"King cake is to Mardi Gras what pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving -- the holiday just wouldn't be the same without it,” says David Guas, chef and owner, Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery
. “Every table in every home, office, cafeteria, and lounge will be graced by a king cake at some point between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday when Lent begins.”
Even though his restaurant is located in Arlington, Va., the New Orleans-native prepares a taste of home with the “BB” king cake. Complete with cinnamon and their signature cream cheese filling, he describes the cake as being similar to a glazed coffee cake.
“It is more of a sweet bread than a cake.”
“Of course it's also decorated with sugar tinted with the three colors of Mardi Gras, and has the traditional plastic baby hidden inside."
However, king cakes weren’t always sweet or as elaborate as they are today.
With its history extending back to early European times, Liz Williams, director of Southern Food & Beverage Museum
in New Orleans, says king cakes originally were made with yeast and depending on where you lived in Europe determined if you had small or big cake.
She adds it was around the early 20th century up until the 1970s that bakers started to use brioche dough and decorated with colored sugar.
In the 1980s, king cake changed once again as people started to use Danish dough and included fillings like cream cheese.
As for the king cakes of today, chefs and bakers continue to push the envelope when it comes to creative and memorable king cakes.
For instance, at Ralph’s on the Park
in New Orleans, it is all about mini king cakes.
“We want everyone to have their cake and eat it too, so we have created mini king cakes with a side of strawberry preserves and cream cheese icing so they can customize each bite," says executive pastry chef Brett Gauthier
Forget calories, and enjoy total indulgence with a king cake from Battiste Bakery & Blends
. Made from scratch, the flavors include everything from the traditional cinnamon and brown sugar, and blueberry to the decadent Reese’s Peanut Butter king cake and decadent Bananas Foster king cake. Working from her kitchen in Mobile, Ala., co-owner Gina Underwood says everything is from made from scratch.
“I begin with a more pastry type dough, which makes the cake more moist,” she says. “I also use homemade buttercream that adds a little more richness and don’t use granulated sugar.”
Each cake is topped with plastic baby and Mardi Gras beads.
Only available at select stores in Mobile and Jackson County, Miss., she also ships the king cakes as well. She also does a few special order king cakes year around.
Then there is a king cake that is somewhat like a meal. Broad Street Bakery
in Jackson, Miss., is offering a savory stuffed crawfish
king cake in addition to their traditional almond and cream cheese king cake. Pastry chef Jen Adelsheimer decided to take the crawfish dip and the jalapeño cheddar brioche loaf from the bakery’s catering menu and combine them.
Testing the savory king cake out at family gatherings where it was well received, she knew she had to sell them at the bakery.
“It has a nice kick to it and isn’t too spicy.”
While the savory king cake is new to the bakery this year, it isn’t their first time doing something different. Last year, they introduced holiday-themed king cakes, like a candy bar one for Halloween in which Adelsheimer says it had nearly every type of candy bar crushed into it, and a chocolate-chip eggnog king cake for Christmas.
“The different king cakes have been very successful, and a lot of fun to make,” she says.
“It’s been great to bring this tradition to Jackson.”
One tip regarding the savory king cake, it is only available on Saturdays during the season on a first come, first service basis.
And then there are king cakes beyond the cake-shaped form, such as Cammie’s Old Dutch Ice Cream Shoppe
in Mobile, Ala., offers king cake ice cream Home to 47 homemade flavors, owner Cammie Wayne says the flavor only available during Mardi Gras season, and there is a good reason why. She uses actual king cakes in her recipe.
Selecting cakes with cream cheese filling, Wayne rips them bits, adds in a little of her own purple-color cream cheese icing and then kneads it all together to make it softer.
For a little more some taste, she adds a little cinnamon flavor to the ice cream; and as the ice cream churns, she adds the icing and cake in layers, so it is equally distributed throughout.
For the past three years, pastry chef Lisa Gustafson has prepared king cake bread pudding at Patois
in New Orleans, and she says people love it, as well her. She admits to snacking on it quite a bit.
Gustafson makes her own king cake, but doesn’t add any glaze to it like a traditional king cake. She adds a some sort of fruit sauce; in the past she sued strawberries, and this year she uses huckleberries, which she says is her favorite.
Completing the dessert, she includes goat milk ice cream, followed by white chocolate garnish and for the final touches, dust it with purple, green and gold sugar.
“It’s a very colorful dessert,” says Gustafson.
And in true king cake fashion, she adds a baby to the plate to “give people a little surprise.”
It was the success of “Elf on the Shelf” cookies at Sweet Robichaux
in Prairieville, La., that led to the creation of the king cake cookie.
“There was such a great response with the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ cookies, I knew I needed to come up with something for Mardi Gras.”
After a lot of experimentation, Robichaux secured the recipe. Using a base of vanilla and real cream cheese and some other ingredients, he swirls in brown cinnamon. The cookie is then topped off with vanilla icing, with a green, gold and purple design.
“It is spot on with the flavor,” he says. “It’s a great product and we’ve had a great response.”
Pastry chef Amy Lemon creates two distinctively different king cake type desserts for two distinctively different restaurants.
Responsible for sweet treats at both NOLA Restaurant
and Emeril’s Delmonico
in New Orleans, Lemon creates a king cake bread pudding for NOLA using a brioche pastry. The bread pudding features lemon goat cheese ice cream, blackberry compote and finishes with a light dusting of purple, green and gold sugar.
At Delmonico, she takes a unique twist with her king cake doughnuts, using cinnamon doughnuts and white icing with purple, green and gold sugar stripes on top. The doughnuts are served with local strawberry jam and toasted pecans.
photo credits: (top left) Ellen Silverman
, DamGoodSweet ; (mid right) Broad St. Bakery, savory king cake; (bottom right) Emeril Lagasse Restaurants, king cake doughnuts