Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mardi Gras and King Cakes

King Cake and Mardi Gras Mask
Mardi Gras celebrations have been in progress in New Orleans for some time already. The culmination is on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, which this year is on February 12th. In my family, my Mom and Grandma of Slovakian origin celebrated this last day of revelry before fasting with a tradition they called Doughnut Day. Each year on the last day before lent began, mom made us doughnuts. This was a real highlight for us, and I made doughnuts for my children a few times over the years, also.

The tradition of King Cakes in New Orleans was originally brought to North America from France, where the cakes began appearing near the Christmas celebration of Twelfth Night, when the three Wise Men came to pay homage to the birth of Christ. This was a time of special King gifts for children, and the cakes continued to be made up to Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

The King Cake in olden times would contain one coin or a bean, and in modern times, a tiny plastic baby, representing the Christ child. The one person who got the slice of cake that contained the prize is meant to host the next Mardi Gras party, or at some parties, is crowned King or Queen of that party. It is supposed to bring good luck to find the baby.

The King Cake itself is generally a yeast coffeecake with various possible fillings. It may be rolled up or braided and formed into a ring, The cakes are decorated with a thin white icing with sugar sprinkles in green, gold and purple strewn over, or the icing made be tinted into the three colors and drizzled on. These colors are the traditional Mardi Gras colors with green for faith, gold for power and purple for justice. Here is my recipe for a King Cake, using a rich yeast dough and a praline type filling.

King Cake

King Cake
3½ - 4 cups all purpose flour
1 packet yeast
¾ cup milk, lukewarm
12 tablespoons unsalted butter 6 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
½ teaspoon salt

2/3 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup pecans, chopped
½ cup flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1½ cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
Icing color and/ or colored sprinkles in gold, green and purple

Mix together ½ cup of the flour and yeast in a small bowl. Pour in the lukewarm milk, not too hot or it will kill the yeast. Whisk to combine and set aside. In either a heavy duty stand mixer, or by hand, cream the butter and sugar. When fluffy and light, add eggs, one at a time until combined. Add in salt. Pour in the yeast sponge and combine, adding in more flour, a cup at a time, until the dough is smooth. Knead for about 7 to 10 minutes until nice and elastic. Cover and set aside to rise until doubled in size, one or two hours.

Once the dough has risen, make the filling. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well, then set aside. Flour a surface and turn out dough. Fold over on itself a few times, creating a rough rectangle. Roll out the dough to an approximate 12 x 20 inch rectangle. Sprinkle on the filling. It will not be a thick layer. Roll up from the long edge, dampening the farthest edge with water to help the ends adhere. Grease a baking sheet. Form the long roll into a ring on the baking sheet. Slash through the top layer all around, if desired. Cover and allow to rise for an hour or more. Preheat oven to 350. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown.

Make icing by combining all the icing ingredients except the colorings. The icing is usually left white and after icing the cake, sugar sprinkles in gold, green and purple are strewn over at intervals. For this cake I separated the icing into three small bowls and tinted each to the appropriate color. Allow the cake to cool for about a half hour before drizzling on the icing. If the cake is too hot, the icing will completely run off the cake.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website, on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.