Food Focus: Mardi Gras King Cake

By: Michael Engle

Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday as some of us know it. Mardi Gras is a traditional Catholic celebration, marking the final day before Lent and is marked by lavish festivities across the Catholic world. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, LA, Mardi Gras has evolved as a way of life, with parades being scheduled every day for a month in advance. But no discussion about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is complete, however, without mentioning King Cake.

King Cake is, in its most simple form, a rich, yet simple, dessert that is iconic to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Borrowing from Spanish and French tradition, modern King Cake closely resembles brioche; traditionally, the brioche is either left plain or flavored with cinnamon. It is, unlike its Old World counterparts such as rosca de reyes and galette des rois, almost always ring-shaped. All King Cakes are adorned with the Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold, which respectively represent justice, faith, and power. These colors are most often accomplished by using colored sugar crystals, which are sprinkled over a white icing.

Recently, "filled" King Cakes have risen in popularity; the most popular fillings include cream cheese, strawberry, and praline. The most "traditional" filled King Cake, despite the oxymoron, is the Zulu King Cake, which features chocolate icing under the colored sugar, as well as a coconut filling.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, King Cake Season officially starts on January 6th, which is also known as "Epiphany" or the day after the twelve days of Christmas. King Cake parties are hosted daily in New Orleans during King Cake season, which lasts from Epiphany until Mardi Gras. Traditionally, each King Cake includes one hidden plastic baby figurine. This figurine traditionally represents baby Jesus. (Due to choking liabilities, many bakers will enclose the figurine in the cake package, but separate from the cake itself.) As per Louisiana tradition, the person whose King Cake slice contains the baby is recognized as the King or Queen of the Day; however, it is the King or Queen's duty to host the next King Cake party!

To learn more about King Cake, click here. From that page, you can also order your own King Cake to help you properly celebrate Mardi Gras. Though King Cake season may be ending soon, many New Orleans bakeries will sell and ship King Cakes year-round. In the meantime, laissez les bons temps rouler!

Click here to also read our Top 5 Mardi Gras Party Dishes.

Photo: Back to the Cutting Board and praline3001 (Happy Mardi Gras!!!)

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Spirituality In Food, What Is Lent?

The revelry of Mardi Gras is over, which means that Lent has begun.  Once the gumbo has run out, and the moonpies have all been eaten, the fasting of lent begins, a period of spirituality that is connected to food. Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  It symbolizes the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, resisting temptation from the devil.  Christians may fast during lent, giving up food or alcohol.  Though traditionally Lent required alms giving, prayer, and fasting, contemporary interpretations of Lent Western Christianity vary.  Many Christians choose to give up chocolate, dessert, cheese, or another indulgence.

Sometimes fasting for lent verges on the bizarre.  J. Wilson is giving up everything but water and Rockbottom Brewery's Illuminator Doppelbock. Lest you think he's doing this as a meaningless stunt, Wilson is not over-indulging on ale, but following in the steps of the 17th century Paulaner monks, who would occasionally partake in "soul-cleansing fasts where they would not consume solid food" but only the Doppelbock brew.

Lent is not just about giving up food or alcohol, however.  A great way to celebrate this time of sacrifice is to give up a bad habit, or adopt a good habit, such as charitable giving. 

For Christians, Lent is a time to get in touch with your spiritual compass.

My Mobile Mardi Gras

By Erica Veal - Events Manager at Red Rooster Harlem

My family is from Mobile, Alabama. In Mobile, Mardi Gras starts two weeks before Ash Wednesday, with parades and that sort of thing. People are out there right now, partying, and celebrating.

What happened years ago, because Mobile, like New Orleans, is very Catholic city. The church thought Mardi Gras was pagan. So they ended it for a while, stopped Mardi Gras, and couldn't have parades any more.

There was a man named Joe Cane, he and several friends dressed up and had their own Mardi Gras parade, and that's how Mardi Gras came back. Now every year, the Sunday before Mardi Gras, there's Joe Cane Day. Women dress up in black, because supposedly he had a lot of wives, so they say they're Joe Cane widows. They sit there with their mint juleps, their bourbon.

