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TODAY

Sunday, July 21

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Airbags

Even if you're not able to travel to New Orleans to participate in the Mardi Gras festivities that end on Wednesday when Lent begins, you can still participate by eating like you're in New Orleans.

I have a deep and heartfelt affinity for the city to our south that was destroyed by flooding last year. When a friend gave me a present of two framed images of some iconic scenes in the French Quarter, I shed tears shamelessly and gushed over how much I loved them.

I can't surround myself with the weather or the city's music while I'm in the cold, cold North, but I can turn to food to remind me of good times I've spent there and to dream of good times to come.

And if there is one food item which signifies hope and celebration, I think it would have to be the King Cake. It's a round or oval cake coated with alternating bands of purple, green and gold sugar. Traditionally there is a bean, or a coin, or more likely a plastic baby embedded in the cake. When the tradition of this cake began during the pre-Christian days in Western Europe, the man who drew the charm was treated like a king for a year before being sacrificed and having his blood sprinkled over the ground in the hope of having a bountiful harvest.

As the Christians took over and sacrificing people dropped from popularity, the King Cake became part of the celebration of the three Magi. Then when the French settled in New Orleans they brought the tradition with them. When the Twelfth Night Revelers held a ball after the Civil War, they had a large king cake. Instead of choosing someone to be sacrificed, however, the woman who found the bean in the cake was chosen the queen of the ball. Over the past century and a half it's become more of a traditional cake for partying for adults as well as children. Usually whoever gets the baby (or the coin or the bean) buys or makes the cake for the next year or throws a party the following year.

This cake isn't your traditional wet batter cake poured into a mold. It's a yeast-raised bread that is rolled and shaped into an oval. Many modern cakes have a filling, but the traditional cake doesn't. It's covered with a colored sugar topping. The colors of the icing are symbolic: the purple represents Justice, the green represents Faith, and the gold represents Power. And I think the city's inhabitants and leaders could use all three on their side right now. Making a cake won't help rebuild homes or reestablish devastated neighborhoods, but thinking good thoughts about people can't hurt right now.

I'm not much of a baker. I've been trying my hand at making cakes and cookies. It's been going better than I expected but I don't know enough yet to be able to alter recipes and know what I'm going to get. So the recipe below is from The Gumbo Pages. There are many other recipes on this site and it's a great source of information related to New Orleans culture and food. It's a personal page that became much more popular than expected, and it's one of the place I'll turn as I plan my next trip there.

King Cake
2 envelopes of active dry yeast
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) of unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup of warm milk (about 110°F)
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
4 1/2 cups bleached of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
1 pound of cream cheese, at room temperature
4 cups of confectioner's sugar
1 plastic king cake baby or a pecan half
5 tablespoons of milk at room temperature
3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
Purple, green and gold tinted sugar sprinkles

Combine the yeast and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the melted butter and warm milk. Beat at low speed for one minute. With the mixer running, add the egg yolks, then beat for another minute at medium-low speed. Add the flour, salt, nutmeg and lemon zest and beat until everything is incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball, and starts to climb up the dough hook.

Remove the dough from the bowl. Using your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly oil a bowl with the vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to lubricate all sides with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about two hours.

Meanwhile, make the filling. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and 1 cup of the confectioner's sugar. Blend by hand or with an electric mixer on low speed. Set aside.

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.

Spread the filling lengthwise over the bottom half of the dough, then flip the top half of the dough over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a cylinder and place it on the prepared baking sheet seam side down. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn't a seam. Insert the king cake baby or pecan half into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough.

Cover the ring with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free place. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Brush the top of the risen cake with 2 tablespoons of the milk. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the icing. Combine the remaining 3 tablespoons milk, the lemon juice, and the remaining 3 cups confectioner's sugar in medium-size mixing bowl. Stir to blend well. With a rubber spatula, spread the icing evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the sugar crystals, alternating colors around the cake.

The cake is traditionally cut into 2-inch-thick slices with all the guests in attendance. Serves 20 to 22.

In case you're looking for dishes that are more of the sustenance than the sweet variety, you might be interested in a column I wrote two years ago. Whatever you eat this week, let the good times roll.

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