On the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, my husband’s mother baked a cake. Not just any cake, though — a king cake.
It came from a fancy mix we’d picked up a couple of years ago at the French Market in New Orleans. Essentially, it’s a glazed, praline-filled brioche with purple, gold, and green sugar sprinkles, and a plastic baby hidden inside.
I could eat the whole thing (except the plastic baby).
When I went down to New Orleans in 2003, I thought I knew a thing or two about food in that region. I’d eaten jambalaya and gumbo. I knew a po’ boy wasn’t a person and a beignet didn’t go on your head. I knew how to pronounce muffaletta (that’s muffle-ahtta, not etta) and étoufée. What took me by surprise was the king cake mania.
The grocery store next to our West Marine store advertised them in letters 3-feet high. There was an entire king cake industry in New Orleans, with some bakeries making nothing but the round cakes. To order one from the best bakery, you had to put your name on a waiting list. According to the cake mix box, “In New Orleans, a pot of steaming coffee and a king cake constitutes a party.” (I might add that daiquiris are also not optional.)
A king cake isn’t cake, as we think of it, but a sweet yeast bread. The shape is a circle or oval, and the filling can be chocolate, praline, cheese, or jam. The colorful topping always has the three Mardi Gras colors: Purple signifying justice, yellow signifying power, and green signifying faith. My husband was taken aback when I told him this. “I thought it signified nudity, alcohol, and money!” he said.
The tradition is to serve the first king cake on Epiphany, and the person who gets the piece with the baby has to host the next party (or, in the case of an office party, bring the next cake). Since there will be another baby in the next cake, this guarantees a whole string of parties throughout the Carnival season. After Fat Tuesday comes Lent, when you’re supposed to deprive yourself of goodies like king cake and parties. So the season ends, and there are no more king cakes until the next year.
Mardi Gras falls on February 28th this year. You now have about seven weeks to make yourself a king cake!
Try one of the recipes on these websites (and remember, you don’t bake the plastic baby inside — after the cake has cooled, you have to poke it in or just hide it underneath):
This site has both manual and bread machine versions, and lots of helpful photos:
Chef Emeril’s cheese-filled king cake:
Here’s a cheater’s version with 3 ingredients:
Or you can order the same mix we used, Mam Papaul’s King Cake Mix with Praline Filling:
And for more thoughts on Mardi Gras and the Carnival season, see The OTHER Holiday Season on mepsnbarry.com’s Adventures page.