Feb 18, 2009

A Sure Sign of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras 2009 is Feb. 24.

King Cake. A sure sign that Mardi Gras is on its way.

I just realized that it’s been about a dozen years since I’ve been to Mardi Gras. That’s way too long for this New Orleans native. A pity, really. This year since I now live in Cajun country, in addition to attending a few key New Orleans parades, I’ll be taking part in the traditional Cajun Mardi Gras for the first time. This is a much different animal than the New Orleans style celebration. Called the courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run, this celebration involves locals riding around rural areas on horseback and in wagons drinking beer and begging residents for ingredients to make a community gumbo. The highlight comes when a farmer donates a chicken or two. The farmer throws the chicken up in the air and the Mardi Gras must catch it. (By the way, Mardi Gras refers to the day and the participants). All day long there’s fun, hi jinks, and beer. Lots of beer. Later in the day, all of the collected ingredients are used to make a gumbo to feed the entire town. And there’s more beer. I’ve over-simplified...there’s a lot more to this tradition. And I’ve probably downplayed the consumption of beer.

Chicken-catching will definitely be a change from the “show your___” tourist crowd that has become the emblem (stain) of the New Orleans Mardi Gras...most locals I know prefer the family-oriented parades and avoid that sort of thing.

I’ve been living in TX and in the Midwest since the mid 90s and have missed Mardi Gras. Sadly, my son has no clue what Mardi Gras is. I have to rectify this. When we lived in the Midwest, we threw Mardi Gras parties for our friends, but it didn’t compare and they didn’t understand. We served gumbo, Voodoo Bourbon Slush, Beignets, and King Cake every year. Yes, we had to make the King Cake. There wasn’t anywhere local to buy one, that’s for sure. King Cakes can be purchased online for displaced natives who need a King Cake fix. But most of us are used to weekly King Cake parties and considering the price of King Cakes online...well, I quickly learned how to make them.

Traditionally, King Cakes aren't purchased or eaten before January 6th, the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. This kicks off the Mardi Gras season. Gorging on King Cakes ends with Mardi Gras day. Lent begins after that. Tradition has been toppled though and now King Cakes can be found almost year round in some bakeries.

There’s so much to tell if you aren’t familiar with Mardi Gras (other than an image of skanks standing on balconies in the French Quarter showing off the girls for cheap plastic beads—and that’s not really Mardi Gras). Mardi Gras incorporates both the pagan and the religious, light-hearted fun and heavy-handed trashing of governmental and other institutions (Mardi Gras had a great time with FEMA after Katrina), pageantry, food, drink, and music.

At it’s core—whether it’s the city Mardi Gras or the country one—Mardi Gras stems from pagan fertility rituals and celebrations in honor of Spring’s arrival. Mardi Gras made its way to Louisiana by way of French settlers, who had celebrated Mardi Gras since the Middle Ages. The date on which Mardi Gras falls depends on Easter. Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter. Mardi Gras is seen as one last chance to “pass a good time” before the somber Lenten season begins on the following day, Ash Wednesday. There’s a long history of how the famous New Orleans parades came to be as well as many accounts of the Cajun courir de Mardi Gras. No need for me to reinvent the wheel.

For me, King Cakes are the ultimate symbol of Mardi Gras...and there’s a ton of symbolism packed into these cakes. King Cake is traditionally made of brioche dough and often has cinnamon added. The dough is shaped into a ring and decorated, representing a jeweled crown. Royalty plays a large part during New Orleans Mardi Gras. The mayor gives the key to the city to Rex, the King of Mardi Gras. Celebrities are honored to be named King of Bacchus or Grand Marshal of Endymion. King cakes are decorated with sweet icing and colored sugar...and not just any colors. We have specific symbolic Mardi Gras colors. Purple means justice, Green represents faith, and Gold symbolizes power. There is a plastic doll hidden inside of each King Cake. The doll nods back to pagan fertility rituals and ties into religion as it symbolizes baby Jesus. Before plastics, a bean, pecan, or coin was used. The person who gets the baby provides next week’s King Cake.