That's also the day you start your gumbo. On Joe Cane Day you may make Red Beans and Rice, but you start your gumbo that you're not going to eat until Mardi Gras.

For the gumbo, you start off with your roux, which is the flour and the oil. I like my roux a little dark, so that it has a little bitterness. Then you add your chopped vegetables, what they call your trinity, which is your bell peppers, your onion, and your celery. You add three different types of pepper. the white peppers for burn, the red pepper is for heat, and the black pepper is for spice.

You add in everything from andouille sausage, to chicken, shrimp, whole crab, and sometimes you'll add in some oysters. Then you serve the gumbo over rice.

All you do is eat and drink the whole time. I go home every year, every one goes home for Mardi Gras. You wake up at ten am and you start drinking and you get ready for the parades.

Nothing's really open on Tuesday, except for crawfish places. You get pounds and pounds of crawfish, and you have to suck the head. That's where all the juice and stuff is.

When I was little, you would go to these parades and come home with bags and bags of candy. But the best things to catch aside from beads are moon pies. I can't stand moon pies, but I love to catch them. They're so much fun to catch. Sometimes the people on the floats throw a box of moon pies, and if you catch the box, that's the ultimate prize.

One year they called my mother over to the float and they handed her a whole case of moon pies, which was amazing.

Moon pies have a marshmallow center, almost like a whoopie pie. They come in different flavors, like banana and chocolate, vanilla, and also strawberry.

It's a big reunion, because no matter where you are, if you've left the city, everyone comes home for Mardi Gras.

Blow Off Steam By Celebrating Mardi Gras

Bead throwing, and wild parties: Mardi Gras is an occasion for unabashed celebration before Lent. Celebrated in many French speaking nations, Mardi Gras gives revelers a chance to blow off steam before a long period of deprivation. Mardi Gras in New Orleans features one special food item that ups the sugar ante. King cake, a ring of twisted, sweet yeast bread covered in purple, green and gold icing, is an iconic Mardi Gras dessert. Although the Cajun version comes deep-fried, all king cakes include a trinket. Ranging from a bean to a tiny baby doll, the trinket possesses a special power-whoever finds it is called King or Queen on the holiday, and usually has to give a cake the next year.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, or let the good times roll this year with a king cake. Just be careful not to break a tooth in your search for that baby doll!

Haven't gotten a King Cake yet? Here are our suggestions.

Top 5 Mardi Gras Party Dishes

As Mardi Gras approaches, throw an exciting New Orleans themed party with these top 5 Mardi Gras dishes. You'll have your guests asking for second helpings along with beads.

  1. Oysters Rockefeller: Invented at Antoine's in New Orleans, oysters Rockefeller makes a superb appetizer. Baked on the half-shell with herbs, bread crumbs, and buttery sauce, oyster Rockefeller is a festive party option that proves easy to prepare once you get those bivalves open.
  2. Shrimp Gumbo: To keep the good times rolling, serve your guests a bowl of gumbo. Filled with juicy shrimp, vegetables, and okra, a solid gumbo can take your Mardi Gras party to a new level. Look for file powder, a traditional thickening agent made from sassafras, to add an additional element of authenticity.
  3. Muffuletta: A submarine sandwich packed with Italian meats and cheeses, muffuletta makes a great party food, especially if you're watching a parade. If you're busy on the day of the party, you can go ahead and prepare your muffuletta ahead of time-just think of it as a glorified (and beautiful) sandwich.
  4. Dirty Rice: As a side dish, whip up a batch of dirty rice flavored with chicken livers. Not necessarily super spicy, dirty rice has a nice meaty flavor. For those imbibing on Mardi Gras, it makes a wonderful drinking food, too.
  5. Bananas Foster: For dessert serve bananas Foster, invented in New Orleans at Brennan's Restaurant. Bananas, brown sugar, and ice cream meet flaming rum in this wild, celebratory meal ender.