Christmas decorations have come down at my house and they’ve been replaced by the shiny, slightly gaudy ones of Mardi Gras. My mantle is dripping with beads, upon which feathered masks and golden crowns sit while a small tree occupies a corner of the hearth, decorated with baubles and beads in the traditional colors of green, gold and purple.
The Mardi Gras season officially begins on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany. Parades, balls and family gatherings will occupy the days until clocks strike midnight to mark Ash Wednesday. A festival of feasting and fun goes back to medieval Europe. The French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, is credited with bringing Mardi Gras to the new world with the first celebration being held in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. The city of Galveston, Texas is also known for its large celebration, but for most people Mardi Gras and New Orleans cannot be separated
In New Orleans, parades are held throughout the season, with the largest being held in the final days of Mardi Gras, including Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Organizations called krewes host elaborate balls and sponsor floats and parades. Beads and coins called doubloons are traditional “throws” tossed to parade-goers. Other Louisiana cities, such as Lafayette, hold smaller parades that are family-friendly. In rural south Louisiana, Mardi Gras takes on a much different form, probably more closely resembling the medieval origins of the festival. Women make men’s costumes in bright colors and traditional patterns that feature hats with masks made of mesh. The hats are in shapes to resemble—and ridicule—the traditional ones associated with medieval nobility and scholars. The men ride on horseback from home-to-home and beg for coins and ingredients for a gumbo. They dance and entertain the crowds to earn their prizes. Later in the day, the community gathers for gumbo, adult beverages and the rest of the day’s festivities.
For most people in Louisiana, though, Mardi Gras is a mild-mannered affair. In schools, children decorate their little red wagons and have their own parades. Families gather for rich foods, savoring all the decadent ingredients they will bid farewell to during the penitential season of Lent. Once a celebration limited to the Catholic inhabitants of south Louisiana, now the holiday is enjoyed across the state, with northern cities like Shreveport and Natchitoches hosting their own parades and festivities.
One common element of the celebration, enjoyed by schoolchildren, families, and French Quarter revelers, is the King Cake. Made from a traditional yeast dough, the ring-shaped cake is frosted and decorated with colored sugars. The cake is named after the Three Kings who visited the baby Jesus and it is first served on Epiphany, the day which commemorates their visit. It is the custom to place a small baby figurine inside the cake. The person who finds the baby is responsible for bringing the next king cake or throwing the next party. Every teachers’ lounge and break room in south Louisiana will have at least one of these pastry treats every Friday during the season.
Below is my recipe for a Mardi Gras King Cake. It’s a forgiving yeast dough that may be kneaded by hand or in a stand mixer with a dough hook. I use a traditional cinnamon filling, but some cakes are made with fruit, chocolate or cream cheese fillings.
Happy Mardi Gras and Laissez les bon temps rouler (Let the good times roll)!
The Pie Belle’s Mardi Gras King Cake
1 cup milk
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 pkg. (envelope) active dry yeast
½ cup white sugar
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 stick butter, softened
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
3 oz. cream cheese, softened
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
Decorating sugars (purple, green and gold)
- Heat the milk and butter in a saucepan until it reaches a temperature of about 110 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in the milk and butter mixture. Add the sugar, 3 cups of the flour, salt and eggs; stir well to combine. Add the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and supple, about 8 minutes. (If you use a stand mixer, use the dough hook and knead on low speed for about 4-5 minutes).
- Lightly grease a large mixing bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a lightly damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
- Deflate the dough by punching it once and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Use a rolling pin and roll it into a rectangle that is about 10 x 14-inches. Spread the softened butter evenly over the surface. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle it evenly over the butter.
- Roll up the dough into a log and seal the seam by pinching it together.
- Form the log into a ring, pinching the dough together at the two ends to form a seam.
- Place in a greased 13 x 9-inch pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to rise again, overnight.
- Next morning, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Take the ring out of the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes (still covered).
- Remove plastic wrap and bake the ring for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden. While the ring is baking, combine the icing ingredients and mix with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
- When the ring comes out of the oven, coat it generously with icing. Then decorate the top with colored sugars (green, gold, purple), in alternating sections, about 2 inches each.
Don’t forget to hide the plastic baby charm inside, but warn everyone to look for it!
*Don’t have time to make your own King Cake? No problem, check out our King Cake offerings from Cajun Bites in traditional, cream cheese filled, strawberry filled and raspberry filled. Yum.
For more great recipes and info about Terri Duhon, visit her website thepiebelle.com.