As a native of California I was Mardi Gras-deprived until I turned thirty. Growing up amidst the waving palms, my only experience of Mardi Gras came vicariously through television. I didn’t taste the splash of Mardi Gras until I visited my friend, Kathy Ginn Greer, who lived near the Texas Gulf Coast. I sampled my first Mardi Gras King Cake on that trip. It was lovely and colorful and unlike anything I had ever seen. Adorned with sparkling sugar sprinkles of purple, green and gold, it had a faint cinnamon flavor.
Later, I traveled to New Orleans and enjoyed it so much that I returned for several visits, but only once during Mardi Gras. The ancient buildings with their iron-lace balconies were adorned with purple, green and gold banners, beads and coins. It was magical. The King Cake was part of that colorful magic.
Mardi Gras first made its New Orleans appearance in the 1700s. However, the city’s murky history points to the fact that King Cake probably made its debut later – perhaps in the early nineteenth century.
King Cake is a European tradition that may have originated in France; and the ring-shaped dessert takes its name from the Three Kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. French settlers brought the King Cake recipes with them to New Orleans.
A plastic baby, representing Jesus, is hidden in the cake, and the person who discovers it is considered blessed. This person is also responsible for making the next King Cake or hosting the next King Cake party, which can be held any time between Epiphany (January 6) and Mardi Gras (February 17 this year). I am not sure what happens if the cake is cut and the baby is found on the edge between two pieces of cake. Maybe the King Cake duties, and blessings, are shared.
While some actually bake the plastic baby in the cake, many slit open the bottom to hide the doll. However, due to the choking hazard, some place the plastic baby on top of the cake – in plain sight.
When it came time for me to make my own King Cake, I didn’t realize that it was more complicated than making an ordinary cake. The word “cake” is misleading. Even though I had eaten King Cake in the past, I had forgotten that it is brioche – a bread – not a cake. This meant I had to bake bread, which I had never done. It was a rather scary prospect.
Since I had never baked bread, the first hurdle I needed to jump was the foreign terminology. Dough hook? Paddle? Sounded a bit dangerous. What I discovered was that these are attachments to large, fancy electric mixers. Since I didn’t possess a large, fancy mixer, let alone the attachments, I kneaded my King Cake dough by hand – the way that women did it in nineteenth century New Orleans. It made me feel somehow connected to these strong Southern women. The “Sisterhood of the Kneaded Dough.” So I massaged and stretched the dough – adding flour until it was no longer sticky. Success!
I then divided the dough into three strands, braided it and formed a ring. After the cake was baked and cooled, I drizzled the powdered sugar glaze. Then came the crowning glory – the sprinkling of Mardi Gras-hued sugar crystals – purple for justice, green for faith, and yellow/gold for power. This King Cake was a colorful, aromatic, and delicious way to connect with Mardi Gras – the color, the pageantry… and the quirky. This King Cake was a carnival on a plate!
Mardi Gras King Cake
3 1/2 cups flour
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons butter (softened)
Purple sugar sprinkles
Green sugar sprinkles
Yellow or gold sugar sprinkles
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Mix 2 1/2 cups flour, cinnamon and yeast in mixing bowl.
2. Heat milk, sugar, and salt in saucepan until sugar is dissolved and mixture is hot, but not boiling.
3. Add liquid to dry ingredients. Mix well.
4. Add eggs and mix until dough forms.
5. Mix in remaining flour, then add the butter and knead until integrated.
6. Knead for about 10 minutes or until dough pulls away from bowl. (Add more flour if still sticky or water if too dry.)
7. Transfer dough to a floured surface and knead until elastic.
8. Form into a ball and place in a buttered bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
9. Roll the dough flat and cut into 3 strips. Braid dough, then form a ring with the braid.
10. The ring should be transferred to a cookie sheet – greased or lined with parchment.
11. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about an hour and a half or until doubled in bulk.
12. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes – until golden brown.
13. Allow to cool and frost with glaze. (Glaze = Mix confectioner’s sugar, milk and vanilla in small bowl.)
14. Drizzle glaze over top of cake, then sprinkle the colored sugar.