In the United States, Carnival is traditionally observed in the Southeastern region of the country, particularly in New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, and King Cake is associated with a number of celebrations, beginning during the Christmas season for the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night (a celebration of the visit of the three wise men—the Magi or Kings—to the infant Jesus 12 days after his birth), continuing through Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent.
The Mardi Gras tradition was brought to the Gulf Coast by colonists from France and Spain, and originated in French Louisiana with King Cake parties in New Orleans documented back to the eighteenth century.
Cakes take on many shapes and forms, but the most traditional is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style bread topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Mardi Gras colors representing purple-honor, green-faith, and gold-power). The popular fillings were not added to King Cakes until the early 1970’s, and the most common are cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.
The “Zulu King Cake” has chocolate icing with a coconut filling, because the Krewe of Zulu’s most celebrated throw is a coconut. I remember the proud moment back in the 1980’s when my father caught his first coconut on Canal Street.
It has become customary in Southern culture that whoever finds the trinket (a plastic baby Jesus) in the King Cake, is not only “lucky”, but must provide the next cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.
I’ve been a King Cake connoisseur for over thirty years now, with favorites being found at Randazzo’s in New Orleans and Cannata’s in Houma, but I never tried my hand at baking one myself until this week. King Arthur Flour sent me their King Cake kit packed with everything needed to make the perfect cake.
I enlisted the help of my parents who live nearby, as I was making Gumbo too, and the three of us gave it a whirl. For some reason, we did not braid the cake, but decided to make “beads” per my Dad’s suggestion, and did not add a filling. The cake turned out well, tasted delicious, and we had a lot of fun making it, though it was not the best looking attempt. Next time I think we will braid it, add more icing, and maybe a filling. Still, it is perfect with a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, or with milk as an afternoon snack. Happy Mardi Gras & Laissez les bon temps rouler!
King Cake Recipe:
- 2 Pounds of King Arthur Flour Flour
- 12 Eggs
- 1 Cup of Sugar
- 1 Pound of Butter
- 1/2 Ounce of Red Star Yeast Yeast
- 1/2 Ounce of Salt
- Sprinkles and white icing to decorate
- Tepid water
To make the Cake, take a pound and a half of the flour, and put it in a wooden bread trough. Make a hole in the center of the flour, and put in a half ounce of yeast, dissolved in a little warm water. Add tepid water to make the dough. Knead and mix the flour with one hand, while adding water with the other. Make a dough that is perfectly smooth, and set the dough to rise in a moderately warm place, covering with a cloth.
Let the dough rise for five or six hours, and, when increased to twice its bulk, take it and add the reserved half pound of flour, along with the salt. Add six eggs, beaten very light with the sugar and butter, and mix all well together, kneading lightly with your hands, and adding more eggs if the dough is too stiff.
Knead the dough by turning it over on itself three times, and let it rise again for an hour, covering with a cloth. At the end of this time work it again lightly, and then form it into a great ring leaving a hole in the center (or braid). Pat gently and flatten a little. On a baking pan, with a buttered sheet of parchment paper in it, and set the Cake in the middle.
Cover the pan with a clean cloth, and set the Cake to rise for an hour longer. When well risen, lightly paint the top of the Brioche Cake with a beaten egg. Set in an oven a few degrees cooler than that used for baking bread (360°); let bake for an hour and a half. Decorate with your choice of white icing and sprinkles of purple, green and gold.