Even though Fat Tuesday, the culmination of weeks of carnival-type fun in New Orleans, Mobile and elsewhere, isn’t until next week, what’s the point in giving you recipes, etc. to try out with only 1 day to do it? Exactly. So here’s your annual dose of the green, gold and purple with time to spare.
For those who may not know, I grew up about an hour away from New Orleans, in a little town named Ponchatoula which has been making it’s name, over the last couple of decades, as an antique center. Anyway, despite my formative years having been so close to the action and family still fairly thick over there, I have a confession to make:
I have never been to Mardi Gras.
The shame! I know! How can I have gone this long without attending this cultural event? Hell if I know. But one of these days I’ll remedy the lack and experience the fun for myself. Of course, more and more I have less and less tolerance for crowds and craziness so I think it’ll be only when I can afford (and book way in advance) a Quarter room so that I can explore and escape as needed without having to navigate anything but foot traffic.
But I digress!
There’s a lot of history behind Mardi Gras and this New Orleans website has a heaping helping of it, so if you’re curious, check it out! But I know what you really want to know, you want the skinny on all the fattening, pre-Lent consumables. And here we go!
First things, first, the King Cake. (Pardon me while I drool…) Now, in reality, the King Cake is a coffee cake decorated for the occasion in green (for faith), gold (for power) and purple (for justice) and with a wee plastic baby, silver or gold coin or bean of some such inside. Why? Well, it’s heavy on the Christian symbolism: the prize inside is supposed to be the Baby Jesus. Whoever finds the baby, coin or bean is, traditionally, the King or Queen of the week and is supposed to host the next party or, at the very least, supply the next King Cake.
Any oval coffee cake will do and many, these days, deviate from the cinnamon brioche tradition and use danish pastry filled with cream, fruit filling or chocolate. Yum! I tend to stick with the eggy brioche because it’s just so good the way it is, and the crunchy sugar on top is the best!
According to Rima and Richard Collin’s The New Orleans Cookbook, the King Cake should be made with a coffee cake dough of choice that uses about 4 packages of active dry yeast. So, the first time I made it I went to my go-to brioche recipe from Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake, which uses 2 packages of yeast. So I doubled the recipe. Despite the fact that Malgieri’s recipe makes 2.5 lbs of dough. I made 5 lbs of brioche. I ended up with 2 ginormous king cakes that overflowed my sheet pans, not to mention my counter space. Use only a single batch of the recipe below and you’ll probably still have enough for 2 normal size cakes.
(by Nick Malgieri with my paraphrased directions)
1 c milk
5 tsp (2 env) active dry yeast
1.5 c all-purpose flour
12 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
6 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 lg eggs plus 1 egg yolk
2.25 c all-purpose flour
For the sponge: Heat the milk until warm (seriously, you don’t want it over 110 or you could kill the yeast, so just slightly warmer than body temperature) and (off the heat) whisk in yeast and then the flour, cover with plastic wrap to protect against drafts and let sit for 30 minutes.
For the dough: Cream the butter until it’s very soft and fluffy, beat in the sugar and then one egg. Alternate flour and the remaining eggs, one after the other, until everything is incorporated. Mix in the risen sponge then knead for 5 minutes (or let the dough hook of your mixer go at it for 2 minutes). Cover with a piece of plastic wrap, let the dough rise for about an hour, punching down the dough periodically.
Punch down the dough once more, then place it in an oiled bowl, turning the dough over so the surface is lightly coated. Cover and refrigerate the dough for 4 hours or overnight. It’s going to rise so use a big enough bowl to accommodate it and don’t be surprised if it goes all ‘blob’ on you and pushes the top of that super-large rubbermaid container completely off–just means your yeast was really healthy!
After four hours or overnight, take the dough out, punch it down and knead it a bit to get the extra air out, and divide the dough into 2 pieces for one big cake or 4 pieces for 2 normal sized ones.
Now, if you want to fill your dough with anything, that’s up to you. Filled or not you want to roll out each piece of dough into a log shape and twist two of them together and then arrange the twist into an oval, gently pressing the two ends together. Sprinkle the ring with colored sugars and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the bread is golden and done (thump the bottom of the loaf and if it sounds hollow, it’s ready).
Alternately, you can simply sprinkle the dough with cinnamon sugar, bake, and then drizzle the cake with a powdered sugar icing and then top with the colored sugars. (But the crunchy baked sugar really is one of the best parts!)
After the cake has cooled, insert the bean, baby or coin in through the bottom of the cake (make sure no one is looking) and serve to a group of friends. Sure, you can bake a bean or coin inside, but I usually don’t. It’s just as easy to wait until it’s cool (and make sure you clean that coin well before adding it to any food!).
Now, if you’re serving this cake in the morning, coffee will work well enough to wash it down (but at least go for a good, chicory blend or an all-out cafe au lait) but if you’re off for the day or out for the evening, wash your King Cake down with the quintessential New Orleans drink: the Hurricane. You can find a mix in many liquor stores or specialty shops, but Chef Rick has a from-scratch Hurricane recipe that will most likely treat you better than any powder ever could:
1 ounce white rum
1 ounce Jamaican rum
1 ounce Bacardi 151 proof rum
3 ounces orange juice, with pulp
3 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
1/2 ounce Grenadine
Combine all ingredients, mix well (shake or stir). Pour over crushed ice in Hurricane glass. Garnish with orange or pineapple ring and drink through a small straw for maximum wind speed.