Not all king cakes are alike -- and thank God for that.
You might think of the king cake -- the Official Baked Good of Mardi Gras -- as nothing more than a glammed-out cinnamon roll, but as we reported this week in The Post Food section, the cake has a long, varied and sort of cruel history:
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.
With the idea that the king cake is not some fixed recipe, immovable and inviolable, we asked several bakers to create their own version of the Carnival confection. What they came up with were three vastly different takes on the king cake:
- Baker and teacher Mark Furstenberg created a brioche interpretation.
- Baker and author Peter Reinhart developed a King Babka Cake.
- The Gluten-Free Girl Shauna James Ahern came up with -- what else? -- the Gluten-Free King Cake.
- And just for giggles, I baked up the cream-cheese version found in the "A World of Cake" cookbook by Krystina Castella.
Perhaps you're not very adept at baking cakes with a Sazerac (or some other New Orleans cocktail) in your hand? Well, you might still be able to find a pre-made cake locally, but it's getting harder as the minutes roll by today. Best Buns in Arlington is already sold out, and Bayou Bakery, also in Arlington, is down to its last two cakes (although New Orleans native David Guas will be selling the cake by the slice at his place). You should also be able to find the king cake at your local Giant stores.
Happy Mardi Gras!