Mardi Gras has, well, a reputation.
"I was not prepared for the amount of items thrown off of a float, and I got a black eye from a flying stack of cups," Lisa White, partner/baker of Willa Jean in New Orleans, says about her first Carnival season.
Another way Fat Tuesday (happening this year on February 9) can leave a mark: one too many slices of king cake, the bedazzled centerpiece of a Mardi Gras celebration meal. New Orleans-born David Guas of Virginia and Washington, D.C.'s Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery remembers his high school days, when he would have king cake-eating competitions with his friends on their way to swim practice. "Needless to say, we weren't the speediest (or most buoyant) swimmers during Carnival season."
We're not one to pass up an opportunity to make an all-frills cake. And since a celebration this large calls for serious pastry, we layer the twisted brioche dough with filling inspired by bananas Foster, another classic New Orleans dessert (see the recipe). Then we top it with a sugary rum glaze before adding a crowning glory of way too much glitter dust.
Possibilities run wild with king cake, which was historically more of a sweet, dense bread before morphing into the Danish-like treat of today. Alex Harrell, chef/owner of Angeline in the French Quarter, says "what makes it unique is the individual bakers' finishing touches. Some braid the dough; some shape it into rings." Though to White, the cake is more about the traditions that surround the holiday rather than the cake itself.
Her fellow chefs echo that sentiment, including Tory McPhail of NOLA classic Commander's Palace. "The nostalgia factor smacks me full force when I take my first bite, because it's such a fleeting indulgence." King cake season lasts only from Epiphany (January 6) through Mardi Gras, which for Guas, meant that he was "eating purple, green and gold sugar for three to four weeks. What more could a kid ask for at age 10—or really at any age?"
About those colors: Sorry, but you have to. Like a delicious tribe of Power Rangers, the color combo has meaning: Green stands for faith, purple for justice and gold for power, as has been custom for nearly 150 years. Forget about superfoods and natural dyes for a hot minute and buy the brightest, most obnoxious edible glitter you can find, because excessive decoration is nonnegotiable. Otherwise, the pastry is just a sad, confused circular brioche, begging to parade down Bourbon Street but forever lurking on the side streets.
Another must: You have to put some sort of trinket inside. Tradition calls for a small plastic baby or a bean, but some places, like Cochon Butcher, stick a small pig inside. Whoever gets the slice with the object gets to be "king" for a day—and has to buy the cake for next year's festivities. Guas is a stickler for the classic ("you just gotta have the baby"), and Tariq Hanna of famed NOLA bakery Sucré uses purple, gold and green babies for his cakes. We respect that, but our version uses a liquor-filled chocolate bottle instead to go with the takeaway cups of hurricane you should be holding in each of your hands.
And a slice of the buttery, banana-laced king cake is really the royal treatment.
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