Mardi Gras is around the corner, and if you can’t make it to New Orleans, try to create the spirit of Fat Tuesday with a homemade king cake, the traditional cake for Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
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The origin of king cake is rooted in the French gâteau des rois and probably arrived in New Orleans with the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the mid-18th century. Today, Mardi Gras seems more a venue for drunken excess by college boys and Epiphany, while joyous, was never decadent. The eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night (counted from Christmas Eve) and king cake season extends to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence lasting six weeks until Easter.
New Orleans king cake is a round ring cake, sometimes braided. It is a cross between Danish pastry and brioche, with three-color sugar frosting: purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). It is lavished with Rococo garnishes and served either plain or with a rich filling. Hidden in the cake is a fava bean, or a plastic baby in modern versions. Whoever finds this hidden treasure is anointed the maker of the next king cake.
My New Orleans-enamored friend Michelle van Vliet, photographer by trade, culinary alchemist by avocation, believes her king cake might just be, appropriately, epiphanic. It better be. She’s been “perfecting” it for years, making king cakes until it came out of our ears.
Michelle’s joie de vivre found its expression in the avatar represented by king cake because, she explained, “it represents the spiritual, musical, and cultural gumbo that is New Orleans all in one lavish cake.” Her search for perfection rests upon the influence of her scientist father, seeded by dating a pastry chef long ago, and forged by her spirited artistic talent.
Michelle says: “Not all king cakes are created equally. Some are sophisticated and mild-mannered, favoring muted tones and elegant sugar sprinkles, but not mine. I indulge in the bright colors of Mardi Gras, and my king cake does not go unnoticed. I was given the ultimate compliment when [art consultant] Barbara Guggenheim told me that my cake reminded her of a Jackson Pollock painting!” Michelle’s advice is to “throw some color around.” Also remember, “this is not some snobby French patisserie, but just a popular cake.”
“I use sweetened condensed milk for the caramel sauce because the taste is a nostalgic warm and fuzzy for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s when it was a staple ingredient in my mother’s kitchen.”
I finally enticed her to give me the “secret” recipe. As she would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Michelle’s King Cake
For the filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup roughly chopped raw pecans
1 fairly firm banana, diced into ¼-inch pieces
For the cake:
1 cup warm whole milk (105 to 110 F)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 plastic baby or dried fava bean
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Prepare the caramel sauce for the filling. In the top of a double boiler, pour in the condensed milk, place over the bottom portion of boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and caramel-colored, about 2½ hours. Cool 20 minutes before using.
2. Prepare the cake. In a bowl, whisk milk with sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour until smooth and the yeast is dissolved. Let rest until the mixture gets bubbly, then whisk in butter, egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fold this mixture into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula. Once combined and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 20 minutes of kneading. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spoon and spread some caramel sauce across the bottom lengthwise half of the dough rectangle then sprinkle the pecan bits and banana pieces on top. Flip the top half over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn’t a seam.
6. Carefully transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap allowing the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook!) Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before decorating. Gently lift up the edge of the cake, and hide the plastic baby or dried fava bean somewhere through the bottom.
7. Prepare the icing. In a bowl, combine the confectioner’s sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and almond extract and mix well. If too thick you may add more evaporated milk ½ teaspoon at a time. Divide the icing into 3 bowls, and color them with food coloring, one green, one yellow and one purple. Keep the bowls covered with plastic wrap until ready to use because the icing will harden quickly. Use a spatula or spoon to apply the icing, depending on whether you’re smearing or doing the Jackson Pollock by throwing with the spoon with a slightly thinned icing in alternating colors. Tip: Just go crazy with the color. Don’t hold back. Transfer to a cake platter. The cake will keep for several days covered with plastic wrap.
Note: The excess caramel sauce can be refrigerated and drizzled on ice cream. Serve leftover cake by gently heating.
Photo: King cake. Credit: Michelle van Vliet