Monday, February 23, 2009

"Laissez les bons temps rouler"

Cake may not be the first thing you think of when you hear the words "Mardi Gras." More likely, you have visions of raucous debauchery heralding the last hurrah before 40 days and nights of oh-so-exciting Lenten deprivation. But in addition to beads and booze, King Cake is another (albeit more tame) New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition.

There are a number of legends tracing the history of King Cake all the way from the pre-Christian times when the cake helped decide who would be sacrificed to please the gods for that year. (Ooh, maybe this cake is more exciting than I thought) Ultimately the tradition was one of many adapted to Christian worship and its descendant--the French Galette des Rois--was the inspiration for the cake prepared all across the southern U.S. today. There are also many traditions associated with the cake, like including an uncooked bean, nut or even tiny baby representing the baby Jesus hidden inside. If you get the piece with the hidden treasure you'll have good luck for the rest of the year as well as the duty of baking next year's King Cake (much improved from the pagan times when this meant you'd be the lucky villager sticking your next out for the gods).

Though the French still use the Galette des Rois to celebrate Three Kings' Day on Epiphany, the American custom that developed from French settlers in New Orleans also kicks off on Jan 6th but continues all the way through Fat Tuesday (this year on February 24), culminating on Ash Wednesday. This drawn-out celebration timeframe wasn't the only change. Whereas the French version of King Cake uses flaky puff pastry and marzipan filling, the French-American version developed as an iced, yeast-based bread covered in green, yellow and purple sugars (the official colors of Mardi Gras representing justice, faith and power). Leave it to the American influence to turn a French almond-paste galette into a coffee cake doused in garish colored sugar and stuffed with a tiny plastic baby Jesus. Oh well, it's still an improvement over human sacrifice.

Most recipes you see for King Cake are yeast-based doughs but, frankly, I don't have that kind of time. I've created an uber-lazy person's King Cake and thought it was just as tasty. You can make it even easier by substituting canned pie filling or just cinnamon sugar for the nut filling I have here. If you'd like to try the traditional New Orleans King Cake, try one of these.

Easy Mardi Gras King Cake
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup raisins
2 Tbs packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbs butter or margarine, melted
1 Tbs half and half, or milk
1 Tbs honey
1 egg
1 (8 oz) can Pillsbury refrigerated crescent rolls or dough sheet

1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 Tbs milk
1/8 tsp almond extract

Yellow, green and purple sugars for decorating
*note, you can also make these yourself using granulated sugar and food coloring

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease cookie sheet or line with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except dough; set aside.

2.If using crescent rolls: On lightly floured surface, unroll dough into 1 large rectangle; press or roll into 14x10-inch rectangle, firmly pressing perforations to seal. If using dough sheet: On lightly floured surface, unroll dough; press or roll into 14x10-inch rectangle. Spread nut mixture evenly over dough to within 1/2 inch of long sides.

3. Fold dough in half lengthwise pressing edges to seal in filling. Use hands to squeeze dough into a log and roll gently. Place on cookie sheet, bringing ends together to form a circle; press to seal ends together.

4. Bake 20 to 30 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cover loosely with foil if bread is browning too quickly. Cool 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in small bowl, mix icing ingredients until thin enough to drizzle and smooth.

5. Ice cake and decorate with sugars--don't worry about being messy, this cake is meant to signify the craziness of the celebration! Best served warm. (Oh, and this is when you insert the plastic know, in case you have one of those just laying around)

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