Of all the foods characteristic of New Orleans – from pralines to muffalettas – my all-time favorite remains the King Cake (la galette des Rois).
I can remember gathering around the large loaf in grade school, eagerly holding out my plate, and wondering if my piece would be the lucky piece. If the teacher was feeling generous that day, she might indulge our personal choices, and allow us to select that prized piece ourselves. There were those that favored the edge pieces. Others favored a particular color of icing – be it green, yellow, or purple – certain that good luck lay beneath it. And others still allowed simple chance to play its part.
I don’t remember what my particular stratagem may have been, but given the importance of the situation, I certainly had one. You see, hidden in the dough was a small plastic baby. And whoever pulled the baby from his or piece was king or queen for the day.
In grade school, this was no mere sinecure. You might be head of the lunch line or get to take your nap time in the loft. You might get to choose the book at story time, or be the first to choose your art materials. King or queen for a day was a serious matter. Most importantly, though, the recipient of the baby was charged with bringing the next king cake for the class.
Given it’s convenience, we often stopped by the McKenzie’s Bakery on Carrollton Avenue, the green and white sign a beacon of sorts during the King Cake season (officially from the Epiphany until Mardi Gras day). Sadly, McKenzie’s is no longer in business, having filed for bankruptcy in 2001, despite operating for over 70 years and in as many as 47 locations.
Fortunately, there are still dozens of places to choose a king cake. Among them, some of the most famous are Gambino’s, Haydel’s, and Randazzo’s. Of course, you can always make your own! I chose a traditional cinnamon-sugar filling for mine, but cream cheese, cherry, and apple fillings are equally common. Feel free to experiment with the filling, just be sure not to play around with the green, yellow, and purple frosting on top – you may find your throne teetering!
*Given the relatively young age of our nation, it’s easy to forget that some of our traditions – culinary and otherwise – can date back hundreds of years. The other day I was reading David McCullough’s John Adams, when one passage struck me in particular.
While on a diplomatic mission to France with her husband, Abigail Adams wrote to her niece, Lucy Cranch, describing a scene from their family life in Auteuil. The letter is dated January 5, 1785.
You must know that the religion of this country requires [an] abundance of feasting and fasting, and each person has his particular saint, as well as each calling and occupation. Tomorrow is to be celebrated le jour des rois [The Day of Kings]. The day before this feast, it is customary to make a large paste pie [the French King Cake is still made of puff pastry, and stuffed with almond marzipan], into which one bean is put. Each person cuts his slice, and the one who is so lucky as to obtain the bean is dubbed king or queen. Accordingly, today, when I went in to dinner, I found one upon our table.
Your cousin Nabby began by taking the first slice; but alas! poor girl, no bean and no queen. In the next place, your cousin John seconded her by taking a larger cut, and as cautious as cousin T____ when he inspects merchandise, bisected his paste with mathematical circumspection; but to him it pertained not. By this time I was ready for my part; but first I declared that I had no cravings for royalty. I accordingly separated my piece with much firmness, nowise disappointed that it fell not to me.
Your uncle, who was all this time picking his chicken bone, saw us divert ourselves without saying anything. But presently he seized the remaining half, and to crumbs went the poor paste, cut here and slash there; when behold the bean! “And thus,” said he “are kingdoms obtained!” But the servant who stood by and saw the havoc, declared solemnly that he could not retain the title, as the laws decreed it to chance, and not to force.
homemade king cake
Recipe adapted from Taste of Home.
PREP TIME: 30 minutes
DOWN TIME: 2 hours
COOK TIME: 25 minutes
YIELD: 1 King Cake (Serves 10 to 14)
WHAT TO GRAB:
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-115° F)
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter softened
1/2 cup 1% milk at room temperature
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 1/4 to 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 candied almond or plastic baby (the almond is admittedly safer)
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 cup Confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons water
Green, Yellow, and Purple Sugar (I had to go to Party City)
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. In a large bowl, stir together the yeast, 2 teaspoons sugar, and water. Let it stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If the mixture doesn’t foam, you’ll have to discard it and start over with new yeast).
2. Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, egg yolks, salt, lemon peel, nutmeg and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (the dough should be just a little sticky).
3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes. Place the dough in a large, greased bowl, turning once so that the dough is also greased. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let the dough rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Punch the dough down, and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into about an 18-inch x 10-inch rectangle. Combine the cinnamon and remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar mixture to within 1/4 inch of the edges. Place the almond or plastic baby somewhere on the dough. Roll up the dough, jelly-roll style, starting with a long side. Pinch the seams to seal. You can use a tiny amount of water to help. Place seam-side down on a greased baking sheet. Very gently stretch the dough to form a ring. Cover the dough again, and let it rise. After about 30 minutes, gently massage the dough into a slightly longer and thinner ring. Cover and let rise for another 30 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 375° degree. Brush the dough with the melted butter Bake the king cake for about 23 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack.
6. For the glaze, combine the Confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, and enough water to achieve the desired consistency. Pour the icing over the cake. Sprinkle with the colored sugars in a green, yellow, and purple pattern. Slice with a serrated knife, serve, and then crown your King or Queen for the day!