Today is January 6, 2011. The Twelfth Night. The Feast of the Epiphany. Little Christmas. King’s Day. It commemorates the Three Wise Men’s visit to the Baby Jesus on the twelfth night following his birth. In New Orleans, today marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the carnival season. This is also the City’s first official day for King Cake sales.
King Cakes, which were originally prepared to honor the Magi’s journey, are circular or oval shaped pastries braided with cinnamon-sugar and topped with white fondant icing and tons of purple, green and gold sugar (carnival colors representing justice, faith and power). These days you can also get them stuffed with different fillings including, cream cheese, strawberry, blueberry, lemon or praline. A small plastic baby, representing the Baby Jesus, is hidden inside each cake. If you get the piece with the baby, you’re “crowned” King or Queen for a day and are obligated to buy the King Cake for the next gathering. These gatherings are called King Cake parties and they’re carried out every Friday through Mardi Gras in many homes and offices across the City. It’s a fun way to share the spirit of of the season.
Oh, and as luck would have it, January 6, is also my oldest daughter’s birthday! I was so glad she was born during the carnival season because that meant I’d be able to share something very special with her–a King Cake birthday cake. You see my birthday also falls during this festive time, January 9. And when I was little, my mom began the tradition of buying King Cakes for my birthday. That special birthday cake was always our first King Cake of the season. McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes made my favorite kind. My brother and sister hated them because they weren’t as sweet and moist as some of the other bakeries’ King Cakes, but I loved their simple recipe of brioche dough and colored sugar. No cinnamon-sugar braid. No white fondant icing. My daughter hasn’t had the pleasure of tasting McKenzie’s King Cakes since the bakery shut down in 2000 or 2001. She has, however, established a particular fondness for Haydel’s and Randazzo’s. Having King Cake as a birthday cake is a unique and special tradition that my daughter and I now share.
If you happen to be in New Orleans today, try kicking off the Mardi Gras season by picking up a King Cake and eating it en route to the Phunny Phorty Phellows parade which takes place this evening on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. You could also down some purple, green and gold goodness while watching the Krewe of Jeanne D’Arc in the French Quarter. If you’re in the Greater Atlanta area (like me), you could special order one of those beauties I have pictured above from The Village Corner: German Restaurant and Bakery (The Village Corner). And if you’re hold up in some other part of the country, then why not have an original New Orleans King Cake shipped to your doorstep from one of New Orleans’ fine bakeries like Haydel’s or Randazzo’s?
King Cakes can be mail-ordered and enjoyed from many New Orleans institutions throughout the year, but it’s customary to only eat them during the carnival season–today through Mardi Gras Day, which this year falls on March 8. If you’re a confident baker (which I am totally NOT), try making your own. There are several good recipes available on the internet, including Emeril’s version at www.foodnetwork.com. If you decide to make a King Cake from scratch, I’d love to hear all about it!