I don’t know when king cake first captured my fancy. I must have been fairly young, for I cannot recall ever not knowing their goodness. I do remember being very aware of the bakery from which it came. In South Mississippi it was a tradition to purchase your king cakes from Paul’s Pastry Shop (www.paulspastry.com) in Picayune, and of course this is when I got hooked.
Though they sell them year-round, I was only treated throughout the Mardi Gras season. Boy, were they good. To this day when someone mentions the word “Picayune” I think of two things: Pawpaw’s Camper City and king cakes.
I had my first bite (literally a bite) of the current crop this past weekend and thought it would be worth studying up on the rich history and traditions of the king cake for this issue, to get a better grasp on the reasons we hold this pastry so near and dear a couple of months out of the year. If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating king cake, you should know that they usually taste like a giant cinnamon roll with three stripes of colored sugar on the top.
Evolution has brought about cream cheese and fruity stuffing. In our neck of the woods there is a plastic baby inside the cake or provided separately for you to hide in the cake at the time of eating. The worst king cake I ever had was as good as the best cookie I ever had, and every one of these pastries can be enhanced by a tall glass of cold milk or a short cup of hot coffee.
Almost every grocer in our area will carry some kind of king cake as will bakeries and specialty shops, but I have my favorites. For now, let’s look at the roots.
Enter three wise guys
Most folks around here celebrate the Epiphany, which begins on the “Twelfth Night” after Christmas. For those keeping score, that lands on Jan. 6 and is the celebration of the Magi bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to their first meeting with the baby Jesus. This marks the beginning of our Carnival season and is where the symbolism of the cake comes into play. The oval-shaped ring is symbolic of the unity of faiths, which is the idea of the wise men, be they three or a dozen.
Three is a magical number so it usually wins out, and we have a trio of kings or wise men named Melchior the Persian scholar, Gaspar the Indian scholar and Balthazar the Babylonian scholar. Though the Mardi Gras colors are also three in number and this cake is in honor of these three kings, the color doesn’t necessarily represent each man. Purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold represents power. But let us not forget the entire presentation is about the three wise men.
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Of course the baby represents the Christ child. Over the years this has evolved from a representative dried bean inserted into the cake, then porcelain statues, to the present plastic baby we have today. Most come with Jesus on the side and the host of the party or purchaser of the cake will secretly hide the baby in the cake by lifting the cake and pushing it in from the bottom.
This creates a bit of drama as fingers are crossed, hoping to find the treasure. He who receives the piece with the concealed baby shall be lucky, but not too lucky. Tradition says this person is in charge of bringing a king cake to the next event. Imagine me robbing $60 from my kindergartner’s piggy bank because he almost inhaled the tiny pink savior. That probably wouldn’t go over too well.
True luck is to find the baby at the end of the season. No one will remember next year that you found the last baby. Suggest a new friend throw a king cake party. Problem solved.
For safety concerns, you must warn all participants there is indeed a potential piece of plastic in the cake, and they must not be litigious should a cracked tooth or pierced esophagus liven up the party. Have an attorney draw up a release every guest must sign.
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
If you order a king cake online, you may need to freeze or at least refrigerate the cake until the day of consumption. Places like Paul’s will send them undecorated with the necessary supplies to glaze and sugarcoat the pastry. They don’t tend to do well in the freezer after they’re glazed. It just doesn’t turn out pretty.
Leftover king cake can be stored on a cake plate with a lid and is great the next morning for a not-so-nutritious breakfast. But if you do have leftover king cake you aren’t doing it right.
I realize I can sometimes sound like a broken record, and that in this column I’ve written that my favorite king cake ever is the one from Dauphin Island’s Lighthouse Bakery. Miss Mary makes what I consider the best and it is a monster. Grab an extra-large just to be sure. You don’t want to come up short. Despite its size it will go fast.
These babies are made to order so you must call ahead. You will certainly enjoy one plain or filled. Options are strawberry or raspberry with or without cream cheese, or Amaretto cream cheese. My favorite is strawberry cream cheese.
Visit the Lighthouse Bakery at 919 Chaumont Ave., Dauphin Island, or call 251-861-2253.
Paul’s Pastry also carries the same flavors as Lighthouse Bakery, save the Amaretto cream cheese, but adds a few more. Apple, blueberry, cherry, cinnamon, lemon, peach and even chocolate can be had, with or without cream cheese. I have been eyeballing a peach with cream cheese but have almost talked myself into a blueberry.
Most of your grocery store varieties are sans filling. Don’t take this to mean it is an inferior product. Many don’t like the fruity innards and the richness of the cream cheese. Sometimes I prefer the plain. That hubbub isn’t necessary if you just need a quick nibble.
Broaden your search to find the many types of king cake in your area. Every one has its own story and flavor. Remember even the bad ones are pretty good. Enjoy them while you can, though. Come Fat Tuesday they seem to disappear.
Five coming to downtown
We knew the former location known as The Bull wouldn’t stay vacant long. Tuscaloosa fans are excited the void will soon be filled by Five Bar, and if it’s anything like the original we are in for a treat.
The menu is centered around the number 5 with five appetizers, five entrees and nightly specials five nights per week. Lots of gulf seafood, duck, chicken and steak adorn the menu along with lunches that include seafood gumbo, red beans and rice and the like. Five brunch items sound good enough to wish they served crab cakes Benedict and chicken and waffles five days a week. Five Southern beers, five standard beers, five reds, five whites if you count the rosé. I hope you are getting the point. It all sounds like something worth getting excited over.