Sunday, February 13, 2011

King Cake

King Cake Cupcake
Swiss Confectionery, $2

Although the Mardi Gras parades won't start until the day after I leave New Orleans, I timed my trip just right for indulging in one of Carnival's quieter traditions: eating king cake.

King cake season starts on Epiphany, the holiday celebrated on the twelfth night following Christmas when tradition has it that the Three Kings (or wise men) arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. Between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, Catholics in many countries gather for king cake parties. The rich, sweet cakes are an efficient and festive way of using up luxurious ingredients such as sugar, butter, and eggs before the beginning of Lent.

Depending on where you find it, king cake can mean very different things. One old-fashioned version is made from a yeasted brioche dough with candied or dried fruit. Another, the "Galette des Rois," is a golden disc of butter-rich puff pastry filled with almond-flavored frangipane; those pictured above, in four party-appropriate sizes, were on display at La Boulangerie on Magazine Street.

In New Orleans alone there is considerable variation in king cakes, but the version most common today is akin to a cinnamon roll. The cake is usually formed into a ring, heavily drizzled with icing, and encrusted with sugar dyed in the Carnival colors: purple (for justice), green (faith), and gold (power). Many bakeries offer king cakes customized with your choice of fruit or cream fillings. The king cake boxes above, from the Croissant d'Or on Ursulines Street, list seven standard choices as well as a space for write-ins.

One key feature of the king cake is actually inedible: hidden somewhere inside is a small token. In the past, it might have been a dried bean, a coin, or a porcelain figurine. Today in New Orleans, the treasure is most likely to be a small plastic baby. The tradition probably derives from a the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, when the hidden bean was used to select a man who would reign as Saturn incarnate before being sacrificed to ensure fertile crops in the following year. These days the guest who finds the baby in his or her slice of king cake has it relatively easy, being expected merely to host the next king cake party.

Although king cake is not difficult to make at home, New Orleanians have long been accustomed to buying them. Many of the region's bakeries also send cakes around the country and overseas. Owned and operated by the same family for three generations, Haydel's Bakery has built up a strong following. According to the company brochure, their king cake operation is the world's largest, and during the Mardi Gras season Haydel's ships "tens of thousands" of oven-fresh cakes. Each package is a party waiting to happen, with beads, doubloons and a bag of chicory coffee included with the cake.

I couldn't justify buying an entire king cake, but thankfully I had plenty of chances to sample. During the season, many coffee shops offer a free slice with a drink purchase, and some tourist shops that have nothing to do with food sell slices on the sly. It's also possible to get personal-sized king cakes (top photo), king cakes made from doughnuts or ice cream, or tiny king cake charms fashioned from silver or gold.

At any time of year, a tour of the float workshops at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World includes a cup of coffee and a slice of Gambino's king cake (above). Gambino's is another one of the big players, shipping up to 4,000 cakes a day during the season. When I asked our guide if that meant that Kern's considered Gambino's to be the best, she cautioned me not to see it as an endorsement, but then added, "We go through a lot of king cake, and we do have a lot of choices about where to get it..."

For more on king cake sources, here's an article from New Orleans Magazine.

1 comment:

Murphy said...

YUM Julia! I love King Cake. Thanks for the reminder.