Update 2/13/2012: Tasting party winners corrected for all categories.
Back around the beginning of king cake season this year (January 6, twelve days after Christmas, a/k/a “King’s Day” or, “Twelfth Night”, the Catholic holy day of the Epiphany, the day when the three wise men discovered the baby Jesus in Bethlehem), there was a round of tweets where the writers were of the opinion they did not like king cake—too dry, too sweet, too much filling—all valid complaints that I’ve expressed myself over the years concerning various king cake samplings. I’m not going to disparage an entire genre of pastry just because of some bad examples but I fully recognize that bad king cake is bad king cake.
Two tweets in particular caught my attention. “It’s not even the real French king cake,” observed one tweeter; another, “It’s just brioche.”
“Just brioche?” Harumph, I said, tweeting:
We know king cake is “just brioche” and trout meuniere is just fried fish, gumbo is just soup & crawfish are just boiled bugs. So boring.
I decided to get to the bottom of all this and found out, after all, it’s real French king cake AND it’s “just brioche.”
What I had learned in the past was that the traditional French king cake, called a galette des Rois, was a completely different affair than the braided (yes, it’s brioche) dough with cinnamon and sugar that’s formed into a ring, baked, then covered in icing and sugar dyed in the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple. The galette des Rois is made of puff pastry surrounding an almond filling. I remember that back in the day, I think it was Maurice French Pastries that got some attention for offering a “real” French king cake, which got a lot of people tittering over it. (People tittered long before Twitter. Dreadfully low-tech, though.) Maurice still offers a “French King Cake” on his king cake menu, which describes it as “Flaky buttery puff pastry filled with rum flavored frangipane (Cream of Almond).” I’ve had it before, it’s a very, very rich concoction and quite delicious. But definitely not what we’ve grown up with as “king cake.”
So, if we’re a “French” city, (well, French, Caribbean, Spanish, African, Italian, American…but that’s another post), where does this cake that’s “just brioche” come from?
Fast-forward to last night. Leslie Almeida threw her 4th annual NOLA Eats King Cake Tasting Party, and one of the judges was Liz Williams, executive director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. We got to talking about king cakes after she filled me in on SoFAB’s expansion plans (stay tuned and sign up for SoFAB’s newsletter, people). “At what point,” I asked, “did New Orleans king cakes evolve from this almond-stuffed galette into a brioche ring?”
It didn’t, she said. Basically, there’s a parallel pastry universe in France (my characterization, not hers). She explained that in the south of France, the king’s day cake is, traditionally, a brioche ring called a gâteau des Rois and that, unfortunately, the word galette has been interchanged with gâteau frequently enough to cause confusion. Liz believes Louisiana, during its French colonial days, was settled with more people from southern France than northern, thus the king cake baked predominately in New Orleans was closer to the gâteau des Rois in style. So, even though it’s not puff pastry and it’s “just brioche,” New Orleans-style king cake has some very traditional French roots.
I’ve concluded that one could, I presume, safely call the NOLA-style king cake a Creole king cake, as I’m guessing that braiding the dough with cinnamon and adding the colored sugar are purely New Orleans additions, and, after all, like with other Creole foods (and furniture) it’s that purely New Orleans twist to something adopted by us from somewhere else that, historically, gets it labeled “Creole.”
Here is a recipe for Le gâteau des Rois Provençal. It’s from a French site, the link is to the Google-translated page. Photo:
As you can see, it resembles a New Orleans king cake, although the sugar sprinkled on it is not colored Day-glo green, yellow or purple, is in big hunks, (can we get that here?) and the decorations are made with dried fruit.
BUT WHAT ABOUT DA BABY????
The New Orleans king cake contains, nowadays, a plastic baby. Whoever is served the slice that contains the baby is tagged with buying the cake to bring to the next party (usually at the office or classroom). Historically, and it seems to be a tradition with King’s Day pastries world-wide, not just in New Orleans, there was a token of some sort baked in, often a dried fava bean (which has its own religious significance as the St. Joseph Day “lucky bean“). I believe the baby is supposed to represent the baby Jesus, and some snarky people on Twitter have been known to pray to “King Cake Baby Jesus,” especially during Saints games.
In 1870, the first ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers took place at the French Opera House. According to La Cour’s New Orleans Masquerade, the carnival krewe began its tradition of presenting slices of a giant “Twelfth-Cake,” one of which contained a solid gold fava bean, to the ladies in attendance. Whichever lady received the bean would be crowned queen. The organization’s king, who is not called “king” but “the Lord of Misrule,” remains anonymous, his identity a secret, which remains the case with the krewe today. However, at that first ball, La Cour reports,
[S]lices were distributed with grace and courtesy by the Maskers. Some passed the cake on their spears and others in their enthusiasm threw slices to ladies in the Boxes. While this method of distribution created much merriment, the Gold Bean was lost in the confusion and the Lord of Misrule was without a Queen.
La Cour tosses out another interesting tidbit; TNR paraded in its early years and one of its maskers, in 1871, dressed as Santa Claus. He handed out favors to people in the crowd, birthing the idea that maskers should throw trinkets to parade watchers, so maybe it should be “throw me something Santa.” Nah.
TNR’s ceremony has evolved from this cake-tossing free-for-all into a more refined process not involving real cake at all. Instead, a large wooden representation of a cake with individual slices that are boxes which may or may not hold the bean, are distributed. The queen, however, is not chosen by this random process at the ball but by krewe members earlier in the season. There’s a display representing this whole TNR tableau at the Presbytere’s Carnival Time in Louisiana exhibit, by the way.
Different bakeries do different things. Haydel’s is known for their ceramic figures which change every year and are quite collectible; Cochon Butcher’s cakes came with a little piggy. I keep my collection in a little “jail tableau.” Haydel’s latest, “Red Bean Lady” and “Rice-ly Yours,” are on either side of the baby riding Cochon’s baby cochon.
If you’re wondering about the tasting party results here they are: special guest judges favorite in the traditional category was da Bestbank’s own Hi-Do Bakery and for the non-traditional category, Cake Cafe. The people’s choice for traditional was Nonna Randazzo’s and Domenica for the non-traditional. (Here is the link to Leslie’s site and write-up on the winners.)
Personally, I had voted for Hi-Do, which was judge’s choice of traditional, and for Domenica, people’s choice for non-traditional. As far as being a “dessert” item, Domenica’s offering of a caramel and banana king cake was my favorite nosh-o-the-night. Unfortunately, they say that Domenica’s is only available at the restaurant, so if you’re down near the Roosevelt and a bit peckish, it’s worth a stop for the winning king cake and some coffee, and be on the lookout for next year’s party.
As for the life-size thing that’s supposed to be King Cake Baby that terrorizes the crowds at the Hornets games, we are not going to discuss it. At all.