Laura Dean Bennett
King Cake, which originated in France and Spain and made its way to the New World when the French came to Louisiana, is one of America’s sweetest Mardi Gras traditions.
It’s outgrown its New Orleans boundaries and has made its way throughout the United States – even finding its way to the hills and hollows of Pocahontas County.
“I’ve been making King Cake for about fifty years or so,” Cook Town resident Sally Cobb said with a smile.
Cobb, whose cooking and baking are steeped in all things Louisiana and New Orleans, grew up in the small town of Covington, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
When she and her husband, Phillip, moved from New Orleans to their farm in Cook Town, they brought their Southern Louisiana customs and cuisine with them.
“King Cake may be new to many parts of the U.S., but its long and colorful history goes back centuries,” Cobb said.
The story of King Cake dates back to Medieval Europe when Christians celebrated the 12th day of Christmas, or Epiphany, on January 6, one of their most sacred festival days.
Epiphany commemorates the visit of the three kings, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus, so it is only natural that the faithful marked the day by giving of gifts and sweets.
Hence the name of King Cake – it is named after the three kings.
And in some places in the world, it’s called Epiphany Cake.
King Cakes in New Orleans are known for being brightly decorated in green, gold and purple – the colors of Mardi Gras.
It’s rumored that Mardi Gras got it’s famous colors when Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich (brother to the heir to the Russian throne) came to New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 1872.
He was welcomed to the festivities by purple, green and gold decorations – the colors of his royal house.
In 1892, these colors were affirmed as the official Mardi Gras colors, and they were each assigned a meaning – green for faith, gold for power and purple for justice.
King Cakes aren’t really cakes. They’re more like a sweet bread and there are many versions around the world.
In Louisiana, King Cake tends to be made from either a sweet bread dough or a brioche-like dough formed to resemble a king’s crown and finished with tri-colored icing and sprinkles.
In France, they are round, puffed pastries with a sweet almond filling.
In Spain and Latin America, they are usually orange-flavored braided wreaths of bread topped with dried fruit.
Wherever King Cake is made, there is one constant – placed inside of each King Cake will be a bean, a trinket or a plastic baby, representing the Baby Jesus.
Tradition holds that it’s always an honor to be the one who finds the baby inside their piece of the pastry. That person is “crowned” king or queen for the day. It’s thought to bring the recipient luck and blessings for the year to come.
And in some communities, it also means that the lucky recipient has to provide the next King Cake or host the next party, so the celebrations continue throughout the season.
Every year, starting on January 6, King Cake can be found everywhere in New Orleans – at local grocery stores, bakeries, on kitchen counters in private homes and at parties.
“When I was in high school, taking Home Ec, I learned how to make my first bread – a sweet dough recipe like you’d use for cinnamon rolls or something like that,” Cobb remembered. “Well, I got good at it and made cinnamon rolls constantly – they were so good.
“And that’s basically the same dough I’ve used for my King Cakes all these years – until about three years ago when I first tasted Duong Phong’s King Cake.
“It’s a Vietnamese Bakery. Their King Cake was voted the best in New Orleans,” Cobb continued.
“It was so good that I changed my recipe and started making mine with a brioche dough like theirs. Brioche dough has more eggs in it –and it makes a softer, moister bread.
“And it stays softer longer than regular bread.”
The Cobbs are members of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Marlinton.
Their parish priest, Father Arthur Bufogle, got a taste of Southern Louisiana culture when he lived in Baton Rouge for four years, attending graduate school at LSU.
“Yes, I love that culture – the music and the food,” Father Arthur enthused.
Two years ago, Father Arthur asked Cobb to bake a King Cake, and the tradition caught on.
“It’s fun and our whole congregation has been enjoying it,” Father Arthur agreed. “Several members bake King Cake at home now, mostly because of who has been finding the baby in the cakes,” he added.
“It seems Silas and Victor Dean have x-ray vision,” Cobb laughed. “They keep finding the baby.”
“Let’s just say that the men in the congregation are quite gracious in letting the women and children go first at the King Cake table.” Father Arthur opined.
“The men won’t eat any before somebody finds the baby – they don’t want to be responsible for making the next cake,” Cobb laughed.
Sally Cobb’s King Cake
1/4 cup lukewarm milk (100-110 degrees)
1 pkg. regular yeast
1 tsp. white sugar
1 stick butter, room temp.
3 Tbsp. sugar (white or brown)
2 large eggs, room temp.
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. lemon rind (optional)
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp. salt (I use Pink Himalayan salt.)
Sift flour, measure and add salt. Set aside.
Heat milk to 100-110º. Remove from heat and add yeast and 1 tsp. white sugar. Mix well and let rest 5-10 minutes to make sure yeast is alive.
Cut butter and put in mixing bowl. Using a hand or stand mixer, blend butter until creamy. Add 3 Tbsp. sugar, mix well. Add eggs one at a time mixing after each, then add milk and yeast mixture. Blend well.
Change beaters to bread dough hooks (if you have them). Add flour and salt mixture by the half cup and mix well after each addition.
You will have a very soft dough. I leave the dough in the bowl for the first rising without kneading. Cover bowl with cotton cloth or plastic wrap till double in size.
After first rising, punch down, then move to lightly floured area and knead 4-5 times.
Place dough in the buttered bowl.
Make sure top of bread dough is buttered. At this time, you can refrigerate dough for an hour or overnight.
Cover and let rise till double in size for the second time or let it rise in fridge overnight.
If you refrigerated the dough, pull it out and let it return to room temp.
Turn dough into lightly floured area and roll or pat to a rectangle about 15” long by 5-6” wide.
Melt 1/2 -1 stick of butter and use a pastry brush to brush butter onto dough.
Sprinkle with about 1/4-1/2 cup sugar (brown or white) and cinnamon.
Roll dough up and then place on baking sheet in a circle or oblong.
Allow it to raise again until almost double in size.
Before baking, you can brush with an egg wash (1 egg and a Tbsp. of water).
Bake at 350º for 30-35 minutes or until nicely browned.
Cream cheese Icing
1/2 stick butter (room temp)
4 oz. cream cheese (room temp)
1 cup sifted powdered (confectioners) sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Using a mixer, blend butter and cream cheese together.
Add vanilla. Mix well.
Add sifted confectioners sugar and mix.
After King Cake is cooled, ice with cream cheese icing.
Sprinkle with purple, green and gold colored sugar.
Tuck a plastic baby or large bean in bottom of cake.