So you’re in town visiting for Mardi Gras. You grab a few throws, down a few corn dogs, maybe take in a museum tour, but in restaurant after restaurant, bakery after bakery, you keep hearing about King Cake.
Indeed, if you are not from the stretch of coastline that crowns the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida, you have good reason to take interest. It is a regional confection that remained fairly standard in its preparation until about 20 years ago, when variations on a theme sparked a powder keg of a trend that had every bakery from Houma, Louisiana, to Destin, Florida, attempting to place their personal stamps on King Cakes, all in the name of “making them better.”
Truth is, you don’t have to “Make King Cake Great Again.” It’s always been great. How great each style is would be subject to opinion. You just have to make something that actually qualifies as King Cake in your region, and the region I know best would be from New Orleans to Mobile.
So what is it that qualifies something to be a King Cake? Other parts of the world have celebrated the Epiphany with King Cakes for centuries, some as simple as French bread with icing. The modern King Cake was more than likely brought here by colonists from France and Spain, with parties in Mobile dating back to the 18th century. The “cakes” were in honor of the three wise men, or kings, who brought gifts for the baby Jesus.
Epiphany marks this meeting of the Christ Child and is celebrated on the Twelfth Night, which is when we start seeing King Cakes in our stores and bakeries. Anything before that would be like eating red beans and rice on Friday; you just don’t. We keep serving them until the Ash Wednesday cut-off date, so a later Easter gives you a larger window of opportunity.
The cake to which we have grown accustomed is actually a lot closer to bread than what most consider cake. It’s usually a brioche-type dough formed into a circle, sort of like a crown. You have to proof it and proof it and all those other things that you needn’t do with cake batter. Globally the second most popular would be a puff-pastry style, but we don’t allow that over here.
We usually fill it with something, be it cream cheese, fresh fruit or preserves and often cinnamon is involved. But to be an authentic Gulf Coast King Cake you must have the three-colored sugar sprinkled on glazed topping. Some guess the purple, green and gold stand for the gold, frankincense and myrrh, but really that isn’t the case. These are the colors of Mardi Gras supposedly created in 1872 in New Orleans by the Krewe of Rex.
Purple stands for justice. Green is for faith. Gold represents power.
Now, in the modern world we use a plastic baby Jesus (cue the “Cool Hand Luke” soundtrack), but in days of yore there may have been a bean or pea hidden in the cake before slicing. If you get the baby Jesus, the next King Cake party is on you.
That’s it. That’s how we do the King Cake celebration down here. Differences from cake to cake largely depend on the filling. It wasn’t too long ago that filling was a sacred topic of conversation. Nowadays we have bakers willing to please everyone by filling the bready cakes with chocolate, coconut, pineapple and whatever you can dream up. There are now more fillings for King Cakes than there were for Hubig Pies (RIP), and frankly it’s a little annoying. But I’m not the cake police so let them do what they want. I just prefer something classic.
For me the consistently favored King Cake at my household is the beauty from Lighthouse Bakery on Dauphin Island. It was worth catching up with Mary Scarcliff, who has owned the bakery with her husband, Daniel, since December 1997. She was generous enough with her time to give me a bit of insight as to why I think her version stands out.
“We do everything from scratch. There are no preservatives or stabilizers. It’s just all natural ingredients from start to finish,” Scarcliff says.
With all the variations around I had to ask where she draws the line as to what is not a King Cake anymore. After a brief pause she answered, “It wouldn’t be right for me to comment on that. I myself am doing my own version. Ours is more like a giant cinnamon roll, rolled out and filled if the customer wants filling. If the customer wants amaretto cream cheese, it is real amaretto in there. If it’s strawberry you want, we use really high-quality preserves for the fruit.”
Going the extra mile seems to be working for the Scarcliffs. They stay busy Wednesday through Sunday keeping the island on a steady sugar buzz.
“This isn’t a cake that has been cut in half, filled and then put back together,” Scarcliff adds. “Every filling we do is hand-piped into the King Cake. You’ll notice ours rises well. It’s not as flat as others.”
True, the well-risen King Cake does make for an excellent presentation that is different from what you normally see in more mass-produced versions. If you’d like to try one for yourself, the phone number is 251-861-2253 (BAKE). Located at 919 Chaumont Ave. on Dauphin Island, they open at 6 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, closing at 3 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Sundays are an abbreviated day of 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Order fast. My suggestion is the amaretto, but you can’t go wrong either way.
Another impressive King Cake I was introduced to this year was from Flour Girls Bakery. I came across it in an odd way last week when I stopped into Butch Cassidy’s. I was there for chicken wings and fried jalapeño rings but left with a bellyful of King Cake when owner Roy Seewer forced a piece on me saying, “You’ve gotta try this.”
Now, I have known the inside of the Flour Girls Bakery for their amazing cupcakes but I’d not been exposed to their King Cake. Bready but moist, almost salty but sweet, this cream cheese version is worth the drive to 809 Hillcrest Road.
The fact that they have amazing King Cake is news enough. Even better is that they offer it in individual sizes, too. A measly $3 will get you the single serving but we both know it’s big enough for two. A small cake serves 6-8 people at $15, a medium can feed 15-20 at $25 and the large will serve more than 35 revelers at $35.
Though the most popular flavors are cream cheese, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and apple, the Flour Girls are eager to please and will gladly fill your cake with anything they have in the store. That’s easy to do when everything is made in-house fresh daily.
They usually have some available in the case, but to be on the safe side you may as well call and order at 251-634-2285. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Don’t forget to snag a box of cupcakes while you’re there, fellas. A dozen of those in your hand are better than any flowers or cologne.
The DIY King Cake
For those of you interested in making your own King Cake, I have done some research … lots of research, tasting and tasting until I am now ready for a salad.
Whether you fill the cake before baking or pipe in your filling like Mary Scarcliff does is up to you. Here is a recipe for the cake. You’ll need a good stand mixer with a dough hook.
• 2 envelopes of active dry yeast
• ½ cup granulated sugar
• 1 stick unsalted melted butter
• ½ cup of warm milk
• 5 egg yolks at room temperature
• 4½ cups bleached all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Combine yeast, sugar, melted butter and warm milk in stand mixer, beating at low speed for about a minute. Next, add the yolks and increase the speed to medium-low for another minute. Incorporate the flour, salt and cinnamon, then increase the speed to high.
Once the dough pulls away from the sides and climbs the hook you can shut it down. Using the vegetable oil, you may lightly oil a large mixing bowl. Remove the dough from the mixer and form it into a smooth ball. Place the ball into the bowl and turn it, oiling all sides. Cover it with a damp towel and let it proof for two hours. It should double in size.
At this point you should roll out the dough on a floured work surface into a large rectangle maybe 30 inches long. It would be at this point you would add the filling of your choice and flip the top half over the filling. Roll this cylinder seam side down on a baking sheet and form a ring. Again cover with the towel and let it proof until it doubles in size.
This cake will cook in about 30 minutes at 350 F. You can add your personal touches but for all that is sacred about Mardi Gras, please alternate the purple, green and gold-colored sugar on the icing!
I don’t care if it rains or freezes as long as you have your plastic Jesus. We insert him from the bottom when no one is looking, but after the cake is totally decorated. Food traditions are my favorite. They are a quirky part of what makes a culture a culture. Let us not slip into a boring slump. Let’s have a King Cake party!