holiday cooking

The Kings and I

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Rosca de Reyes - sliceChristmas may be a hazy, food-coma hangover, but that does not mean pastry season is over. Indeed, today we have entered King Cake time, the weeks between Epiphany and Mardi Gras–the last night before Lent and its prescription of 40 days of restraint.

In the United States, New Orleans has made King Cake synonymous with Mardi Gras. Named for the visit of the three Magi to the newborn Christ child, the cake comes in so many variations that one needs a few weeks just to fully enjoy them all. It can take the shape of a cinnamon-scented ring of bread sparsely dotted with candied fruit (Spain and Latin America) or an almond-paste-filled circle of layered puff pastry (France). One commonality is a buried trinket–a plastic or ceramic baby figurine or a dried bean to symbolize the infant Jesus–which bestows various honors upon the person who gets the item in her or his slice. Mexico, where I first encountered the bread, has my favorite tradition: The person who wins the baby has to make tamales for everyone on Candlemas, February 2.

Mexico’s cake, rosca de reyes, is a vaguely sweet yeast bread (akin to pan de muerto), formed into a ring and finished with a sugar topping that may also include candied fruit and/or nuts. It is tasty–and lovely with a cup of coffee for breakfast. However, I like my desserts sweeter and have long been drawn to the French version (galette des rois) and its layers of sweet almond filling.

So I pulled together a hybrid to celebrate Día de Reyes, a basic sweet dough filled with a rough almond paste, rolled like cinnamon rolls, shaped and baked into a ring, and glazed when cool with almond icing. I just might call it a rosca des rois.

Gang Activity

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Easter was a group effort this year in DC, with friends gathering at the communal table and sharing their best celebratory dishes to serve with a cognac-marinated leg of lamb. We were too hungry to get a lot of photos… but can absolutely testify to the tastiness of everything.

The menu:

Slow-Roasted Leg of Lamb. Marinated in cognac, garlic, marjoram, thyme and onions, the main course was an improvization based on recipes for Spanish lamb and Greek slow-roasted lamb from MoVida Rustica and Gourmet Magazine, respectively.

Whipped Celeriac and Potatoes with Caramelized Onion and Leeks. While the potatoes and celery root boiled, we caramelized onion and leeks in lots of butter for last-minute incorporation into the whipped root vegetables.

Asparagus, Feta and Couscous Salad. Mateja kept the Mediterranean theme going with this fresh and light salad, modifying the dish with the addition of chopped red onion, more asparagus, plum and balsamic vinegar, and a blend of dried herbs.

Carrot Salad wth Parsley and Mint. Elizabeth treated us to this crisp and delicious salad, perky with white wine vinegar dressing.

Kathryn’s Homemade Biscuits. We rewarmed these tasty risen biscuits right before serving. Recipe from King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Companion.

Roasted Tomatoes with Sumac and Marjoram. The twist here: The tomatoes were tossed in a specialty olive oil from New Zealand that exuded buttery goodness.

Feta-Phyllo Torte. This savory pastry from the New York Times never fails to impress. We substitute ricotta for the cottage cheese and load it up with thyme and marjoram, in addition to the dill.

Green Deviled Eggs. Inspired by Dr. Seuss, these greenish eggs packed a spicy punch.

Potica. As per tradition, Mateja brought her famous Slovenian walnut bread. (A recipe for the Croatian version is here.)

Strawberry Marscapone Tart. A Gourmet confection with a lightly sweetened layer of marscapone cheese, whipping cream and vanilla covered by glazed fresh berries.

Raspberry Frangipane Tart. Gourmet provided the recipe for the frangipane base, which, once baked and cooled, was covered with glazed raspberries.

Long Live the King!

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The weather outside says deep freeze but, inside the house, the iPod pumps tropical music, the oven warms the kitchen, and the smell of cinnamon signals my brain to get out of the winter funk and to laissez les bons temps rouler.

It’s Mardi Gras season, y’all. And while nothing is as good as being in the Crescent City with friends (preferably with a plateful of barbecued shrimp at hand and the hurricanes a flowing), a reasonable substitute is to join the party vicariously—and take a big bite out of one of NOLA’s iconic foods: the king cake.

New Orleans’ bakeries do a mean mail-order business in king cakes this time of year. But—and to some this will be heresy—one can make a delicious (and, I dare say, an even superior) version at home.  

While technique varies, the NOLA cake—a Technicolor version of a traditional pre-Lenten bread made, with some variations, across Catholic communities around the world from Twelfth Night through Epiphany—is essentially a buttery yeast dough filled with cinnamon, formed into a ring shape, finished with a sugary glaze and baked with a hidden “baby Jesus,” in the form of a ceramic baby trinket, bean or pecan, inside. The NOLA version is ramped up with green, gold and purple frosting and/or sugar, usually in over-the-top amounts.

For my first cake of the season, I went with the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s recipe, printed in its post-Hurricane Katrina cookbook, Cooking up a Storm. It called for rolling and filling the dough cinnamon-roll style, then slashing the bread open lengthwise before baking. This exposes the brown sugar and butter to the oven’s heat, giving the cake a great crunch. To finish, I drizzled the top with white glaze, flavored with almond, and followed with a gentle sprinkling of green, gold and purple sugars.

This was: So. Damn. Good. 

Someone get over here and either help me eat or stop me. I fully intend to spend the next nine days testing other versions!