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!