King makers: Bakers reimagine the famous Mardi Gras cake
Little about the king cake suggests it's made for human pleasure. Its oval shape and doughy bloat invite unfavorable comparisons to underinflated inner tubes. Its neon-sugar colors are certifiably cartoonish, as gaudy as the beaded trinkets that fall from the skies on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
And then there's the issue of the prize buried deep within the dough; any cake in which a diner is in danger of chomping down on a tiny plastic infant automatically places itself in the kitsch category. The king cake would seem to be the Jerry Lewis telethon of baked goods: an annual ritual, beloved by millions and way, way overwrought.
Of course, true believers of the multicolored cake will tell you that northerners live a bereft existence, separate and apart from the true New Orleans king cake, which is the centerpiece of Carnival parties from Jan. 6 right up to Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten deprivation kicks in. The cake's appeal becomes clearer the closer you get to the city limits and, conversely, becomes more comical the farther you travel from the voodoo-sexual-second-line cultural vortex of the Big Easy.
"I attribute my inflated civic pride and weakness for Mardi Gras in part to this early overexposure to yeast dough and unnaturally colored sugars," writes Sara Roahen in "Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table" (W.W. Norton, 2008). "Before I ever experienced Mardi Gras, I had a hand in preparing for it, and rather than embittering me, the tedious assembly-line baking somehow fostered within me a sweetness for king cakes, all of them, runny sugars included."
David Guas, chef and owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, understands an irrational attachment to king cakes. The New Orleans native grew up sampling the city's best, at McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, Gambino's and other iconic bakeries.
Guas can't quite explain it, but ever since he moved to the Washington area more than 12 years ago, he has never bought a local king cake. Sure, the longtime pastry chef can make his own (and does so at Bayou Bakery), but his aversion goes beyond any practical considerations.
"I don't know what," Guas confesses. "It's something in me that tells me I'll feel disappointed."
Such disappointment is not merely a localized problem, either. The main instigators of the king cake rebellion, safe from the southern subjects loyal to treat, are bakers with little to no allegiance to Louisiana culture.
"If you're from New Orleans, you love it," says baker, teacher and cookbook author Peter Reinhart. "Most versions to me are not that interesting. I'd rather eat a Christmas fruitcake."
Baker and teacher Mark Furstenberg is blunter: "The New Orleans cakes are so incredibly ugly that it's hard to identify with that tradition."
What both of those bakers do identify with, however, is the story behind the king cake. There is so much symbolism wrapped up in this one cake, it's almost impossible to separate fact from myth. Some say the cake's origins date to pre-Christian Europe, where tribal cultures included cakes baked as part of harvest celebrations; the man who discovered the coin or bean tucked into the cake would be the sacred king for the coming year. It was a dubious honor: The king would be sacrificed after 12 months, his blood spread across the soil to ensure bountiful crops. (A less lethal story suggests that the king cake tradition evolved from a Medieval festival in which the landed gentry passed out cakes to the peasants. Bor-ing.)
Christians in France apparently adopted part of the pagan custom and turned the cake into a symbol of the three kings who visited the Christ child on the Epiphany. The French, being French, created elaborate, butter-heavy cakes to celebrate the occasion, such as the galette des rois, a decadent puff-pastry concoction with an almond filling. When the French settlers brought the king cake tradition to New Orleans, it somehow morphed into a fluorescent, coffee-cakelike oval, adopting the purple/green/gold colors that would eventually define Mardi Gras. Even the symbolism of the infant baby grew faint; drawing religious connections to Christ and the three kings became secondary to more secular functions, such as selecting a queen of the ball or just selecting who should host the next Carnival party.
Because of the ever-changing nature of the king cake, there is no definitive recipe for it, says Guas. Some are breadlike, with drizzled icing and colorful sugars sprinkled on top. Others are squat and stuffed with sweet things, whether a cream cheese mixture or canned apple pie filling. There are fudge-covered "Zulu" king cakes dusted with toasted coconut shavings. There are king cupcakes (of course). There are even "queen" cakes, which Roahen writes look like a "wreath of open-face jelly doughnuts, a jewel of different filling embedded into every couple inches of pastry."
Guas says he thinks most of them are hooey. He prefers a straightforward coffee-cake interpretation, a combination of yeasted dough, cinnamon, butter, eggs, sugar and a few other ingredients. Interestingly enough, despite his affection for his published king cake recipe, Guas can't stop tinkering with it. In fact, the king cake he sells at Bayou Bakery is different from the one whose recipe appears in "DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style" (Taunton Press, 2009). He has changed flours and added a little more butter and sugar to increase the moisture and prolong the cake's shelf life.
"These kind of things haunt me," Guas says about his constant tinkering to improve the recipe, "in a good way."
But it's just such manipulations that might give the king cake a better reputation outside the Crescent City, and it's just such manipulations that we in The Post Food section were looking for when we asked three bakers to put a new spin on the Mardi Gras staple. (And I baked a fourth version, from Krystina Castella's cookbook "A World of Cake.") Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. the Gluten-Free Girl, riffed off a familiar idea among students of the king cake: It's essentially a tarted-up cinnamon bun.
"We have a cinnamon rolls recipe we worked on for a couple of months last year, to get it right. To make sure the rolls were yeasty, doughy and pliable. I just started working with that dough, adding almond extract and a bit more cinnamon. It rose well and baked up even better. King cake," Ahern wrote via e-mail.
Predictably, Furstenberg, given his distaste for the tricolor coffee cake of New Orleans, looked toward France for inspiration with his brioche version (although you can be forgiven if you mistake his tall, tube-pan interpretation for an Italian panettone). Reinhart, on the other hand, borrowed from Eastern European traditions to create a restrained, almost artistic interpretation of a king cake in which he started with his babka recipe and embellished it, with only the smallest amount of icing and sprinkles. Reinhart decided to ditch the plastic baby in favor of a hidden gold coin, which he felt was more symbolic of the three kings' visit to the Christ child.
The coin also fit into Reinhart's philosophy on king cakes: The story is more interesting than the baked good. "The recipe to me is not that important," he said. "It's important to preserve the tradition."
Deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick contributed to this report.