I don’t know if this still happens, but when I was in school every Friday between Jan 6 and Mardi Gras there was a classroom King Cake party. If you got the baby, your mama brought next week’s King Cake. Most moms were not thrilled to have a kid come home with the baby. My mom feared that 2 or more of us would end up with the baby the same week. It was high excitement if your mama walked on the school grounds with a King Cake from Tastee Donuts. You would instantly become “the stuff” and other classes mumbled “aww mans” when they found out that they weren’t getting a Tastee Donut King Cake. Not a traditional King Cake at all...the Tastee Donut King Cake was a giant doughnut masking as a King Cake. All the kids loved those, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I did too. My mom never would buy a Tastee Donut King Cake because it was “just a big donut.” Now, it’s common to buy filled King Cakes...King Cakes filled with cream cheese, apple, pecan praline, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry. Definitely not traditional, but this seems to be what most people prefer. This year was my first attempt at making a filled King Cake.

Locals don't generally make King Cakes at home since they can easily and inexpensively be purchased. But, if you are a native away from and missing home, a native who wants a deeper appreciation for King Cake, or someone who is simply curious, here's a traditional King Cake recipe:

King Cake
from Ms. enPlace, based on a recipe from Talk About Good II

Brioche dough:
½ c warm water (110-115 degrees F.)
1 T active dry yeast
½ cup sugar + 2 tsp, divided
4½-5 ½ c all-purpose flour
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 T cinnamon
2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
½ cup lukewarm milk (110 degrees F.)
3 eggs
4 egg yolks
½ c plus 2 T butter, softened and divided
1 King Cake baby, coin, dried bean, or pecan

½ lb powdered sugar
½ tsp vanilla

Sugars: (sugars can be colored ahead of time and stored in an airtight container)
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided in thirds
purple food coloring, or red and
green food coloring
yellow food coloring

To make King Cake dough: add warm water to a small bowl. Sprinkle in yeast and 2 tsp sugar. Stir. Set the bowl in a warm place for 10 minutes, or until the yeast bubbles and mixture almost doubles in volume.

Combine 4½ cups flour, ½ c sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the lemon zest. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and warm milk. Add the eggs and egg yolks and gradually combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients. Cut in ½ c butter 1 Tbsp at a time and continue to fold and combine until the dough can be formed into a soft ball shape.

Place ball on a floured surface and incorporate more flour if needed, about 1 T at a time. Knead until smooth and elastic. Brush the inside of a large bowl with 1 T softened butter. Set dough in bowl and turn to coat with butter. At this point the dough can be refrigerated overnight. Bring up to room temperature when ready to continue.

Cover bowl and set aside for 1 ½-2 hours, or until doubled in volume.

Choose one of the methods below and continue.

Method 1: Basic King Cake
Use remaining 1 T of butter to butter a baking sheet. Punch down dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead, then roll and shape the dough into a cylinder about 14 inches long. Place on baking sheet to form a ring, pinching ends together. Cover and set aside to rise again, about 45 min.

Method 2: Filled King Cake
Any filling you like can be used. This is a cream cheese filling.
6 oz cream cheese, softened
1/3 c sugar
1-2 T flour
1 small egg

Combine the filling ingredients. Add additional flour if filling is runny. Cinnamon can also be added.

Use remaining 1 T of butter to butter a baking sheet. Punch down dough on a lightly floured surface. On a floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to roughly a 30 x 9” rectangle. The dough will be thin. Spread filling in a thin line down the 30” length of the dough, keeping the filling away from the edges.Fold the edge over the filling, then slowly roll the dough into a cylinder, like rolling a jelly roll. Place on baking sheet to form a ring, pinching ends together. Cover and set aside to rise again, about 45 min.

Preheat oven to 375. Bake cake on a rack placed in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool cake to room temperature on a wire rack. Hide the baby, bean, nut, or coin into the cake (through the bottom).

For the icing, mix the powdered sugar and vanilla together. Add milk, a small amount at a time, until icing is smooth. Drizzle over cooled King Cake using a fork or your fingers.

