It’s hard to explain how New Orleans can get under your skin. I think the reason why many of us can move to New Orleans and duly adopt the traditions (so readily), is because the people of New Orleans are so non-discriminating. If you’re there, you’re family. I’ve lived in many places and I can assure you this mentality is rare.
The first time I ever saw king cake was in a Walmart in the West Bank of New Orleans. There were dozens of boxes, stacked like a pyramid at least twelve feet high.
I had been in the food industry already for nearly ten years, and while I had heard of “New Orleans king cake”, I was only actually familiar with the French version which is a puffed pastry filled with an almond cream.
My very first impression of the New Orleans king cakes was how incredibly garish they were. “Wow”, I thought to myself. “That looks unappetizing”.
I’ve always enjoyed observing the power of supply and demand however, and I surmised that while these round bread-like garish things might look unappetizing to me, they must be pretty important to the culture. Those boxes at Walmart were stacked almost twelve feet high, after all.
Over the “Carnival” season (the days between Epiphany and Lent) I noticed King Cakes absolutely everywhere. Every Walmart and every grocery store had piles of them. Every bakery had their own version; each bakery boasting loyal followers who claimed they were the BEST in town. Even Whole Foods had their own organic version from naturally derived food coloring, in brown boxes and made from recycled materials.
Most people in New Orleans know the story of king cake, and they delight in sharing it. What I discovered from friends, aquaintances and even strangers I met while shopping, is that the circular shape is like the crown of one of the Three Kings. The colors represent justice (purple), faith (green) and power (gold). “Da Baby”, which is the little plastic (formerly porcelain) baby is hidden in the cake represents the Christ child, and the person who finds the baby supplies the cake for the next party.
I knew from my studies in Europe that the “cake” must be a French brioche. I was right. A brioche is a yeast-risen bread enriched with milk and eggs. The traditional filling is of sugar and spices, like cinnamon. While there are many “flavors” of king cake these days, I like to stay true to the classic version.
And why is it called a “cake”, when it’s clearly a bread? That’s because when king cakes first started being made and consumed in New Orleans, a brioche WAS cake. Three hundred years ago, leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda hadn’t been discovered yet. So IF Marie Antoinette had said “Let them eat cake” (which I don’t believe she did say, incidentally…), that cake would have been a brioche.
It wasn’t long until my family and I grew to love the king cake. The colors don’t look garish at all to me anymore. They remind me of cool winter days; a reprieve of the hellish heat of summer, and of good times. They remind me now of friends and parades and excitement.
King cake is really more like what we would identify as a coffee cake, so it goes with just about every kind of drink, supposedly. Of course, I recommend a good French coffee to go with it, but I know many a king cake is washed down with beer…. or a daiquiri so strong it could positively singe your eyelashes. It all works. Remember, the people of New Orleans are non-discriminatory and all they really want is for you to enjoy yourself. They won’t judge you.
You can find shelves of colored sugars in New Orleans, but since moving away in 2012, I’ve been making my own.
Grab three Ziploc gallon-sized bags and put one cup of sugar in each. Next throw in some green, purple and gold food coloring, zip the bag and shake away.
My kids especially love this part. A few times the “zip” top hasn’t been quite secure and colored sugar was flung all over my kitchen. So now we zip, have an adult check it, THEN twist the bag a few turns (just to be sure), THEN the shaking can begin. Some pinching and kneading may also take place, depending how clumpy the sugar is. Eventually, it all smooths out.
I really love this part. I put each color in a small bowl.
And now we can start making our cake (brioche).
4 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup powdered milk, 2 eggs, 1 cup water, 2 teaspoons yeast, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 cup melted butter that has been cooled to room temperature.
The reason why we’re using powdered milk here lies in science. I won’t bore you with the details right now, but actual milk won’t cut it. You want the dried stuff.
Combine the flour, sugar, powdered milk and salt in one bowl. Use a whisk to stir it all together.
Next, beat the eggs and add the water, yeast and melted butter (which has been cooled to room temp) to the eggs. You don’t want to scramble your eggs by adding hot butter. Remember that.
Next add the egg mixture to the flour mixture.
Make a well in the flour mixture and pour the egg mixture in it. Give it a few turns with a whisk until some of the flour is incorporated. This is called a “sponge”.
“A sponge” will help activate the yeast and make the brioche lighter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap at this point, and let it sit for about thirty minutes.
After thirty minutes, grab your heartiest spatula and fold the dough over and over.
Turn it out of the bowl and give it a few good kneads. You’ll eventually have a tidy ball of dough like this.
Cover your tidy ball of dough with a clean, dry dish towel and let it have a good nap for about 1 1/2 hours. Nighty night.
After it’s done rising, roll it out on a floured surface. Remember to flour the top too as you roll… Now it’s time to assemble the filling. 1/4 cup room-temp butter, 1/2 cup dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon.
If you’ve ever watched the Cinnabon people make cinnamon rolls, you’ll know just what to do. Spread the butter, then sprinkle with the brown sugar and cinnamon.
Roll it all up. Just like a cinnamon roll.
Line a 1/2 sheet pan with parchment paper, and circle your dough right onto the pan.
Tuck one side into the other. Like a snake eating his own tail. Of course, a perfectly round circle would be acceptable, but an oval has become customary because they are easier to box and present (I use my Thanksgiving turkey platter to present my king cake).
Once again, tuck it in for a good nap. About thirty minutes.
After it’s had it’s third and final rising, pop it into a 325 degree oven for about 35 minutes.
After the cake (brioche) has been baked and completely cooled, make the bourbon glaze.
The bourbon glaze is my own special touch. It’s probably been made before, but the standard king cakes of New Orleans have a very basic glaze. Since this is very much like a cinnamon roll, I decided to modify my cream cheese icing into a glaze, and add a touch of bourbon.
One thing I determine before cooking a particular culture’s food, is how far I can push the boundaries before the locals would protest. I assure you, no one from New Orleans would protest the fact that I add alcohol to my glaze. Ha.
Combine 1/2 cup room-temp butter with 4 ounces (1/2 block) cream cheese. If they are too clumpy, warm them in the microwave at ten second intervals until they can combine smoothly. Next add 2/3 cup whole milk (preferable room temp or slightly warmed). Next whisk in 2 cups powdered sugar. Lastly, add 2 tablespoons of bourbon. You could use a fancy bourbon if you have some around.
Now we’re getting to the really fun part. I put my king cake on my big turkey platter, as you can see. Drizzle that glaze all over the cake. It’s very important that the cake be cooled, or that glaze will melt and slide completely off the cake and sit in a big glazey puddle under the cake. So make sure your cake is cool.
This is the best part. Take a spoon of each color of sugar and go in a pattern. One, two, three.
One, two, three. One two three.
Until you’ve completed your circle!
You can add a little extra glaze over the sugar topping if you would like.
I’ve studied cakes for almost twenty years, and the New Orleans king cake is the only cake that I know of that incorporates MOUNDS of granulated sugar as a decoration.
The only cakes I have not studied are the cakes of South America. The Marine Corps can send us to South America anytime. I won’t complain.
A good French coffee is what I drink with this cake. Ever since our New Orleans days I order “Community Coffee” by the pound. I only drink New Orleans coffee these days.
It’s funny how no matter how hard moving is, it only makes us better. Richer. More appreciative of other people’s ways.
Happy cooking, and bon apetite….. y’all.