Photos | LA Fotographee.
Indie cake-off winner Sara Cowley (in purple) with judges.
The Great King Cake-Off
Kelli Wright is taking a risk with her king cake.
She’s filled her version of the Carnival season staple with apricots, raisins, walnuts and marzipan, earthy ingredients often found in British desserts. Traditionally, Gulf Coast king cakes are made from a sweet yeast dough that’s filled with domestic confections like fruit jams and cream cheese, baked in the shape of a ring and then glazed and decorated with green, gold and purple sprinkles, the colors of Mardi Gras.
But according to Wright’s guinea pigs — patrons of the Fairhope Public Library, where she works — her unusual cake was “really different” and was poised to be a standout entry in the inaugural King Cake-Off indie baking contest on Feb. 8, a spinoff of a professional baking competition celebrating king cake in Mobile.
“All day [at my job] I get to answer questions and help people, and they’ve all been very supportive of my baking ventures,” Wright said. “I usually bring them up to the library to share, because it’s just me and my husband at home. We’re not going to eat it all ourselves!”
The pro version of the King Cake-Off commenced in 2019, a joint venture between The Mobile Rundown, an events promotional company, and Oyster Shell Strategy, an events planning agency. Together they are known as MobTown Events.
“We started the King Cake-Off because we saw a huge need,” said Brooks Conkle of The Mobile Rundown. “We had no idea why it didn’t exist already, and so we put it together and we launched it.”
For the event, commercial bakers from bakeries, grocers and restaurants produce traditional king cakes of various flavors and fillings, or non-traditional, king cake-inspired confections like ice cream. And then, over the course of an afternoon, pass out hundreds of bite-sized samples to more than 1,000 hungry attendees. Judges blindly sample the offerings and declare a winner.
Held last year at Azalea Manor, the event sold out. So, this year, they moved it to a larger venue, Government Plaza, and welcomed cake vendors from Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, as well. They also added the indie baker category.
“We found out people love making king cakes at home, but they don’t necessarily sell them at a business. So, we said, let’s have another fun competition inside the festival,” Conkle said. “Our goal is to grow this into a staple event, not just in Mobile, but on the Gulf Coast, kicking off Mardi Gras.”
Wright grew up in Daphne around “lots of women who were great cooks and great bakers,” and has spent her whole life eating king cakes. But she wasn’t an expert baker herself. It wasn’t until she got hooked on “The Great British Bake Off,” a highly technical yet good-natured baking TV program from the U.K., that she dedicated herself to the pursuit. She has spent the past year making show-stopping desserts like Battenberg cake, every week, and documenting it on her Instagram account, @bakethewrightway.
“I just wanted to have a reason to try new skills that I had never tried before, because most of the time when you bake it’s for an occasion like somebody’s birthday or Christmas,” she said. “It’s not very often that you just bake for the sake of baking.”
She learned how to do more complicated bakes and used her new skills to compete in — and win — The Great Mobile Bake-Off, a competition at the end of January, at Williams Sonoma, that was modeled after the TV show’s format. Riding high on that win and sugar rush, she signed up for the King Cake-Off.
“I already had a handful of yeasted doughs under my belt, so I was like, why don’t I try king cake? It can’t be that hard,” she said.
Local food blogger Amanda Gibson, of LemonBaby.co, served as the coordinator and as one of the judges for the indie baker contest, along with Juliet Hart of Yelp Mobile and Christopher Harress of AL.com. Gibson also hosted The Great Mobile Bake-Off and was a judge of 2019’s all-pro King Cake-Off.
“We had so many home bakers ask us if there would be a category for them to enter, so this year, the King Cake-Off made it happen!” Gibson said prior to the event. “King cake requires yeast, which can be temperamental, so it’s not exactly something a novice might readily attempt. I anticipate experienced and adventurous home bakers will rise (pun intended) to this challenge.”
By definition, the indie bakers in the 2020 competition could not own a bakery, bakery business or sell their goods for a profit. They would provide one traditional cake to the judges at the event, where it would be blindly tasted and assessed on flavor, texture, overall appearance, filling and topping. Judges would score each category from one to 10 and then add up the points to declare a winner.
Wright baked her raisin-filled cake Friday night and then iced and decorated it with tri-colored sprinkles the morning of the competition, when it was sufficiently cooled. She arrived around 10 a.m., passed her cake off to the judges and then wandered around the event floor, sampling professionally made offerings from 19 commercial bakers competing in the parallel contest. She was hoping to taste sweet victory by the afternoon.
But seven other home bakers dropped their king cakes off that morning for judging, as well. One was Sara Cowley of Mobile, who entered the competition at the behest of a friend. While she had always enjoyed baking and trying new, intimidating projects on the weekends, she had never participated in a baking event.
“I’m not an overly competitive person,” Cowley said. “That was one of the things that attracted me to this, because it wasn’t high pressure or face to face. You make it at home.”
She experimented with her cake dough, which she based on her all-time favorite, foolproof cinnamon roll recipe, for weeks. She tweaked the flour from bread to all-purpose. She undercooked it a bit to leave it gooey on the inside. She passed out samples to her in-laws, neighbors and friends — but not her co-workers at the health and hospice company where she works, because “the majority of my office is on the keto diet right now and I didn’t want them to get mad at me,” she said, laughing.
She even took a trip to New Orleans to sample various king cakes there. She settled on a simple cinnamon cake.
“I decided to nix the filling along the way,” she said. “I was so happy with the texture and sweetness of my cake that I thought the filling would make it too sweet. I decided to showcase the cake itself with a brown sugar-cream cheese icing and call it a day. A less is more approach.”
She also baked her cake Friday night and decorated it Saturday morning before handing it off to the King Cake-Off judges. Later that day, a few hours before the Pharaohs and Conde Explorers paraded through downtown, the judges convened with their results.
In the professional categories, Wonder Wife Bakery in Mobile (traditional), Cammie’s Old Dutch Ice Cream Shoppe in Mobile (non-traditional) and Warehouse Bakery & Donuts in Fairhope (first runner-up) took home awards. Gibson presented the indie trophy, a whimsical stack of non-edible MoonPies, Mardi Gras beads, crowns, king cakes and plastic babies.
“I was honestly blown away by all the contestants,” Gibson said. “It was such a great celebration of all things king cake to kick of Mardi Gras season. Christopher, Juliet and I ended up with eight delicious and completely different king cakes to judge. It was a very tight competition, but the winning cake was … Sara Cowley’s. It ticked all the boxes and she had the edge in appearance, for sure.”
All smiles, Cowley accepted her award and says she felt encouraged to enter into more baking contests in the future. While Wright didn’t win, she says the loss was bittersweet; she was able to workshop her out-of-the-box recipe and taste king cakes from all over the region. She’s inspired to try out some new flavor combinations at home, like raspberry and cream cheese, a crowd-favorite filling at the event.
“I’d definitely enter [again] next year,” Wright said. “I’ll probably come up with a different recipe.”
To stay updated on next year’s event, and sign-up to enter your own king cake recipe in the competition, visit kingcakeoff.com.
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