For the colored sugars, either mix in separate bowls or shake and knead in plastic bags. Add 3-4 drops of yellow food coloring to the sugar and mix to coat all of the sugar. Repeat with green food coloring. For purple, I like to use purple food paste to get a rich purple color. Red and blue food coloring can also be used.

Sprinkle the sugars over the King Cake while the icing is still wet. Sprinkle in alternating colors, purple, green, and yellow, in rows about 2-3 inches wide.

For the dough:

First get the yeast going. Start with warm water (not too hot, not too cold). Sprinkle in the yeast and sugar. Stir and let sit until very foamy.

Mix flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Then mix in the lemon zest.

Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture. Add the yeast, eggs, and egg yolks. Gradually stir it all together. Cut in the butter, 1 T at a time. Fold until dough can be formed into a ball.

Place on a floured surface and work in more flour if needed, adding a small amount at a time. Knead until smooth. I use a big bowl as my floured surface. Keeps me from getting flour all over myself and the floor.

Set the dough aside, covered, to rise. About 1 1/2-2 hours. The dough can also be refrigerated overnight. Bring up to room temp then allow to rise. Yeast are amazing!

This year, I made a filled King Cake. I was pleased with how it turned out considering it was my first time. Wasn't that much more work than an unfilled King Cake. I made a plain cream cheese filling. Mix room temp cream cheese with sugar, an egg, and flour. If it seems runny, add a little more flour. Cinnamon would also be a good addition.

Punch down the dough and roll out to about a 30 x 9" rectangle. Roll on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin to prevent stickage. Stickage is annoying.

Spread a line of filling down one of the long sides of the dough, leaving a bare border.

Fold the edge of the dough over the filling and roll jelly roll-style. This was the part I was afraid to do because I've never rolled "jelly roll-style." I just went slow and everything was good.

Form the tube into a ring/circle, pinching the ends together. Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes. Before baking, some people like to brush the surface with an egg wash of beaten egg and milk or water. I don't do that because it tastes too "eggy" to me and eggs kinda weird me out.

Coloring the sugar: this can be done while the dough is rising, while the King Cake is baking, or many days before. As long as you store the sugar in an airtight container, it will be fine. Doesn't take much to make a King Cake pretty.

I like using sandwich baggies for this. I can shake the sugar around and knead the color into it. Start with about 3 drops of food coloring, mix it in, add more if you want a deeper color.

I used to think these colors looked awful together. After being away from them for so long...well I don't want to get too mushy...I think they look great.

The icing can't be added to the cake until the cake is cool. Don't make the icing too soon or it will harden. Apparently I either didn't take pictures of the icing or I deleted them by mistake. Mix powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk together until smooth.

When the cake is golden brown, remove from oven and cool. Before you start decorating, insert the baby up through the bottom. If you do it through the top, the location it might be noticable. Drizzle the icing over the cake. You could use a fork, but fingers work better for me.

Right away, before the icing sets, sprinkle the sugars. Alternate purple, green, and gold in rows that are about 2-3" wide.

OK...who has coffee?


  1. Anonymous2/21/2009

    oh my just beautiful. And guess what I am making a kings cake today for the first time, with a very similar recipe. I hope mine turns out as pretty are yours!

  2. Samantha2/21/2012

    I've followed your blog for a couple of years now. I'd moved away from Louisiana to Texas and never payed enough attention to my matrons cooking to know how to do it myself! Thank goodness I found your blog, I almost cries when I finally succeeded at a roux. I'd been absent for a while, but craving a king Cake brought me back. I want you to know how much I truly appreciate your blog. My mother passed away before passing down recipes or roux making secrets, and finding your blog made me a little less homesick, a lot happier, and made my life taste better!

  3. I will be making this King Cake for the first time, I've followed u and made your Rice and Gravy...came out so good!! My kids wanted thirds! also your Sausage Ettouffe came out good...thank u sooo much! Virgos Rule!

  4. Anonymous3/01/2014




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