Today Is the First Day of Legal King Cake Season
Mardi Gras parades are canceled, but you can make a little bit of Carnival in your stand mixer.
If you're not familiar with New Orleans Mardi Gras—or if you only know it as a hazy idea of bead-throwing and big parades—the first thing you need to understand is it's not just a day, it's a whole season. It begins on the twelfth night of Christmas, also known as Three Kings Day or Epiphany, which falls on January 6th. Likewise, that day also marks the start of king cake season, when bakers around the New Orleans area (as well as Baton Rouge, Mobile, Houston, and other places that celebrate) begin churning out the vibrantly colored, ring-shaped desserts.
Depending on the length of the Mardi Gras season, you have somewhere between six and eight weeks to legally eat as much king cake as you want. (Mardi Gras season ends with the actual day of Mardi Gras, which is always 47 days before Easter.) And yes, OK, "legally" is maybe a bit strong—there aren't actually king cake police—but eating king cake out of season is at best odd, like housing Christmas cookies and eggnog in July, and at worst, at least according to the New Orleanians I know, very bad luck. We don't need any more bad luck in 2021.
As New Orleans chef Kelly Fields observes in The Good Book of Southern Baking, "Every year in New Orleans, the game of king caking starts to feel more and more like a full-contact sport." You can find fancy king cakes with unusual fillings (chorizo! Pineapple! Probably not at the same time!), savory king cakes, and king-cake flavored everything. There are long lines for the most popular king cakes at places like Dong Phuong Bakery, and stacks of king cakes in every grocery store.
King cake is not the same thing as its namesake, galette des rois, the French puff pastry and almond cream confection traditionally eaten on Epiphany. King cake is something all its own—a ring of yeasted cake that veers closer to a springy, pillowy brioche than the tender crumb of a yellow cake. (I once encountered a woman on Chartres street in the French Quarter trying to explain to a flustered tourist that Chartres was pronounced differently in Louisiana English: "I'm sure they do say that in France, honey, but here it's CHART-ers." King cake has a similar relationship to galette des rois.)
Usually king cake has a cream cheese icing glaze and is decorated with purple, gold, and green sugars, the colors of Mardi Gras. The dominant flavors are cinnamon, cream cheese, and often pecan, though that varies based on the whimsy of the baker. It is sticky and sweet, and one of those cakes that make you cut "just a small slice" for yourself like three times and go back and realize you've eaten fully a quarter of it. Famously there's a little choking hazard tucked into the cake, sometimes a bean but most often these days it's a plastic baby. The king cake baby was originally symbolic of baby Jesus, but it has since evolved to become an incredibly disturbing basketball mascot. Tradition dictates that if your slice has the baby you throw the party next year (please God let there be parties next year), but again, there aren't any Mardi Gras police there to enforce that and if they do exist they're probably easily bribed.
Like pizza in New York, king cakes in New Orleans are ubiquitous and fodder for hyper-local arguments over merits and demerits. Also like pizza, the spirit of king cake is easy abundance and generosity, about sharing and welcoming more than fussiness. Even if the king cake is cloyingly sweet or flavored with something on the wrong side of experimental (ask me about the alligator variant I tried once), there's enough for at least 12 people. I've been in New Orleans for Mardi Gras four times, so I'm not exactly a lifelong expert, but I can tell you that from my experience, the King Cake Consumption chart below from local screen printers Dirty Coast is correct.
In a typical year, by the time Mardi Gras Day rolls around, my diet is almost exclusively cold Popeyes grabbed from the fridge and ever-staler slices of king cake eaten at parties or snuck over the sink while I'm on my third costume change of the day. Usually after the big morning festivities of Fat Tuesday (and yep, things start early, like 8 a.m. early) I'm eating the last slice of king cake in my pajamas at something like 4 p.m. Laissez those bon temps, etc.
Last Mardi Gras was just before the impending pandemic, and it's hard now to imagine the kind of crowds and parties and strangers sharing air that all felt so normal in February 2019. This year's festivities will, say it with me now, look a little different. The parades have been canceled. Festivities will be socially distanced and local. I'm skipping my semi-annual trip to New Orleans, of course. The months I usually spend costume-making and bedazzling throws look long and grey without the prospect of Carnival. But just as the Grinch could not prevent Christmas, the canceled parades and parties won't keep Carnival away, and COVID can't stop the annual flood of king cakes. You can ship one to yourself, for sure, but if you have a stand mixer and some time on your hands like so many of us do, you can also make your very own. I plan to make several, thanks to this recipe from Kelly Fields.
Fields' recipe for king cake is a labor of love, as you would expect from a chef who devoted an entire cookbook chapter to biscuits. It requires the dough to rest overnight. When I asked her whether that could be sped up, Fields wrote me that basically, no, doing so would result in a tough cake, and "I've been constantly humbled by the inability to speed up resting in baking and in life in general," which is a great point. The overnight rise results in a tender-but-not too-tender dough that you split into ropes and then fill with cinnamon, butter, and sugar. You'll need to make caramel to pour over it that sets up into a pleasing crunchy underlayer, and, finally, a cream cheese icing that is a perfectly sweet and thick topping.
When you've finally put everything together and sprinkled that layer of tri-color sanding sugar over the top, the cake is a thing of beauty. It feels like a triumph. I couldn't wait to share it. My neighbors, who have been the recipient of many socially distanced drop-offs of baked goods in these last ten months, asked me when I'd make more of it. The answer is today, when king cake is finally, blessedly legal again.