Mardi Gras tradition, king cake rules in New Orleans

Mardi Gras tradition, king cake rules in New Orleans
March 4, 2011
by Sue WHite

To say King Cake doesn't exactly reign in the Great Lakes Bay Region is something of an understatement.

Just try to find one of the sugary treats as Fat Tuesday rolls around March 8 — it's buried under a flood of paczkis, the sweet Polish filled doughnut revelers down with reckless abandon as Lent looms near.

But if you want to bring authenticity to your Mardi Gras celebration this year (it’s the No. 1 traditional food of festivities in the Big Easy, says Jennifer Day from the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau), here are a few options.

"I have a couple of people who lived in New Orleans come around and so I'll make some before Fat Tuesday," said Louise Schwaiger, who serves up all sorts of European delights at Petit 4 Pastry, 1600 Woodside Ave. in Essexville.

"It's a very localized sort of thing, but I've always found it kind of interesting. It's quite memorable and very garish with all the colored sugar. I like to jazz it up a little, too, with some Mardi Gras beads."

And the little baby hiding in the pastry?

"I add him after it's done," Schwaiger admitted. "It's plastic and while it probably wouldn't melt, I don't want to find out for myself."

The baby is at the center of the tradition, some saying the person who finds the infant must supply the cake at the next celebration and others, including Schwaiger, saying it's the Christ child, bringing luck in the coming year. In either case, the finder is declared the King or Queen of the party.

Historically speaking, the King Cake heralds back to the Epiphany, the day the wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus 12 nights after Christmas.

In Europe, it's celebrated with an exchange of gifts and feasting on the "King's Cake." Today, most serve the cinnamon-filled oval covered with purple, green, and gold sugar, signifying justice, faith and power.

And in New Orleans, Day said, they feast on it from Epiphany through Fat Tuesday, which is probably why the website says hundreds of thousands are served each year.

When you find that little fellow in your cake, Day said, you don't have another year to prepare; chances are you're bringing a cake to the next week's party.

"It is huge here, the fundamental dish," she said, coworkers agreeing in the background. "We have a French version that's a little more dense, more like a cake, and hides a little fake gold bean or a ceramic figurine."

Another popular variety, the Artesian, is filled with goat cheese and apples, or you can buy it with strawberries, blueberries, cream cheese and a variety of other fillings.

"I'm using it for my wedding cake," Day said. "We'll have it in tiers, all covered with white icing."

And people are very loyal to the bakeries that make it the way they like it, added Jennifer Lotz, another New Orleans CVB employee.

"Some people want it moist; others like it dryer, like a coffee cake," she said. "The nice thing is that most of the bakeries here will ship them all over the country."

If you're looking for a more local outlet, give Petit 4 Pastry a call at 989-891-0735 before heading out. When they sell out, Schwaiger said, she'll move on to Irish soda bread for St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

Kroger stores also sell it in their bakeries.

Or, use this traditional recipe from and make your own at home.

Traditional New Orleans King Cake

1/2 cup warm water, 110 to 115 degrees

2 packages active dry yeast

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar

3 -1/2 to 4-1/2 cups unsifted flour

1 teaspoon nutmeg

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 cup warm milk

5 egg yolks

1 stick butter, cut into slices and softened, plus 2 tablespoons more softened butter

1 egg, slightly beaten with 1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 1-inch plastic baby

Pour the warm water into a small shallow bowl and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar into it. Allow the yeast and sugar to rest for three minutes then mix thoroughly. Set bowl in a warm place for 10 minutes, or until yeast bubbles up and mixture almost doubles in volume.

Combine 3-1/2 cups of flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg and salt, and sift into a large mixing bowl. Stir in lemon zest. Separate center of mixture to form a hole and pour in yeast mixture and milk. Add egg yolks and using a wooden spoon, slowly combine dry ingredients into the yeast/milk mixture. When mixture is smooth, beat in 8 tablespoons butter, one tablespoon at a time, and continue to beat two minutes or until dough can be formed into a medium-soft ball.

Place ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and knead like bread. While kneading, sprinkle up to one cup more of flour, one tablespoon at a time, over the dough. When dough is no longer sticky, knead 10 minutes more until shiny and elastic.

Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a large bowl evenly with one tablespoon softened butter. Place dough ball in the bowl and rotate until the entire surface is buttered. Cover bowl with a moderately thin kitchen towel and place in a draft-free spot for about 1-1/2 hours or until the dough doubles in volume.

Using a pastry brush, coat a large baking sheet with 1 tablespoon of butter and set aside.

Remove dough from bowl and place on lightly floured surface. Using your fist, punch dough down forcefully. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top, pat and shake dough into a cylinder. Twist dough to form a curled cylinder and loop cylinder onto the buttered baking sheet.

Pinch the ends together to complete the circle. Cover dough with towel and set in draft-free spot for 45 minutes or until the circle of dough doubles in volume. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash and bake on middle rack of oven for 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown. Place cake on wire rack to cool. If desired, you can hide the plastic baby in the cake at this time.

Colored Sugars

Green, purple and yellow paste

12 tablespoons sugar

Squeeze a dot of green paste in palm of hand. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over the paste and rub together quickly. Place this mixture on wax paper and wash hands to remove color. Repeat process for other two colors. Place aside.


3 cups confectioners sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

3 to 6 tablespoons water

Combine sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons water until smooth. If icing is too stiff, add more water until spreadable. Spread icing over top of cake. Immediately sprinkle the colored sugars in individual rows consisting of about two rows of green, purple and yellow.

Serve in 2-inch to 3-inch pieces.
Comments: 0