What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in New Orleans? That comes home with you, usually in the form of extra pudge. If airlines could charge those flying out of Louis Armstrong for weight they’ve added to themselves rather than to their bags, we’d all be headed home with overage fees.
I get a lot of exercise when I’m in New Orleans. It comes from walking from bar to restaurant to bakery to po’boy shop. I’m sure there are healthy people living lives of quiet moderation in the city — I know a few — but for the visitor, Nola is often an unstoppable diet-killing force powered by Sazeracs, gumbo and beignets. It never met a cream sauce it didn’t love, a tie it couldn’t loosen, an ascetic it couldn’t convert.
A few try to resist. Last summer, I watched one morning from the balcony of my hotel room in the Quarter as a jogger — lithe and fearsome in her running wear, her earbuds (I imagine) blasting messages of leaning in and successorizing — came powering down Ursulines Avenue before slowing as she approached Croissant d’Or, the bakery across the street. She seemed to spot its sign, a dangling croissant, and hesitated for a moment before giving her head a quick shake. Then she crossed the street and continued her run — actually crossed the street to escape, the way I do when I spot a potential creep lurking in my path late at night.
You go, girl, I thought. I appreciate your self-control, your dedication to your goals, and most of all, I appreciate that you didn’t go in there and eat the last chocolate croissant.
The excesses the city is known for come to a head during Mardi Gras. Beneath the visually hedonistic displays and the long local traditions surrounding the carnival, Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday,” as countless thighs could attest) is tied to the Christian calendar. It’s also known as Shrove Tuesday, and it marks the end of the lead-up to the penitential season of Lent and the celebration of Easter. Traditionally, it has long been celebrated in many cultures as a feast day for indulging in all those delicious, fattening, alcoholic delicacies that the faithful sacrifice during Lent.
It’s a great day for a cocktail that has all of those qualities.
One of my favorite New Orleans treats is the praline, which I first encountered through my Southern mom’s cooking. It’s a concoction of brown sugar, cream and vanilla wrapped around toasted pecans, the fudge-like evolution of a treat that, in its native France, was typically crunchier and made with almonds. It struck me that this was a goody just waiting to be turned into a punch by shifting a traditional orgeat, the almond syrup used to flavor many tiki cocktails, into the pecan zone.
The Mardi Gras Praline Punch hits classic praline flavor notes but brings a little more adult balance with lemon juice and a back note of Peychaud’s Aperitivo. (Note that in spite of the similar look of the bottles and their shared bright red color, Peychaud’s Aperitivo is very different from the Sazerac Co.’s classic New Orleans bitters brand. The bitters have a strong anise note; the aperitivo is the company’s newer Italian import, with a flavor profile that straddles a gap between the orangey notes of Aperol and the more bitter Campari. I mention this because, oddly, if you can’t get hold of the aperitivo, a small portion of Angostura bitters will make a better substitute than Peychaud’s bitters.)
Pralines are everywhere in the French Quarter, but the treat that best connects to Mardi Gras is the king cake. It has long been served starting at Epiphany, when the magi arrived to visit the baby Jesus. According to chef-restaurateur David Guas of Bayou Bakery in Arlington and the District, the king cake, as it has evolved in New Orleans, typically is a wreath-shaped, cinnamon-swirled loaf that hovers between cake and brioche, shellacked with a glaze of white frosting and scattered with sugars in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold (representing justice, faith and power). A tiny plastic or porcelain baby traditionally is hidden inside the cake, and good fortune is supposed to follow the eater who gets the slice with the baby inside.
These broad strokes barely scrape the surface of the king cake tradition, and the complex rites and festivities of Mardi Gras could make for a lifetime of study. “Like most traditions in New Orleans, everything actually has a meaning,” Guas says. “It’s usually outsiders looking in that think it’s just an excuse to party. But New Orleanians don’t need an excuse to party.” Native New Orleanians develop intense loyalties to the local bakeries that make their preferred king cakes. During the season, it’s common at workplaces to bring a king cake on Fridays; whoever gets the baby has to bring next week’s cake.
If your desire for a sip of the Big Easy emphasizes the “easy” component, get your hands on the King Cake Syrup made in New Orleans by Cocktail & Sons. Co-founder Max Messier has developed a variety of syrups, and a while back he wanted to create something that would tie to a cultural moment. (“This is a little embarrassing,” he says, “but you know how people go nuts every time the McRib shows up again?”)
Talking it over with his wife and co-founder, who’s from New Orleans, Messier settled on a syrup that would echo the flavors of a king cake. Messier admits that his initial ambitions were bigger than they needed to be. “I wanted to build this complex crazy syrup, and my wife was like, ‘Dude, you know it’s just a cinnamon brioche, right?’”
He used cassia bark cinnamon, which he likes for its pungent, earthy quality, and built a syrup of toasted cinnamon, pecan and lemon. It comes packaged with a tiny plastic baby, which Messier says people lose their minds over: “Oh my gaaawwd, is that a king cake baby?”
The syrup sold well in the city last year, and Messier thought it was going to be just a regional hit until he started getting online orders from Minnesota and Florida — the New Orleans diaspora at work, perhaps.
If you get some, employ the baby garnish with caution, lest you create a drink that will come to be known as the Choking Hazard. You can stick it through a citrus wheel and float it atop the drink, like the Nola version of Moses in the bullrushes.
The syrup is terrific, spicy and cinnamon-forward, and in Messier’s Night Tripper cocktail (named for New Orleans musician and voodoo icon Dr. John), the yeasty notes of the Dolin dry vermouth suggest an almost brioche-like quality underlying it. It’s delicious and indulgent, a potable pastry. I don’t think even that jogger could have passed it by.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.