A homage to the three biblical kings who visited the baby Jesus at birth, the king cake attributes its origins to the Christian tradition. Thankfully, the only beliefs necessary for a righteous dessert experience this Mardi Gras (March 8), are a devotion to food-coloring, sugar and worship of carbohydrates.
The brioche-like ring customarily enjoyed by Southerners is an American translation of the sweet treat, which was brought to the states by French and Spanish colonists. Louisianans thought the rich ring eaten elsewhere on Epiphany (Jan. 6) — the day of the three kings’ arrival at the manger — was best suited for consumption through (and especially on) Fat Tuesday, an occasion for indulgence before Lent starts the next day.
So, skip the beads and, like the three wise men, show up at Mardi Gras celebrations bearing gifts from afar, be it a flaky French, a fruity Mexican or a dense U.S.-adapted version of this kingly cake.
Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery
» 1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington; 703-243-2410
“I’m not saying you have to be from Louisiana to cook Louisiana food, but be ready for people to see right through you,” says David Guas, chef/owner at Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery. Born and bred in the Big Easy, Guas’ restaurant, which opened in November, may be new, but his king cake recipe seems ripped from the pages of an old New Orleans cookbook. Guas starts with a sweet dough, lets it rise, sprinkles a hardened and crumbled cinnamon-butter-sugar mixture on top; and then he rolls it all tightly and allows it to rise again. His approach is no-nonsense, and he strictly rejects recent variants that add cream cheese or other filling. “Do you want apple pie, do you want a cheese Danish, or do you want king cake?” he asks. His creations are baked on Tuesdays and Fridays and are available on a first-come, first-served basis or via special order through Mardi Gras, but not a day after. “Don’t call me on the ninth and want a king cake. That’s sacrilege,” he says. Price: $35 Accoutrements: A small baby trinket for stuffing in cake (a sign of good luck for whoever finds it) and Mardi Gras beads.
1645 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-342-3248
Inside the dessert case at Georgetown’s Patisserie Poupon, a very New Orleans-looking creation sticks out like an American tourist in Paris. “I did see plenty in pictures, but I’ve never actually tasted one,” says Joseph Poupon. Never fear. Originally from Brittany, France the chef/owner knows his dough. His royal rendition combines the flakiness of France’s king cake or galette des rois (a frangipane cake) with the shape, color and style of its American counterpart. Croissant-like layers, and hints of pecan and brown sugar make a buttery, light interpretation with more distinct flavor and less coffee cakeness than bayou-born adaptations. France, meet the Deep South. Price: $24 Accoutrements: French fève (statue trinket) — in place of a baby — and gold crown for the person who finds the fève.
La Flor de Puebla
6300 Kenilworth Ave., Riverdale, MD; 301-699-8657
In Mexico, the rosca de reyes (kings’ ring) looks and tastes nearly the same as king cake and makes for a fun substitute, even if it is usually eaten on Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). “It’s a big deal,” says Pati Jinich, official chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute. “Everyone gets a rosca de reyes in Mexico. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, whatever.” Jinich recommends the version at La Flor de Puebla. Available by special order, the rosca is a near dead ringer for an American-styled king cake. It’s distinguished by its fluffiness, bread-loaf like texture and strips of green, red and yellow candied fruit that top the cake (instead of the usual green, purple and yellow sugar). Price: $10.60 small; $21.20 medium; $46.40 large Accoutrements: Three baby statuettes, per Mexican custom.
Written by Express contributor Becca Milfeld
Photos by Kris Connor and Jason Hornick