from the late Myriam Guidroz, a longtime food columnist at the New Orleans newspaper. Those using a bread-making machine should follow the manufacturer's directions for a brioche or sweet roll dough. The dough recipe here makes enough for two king cakes. Extra dough may be frozen, or make two king cakes and freeze one. Thaw frozen cake and reheat 10 minutes in a 375-degree oven.
1 envelope dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup milk
2 sticks (1 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
4 cups flour, approximately
1 can (16 ounces) cherry, apple or apricot pie filling
8 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 whole egg
2 tablespoons water
1 dried bean
Colored sugars or confectioners' sugar and food coloring
1. For the dough, mix the yeast with warm water in a small bowl. Stir 1 teaspoon each of sugar and flour into the yeast; set aside until it begins to bubble.
2. Heat the milk to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat; stir in the butter and remaining sugar. Pour into a large bowl; the mixture should be lukewarm. Beat in the egg yolks, whole eggs and the yeast mixture.
3. Beat in approximately 2 cups flour, until the dough is fairly smooth; gradually add enough additional flour to make a soft dough that you can form into a ball. Knead, by hand or machine, until smooth and elastic. Lightly oil a bowl; turn the dough once or twice in it to grease it lightly all over. Cover with a cloth; leave to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, 1 1/2 -2 hours.
4. Pat the dough down; cover the bowl with a damp towel and plastic film over that. Refrigerate until the next day.
5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove half the dough from refrigerator with well-floured hands; while it's firm and cold, shape into a long sausage shape. Using a floured roller on a floured surface, roll out the dough into a 30-by-9-inch rectangle as thin as a pie crust. Let dough rest.
6. For the filling, drain extra juice from pie filling, if necessary. Mix the cream cheese with the sugar, flour, egg yolks and vanilla. Spoon an inch-wide strip of fruit filling the length of the dough, about 3 inches from one edge. Spoon the cream cheese mixture alongside the fruit, about 3 inches from the outer edge. Mix the egg and water in a small bowl to make an egg wash. Brush both sides of dough with egg wash. Insert the bean.
7. Fold one edge of the dough over the fillings; fold the other edge over. Turn the filled roll seam side down. Gently place one end onto a greased large cookie sheet. Ease the rest of the roll onto the pan, joining the ends to form a circle or oval. Cover; let rest, 30 minutes. Brush with egg wash; cut deep vents into the cake. Sprinkle with colored sugars if you like.
8. Bake until cake is well risen and golden, 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool. If you did not sprinkle with colored sugars, ice with confectioners' sugar mixed with enough water to make a spreadable paste and tinted purple, green and gold in batches. If using a plastic baby instead of the bean, insert it into the bottom of the cake after it is cooked.
Per serving (for 12 servings): 319 calories, 16 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 119 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 85 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.