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