King Cake for Mardi Gras

In 1996, when I was ten years old and living just south of Washington, D.C., my mother took a job at a bakery-café in the tiny town where we lived. The baker was a family friend who had training in both kosher-style and New Orleans-style baking. This cultural collaboration meant that I was exposed to napoleons and hamantaschen, jalapeño cornbread and matzo, just when I was starting to lose my picky eating habits. In order to keep me occupied at the back of the café, my mother had me read copies of the Washington Post that commuters had left behind, armed with a dictionary to look up any unfamiliar words. As I read, I could have leftover bakery treats: cinnamon-walnut rugelach, crackly cannoli filled with mascarpone and chocolate chips, and my favourite fruit tarts, which had a secret thin layer of chocolate insulating the pastry shell from a dollop of sunny yellow custard.

There were seasonal treats at the bakery, too. When Mardi Gras was approaching, next to the baguettes, donuts and challah there appeared round breads covered in purple, yellow and green icing. My mother's boss explained to clients that these were king cakes, with baby figurines inside  -- whoever got the slice with the baby would have to buy the next cake. After the bakery closed, the managers had a surplus of plastic king cake babies, which they put in a massive jar filled with oil and labelled -- you guessed it -- "Baby Oil". It's been several years since I saw one of these plastic babies, which are falling out of fashion as people discover the hazards of heated plastic. I preferred cherry-filled hamantaschen, which came out around the same time of year in commemoration of Purim, over the king cakes, anyway, and didn't really think about them again for a few years.

Ten years after I sat in the back of the bakery, I was in another bakery in Lyon, France, eating my first piece of galette des rois. Eaten for Epiphany on January 6, the French king cake is a flaky puff pastry shell filled with frangipane, a rich almond paste.The "fèves" inside are not beans, but rather sturdy ceramic figures. Had I studied further south in France or in Spain, I would have encountered a gâteau des rois or a rosca des reyes, another "king cake" that takes the form of a fruit-studded brioche, closer to that eaten in New Orleans today. King cakes in New Orleans are made during the Carnival season, which falls between Epiphany and Mardi Gras. Here in Montreal, the northern French frangipane version is more popular, likely because there are so many expatriates from France in the city. There's no reason, however, that we can't also incorporate the New Orleans-style king cakes into Montreal life. One of the biggest pleasures in living in a city as diverse as Montreal is embracing diversity in foodways (and tasting foods from a variety of culinary traditions, of course).

If you'd like to make a New Orleans-style king cake, there are dozens of recipes to choose from. Most of them have a rich egg-and-butter dough, flavoured with cinnamon, pralines, cream cheese, or all of the above. This didn't ring true to the first king cake I ever had, though. The Creole cookbook we're working through this month didn't include any king cake recipes - even though what I read suggested that king cakes were often home-baked. So I decided to recreate what I remembered eating at that bakery in Northern Virginia so many years ago - which, to me, tasted like challah with coloured frosting. This may seem incongruous, considering that Mardi Gras is a Catholic holiday, but making the cake this way felt more authentic to my own king cake experience. After reading an exhaustive article about how king cake allows for the most accessible kind of Mardi Gras celebration, I felt confident in making Carnival-season king cake with a kosher bakery-style flavour.

King cakes and wee challahs ready for egg wash
While I was occasionally put to work curling ribbons for gift baskets or offering free samples to passerby, I never spent any time in the bakery's kitchen. I knew that I would need a challah tutor if I wanted to get the bread just right. After looking at several recipes, I settled on Smitten Kitchen's challah recipe, which turned out beautifully. The recipe makes a LOT: it provided me with enough dough to make two small, round king cakes and two small braided challahs. Moreover, the directions are clear and precise, which is just what I needed to increase my yeast bread-making confidence; three periods of rising time, including a few hours in a covered bowl in the fridge, worked to make gorgeous golden loaves. While Smitten Kitchen's recipe isn't "historical" in the sense that we usually work with on this website, it helped me recreate this dish from my own past. Letting my kitchen fill with the smells of rich egg dough, I felt like I was recreating a bit of my own family history. My mother started working outside the home for the first time in a decade when my parents separated in 1996, and the resulting changes were difficult for me to deal with. The bakery became a second home for me, where my mother's bosses made me birthday cakes (marble cake with chocolate frosting, please) and saved fruit tarts and cherry hamantaschen for me. The bakery is under new ownership now; the pastel pink benches I sat on to read the Washington Post are gone, as are the rugelach. Recreating this sort-of-New-Orleans-style king cake took me back to being ten years old in a way that visiting the bakery's physical location again never will.

After baking, cooling and being iced, this king cake just needs some sugar! 
Once the breads were cool, I topped them with a quick icing (powdered sugar mixed with lemon juice and water) and coloured sugar. The king cakes were just a little bit sweet, perfect for a brunch or as a treat to bring to the office. The icing colours are chosen for their symbolism: purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power. I was able to find coloured sugar in a large supermarket, but you could also dye the icing itself with food colouring rather than sprinkling sugar on top. Plastic babies seem to be in short supply in Montreal, so I worked a dried black bean into the dough, and told my colleagues that whoever found the bean in their slice would need to be the next person to bring treats -- or to throw a Mardi Gras party. As there's one week left of Carnival season before Mardi Gras on February 17, there's still time to laisser les bons temps rouler -- or just enjoy the nostalgia of a slice of king cake with coffee and a newspaper as the winds howl outside.


  1. Good job Kathleen! Now I just want to go to your office, read the Montreal Gazette and have a slice of cake.


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