It's Mardi Gras -- got your king cake?
It may not be so common on the West Coast, but the king cake is very popular in the southern U.S. (generally eastern Texas to Florida) where Mardi Gras is celebrated. It's typically a brioche-like coffee cake in the shape of an oval ring, and sometimes containing a filling or two. The cake is frosted and decorated with colored sugars (purple, representing justice; green, representing faith; and gold, representing power). Hidden inside one may find a plastic baby or a bean, making that person "king" or "queen" for a day (and also making him or her responsible for providing the next king cake at a king cake party).
Largely drawn from Catholic tradition, the king cake spans a number of cultures and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. From the classic French gâteau de rois to Mexico's la rosca de reyes, it commonly marks the celebration of Epiphany, or the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem on the 12th day of Christmas.
I had my first king cake several years ago. I was training at a restaurant in New Orleans after completing my culinary studies and happened to be in town for the Carnival season (Carnival starts on Epiphany, or Jan. 6, and ends with Mardi Gras, the last day before the start of Lent). The energy was simply amazing, the whole city swept up in a celebration that just continued to build as Mardi Gras drew near. And while I loved the parades around town and the revelry in the French Quarter, it's probably the king cake parties with local friends that I remember most fondly.
Since then, I try to get back to New Orleans whenever I can to celebrate Mardi Gras. When I can't (more often than not), I love to celebrate locally with friends. I'll make a king cake or two, and we'll throw a small party.
I've included a recipe for my king cake. While they're easy to find online, shipped king cakes can be dry and lacking in flavor. This homemade version may involve a little work, but the results are worth it. And outside of Carnival season, the recipe makes a great coffee cake any time of the year.
Happy Mardi Gras!