Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Since January 6th, we've been in the celebratory season known as Carnival, which ends with Fat Tuesday, so I felt it was only proper to begin my chronicling of the history of assorted foods and spices by sharing what little I know of the history of that marvelous confection known as King Cake.

I confess I've never eaten a King Cake prepared by any baker other than myself in the US. I have eaten French and German King Cakes in assorted parts of Europe, made by some of the best bakeries of the time. That was decades ago.

I've never had a New Orleanian King Cake, but I hope to someday.

Anyway, that's getting off track.

The King Cake has perhaps one of the most scandalous histories, all caused by the lowly bean.

See, this bean is hidden in the cake, and the person (originally a child) who got the bean was crowned king for the day.

This sounds pretty tame, right?

But it traces back to some Greek Apollonian mysteries, where the king of the day is addressed as a child of Apollo and assumed the role of an oracle. The rites and rituals surrounding this were widespread, and often rather licentious.

The Christians limited their consumption of this King Cake with its magic bean to the Epiphany celebration following Christmas and replaced the real bean with a porcelain one displaying a face emerging from one end.

I think it would be so cool to have one of those beans.

Anyway, this porcelain bean eventually was changed to a crowned head, supposedly in honor of the biblical three kings, but in reality, the tokens often bore a striking resemblence to the current king of the country in which the cakes were consumed.

Until the French Revolution, that is.

The pastissiers who baked these royalist King Cakes were arrested in Paris as criminals - but the cakes continued to be baked and eaten.

So, what's a poor mayor who is being disobeyed on every side do? Why, he renames the cake!

He called it le Gateau des Sans-Culottes (Cake of Men-Without-Pants) - in honor of the beggars of Paris.

Somehow, that name didn't stick, and we still call it King Cake today.

Almost every European country has a version of it, and when we open the Cracked Cauldron, we'll make different versions of it, from the fruity British version to the colorful New Orleanian version.

My favorite, the one I prefer to make, is based off a sweet and fragile brioche dough, and filled with cream, coconut, pecans, and cinnamon, drenched in chocolate sauce and sprinkled with the Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow, and purple.

I learned to make this version in Switzerland, blending the best of French and German cooking, then added to Mardi Gras colors after coming to the US.

In my traveling youth, I attended the Mardi Gras celebration on Fat Tuesday twice, and became an avid collector of beads and coins - my bead collection far exceeding my coin collection.

Anyway, I'm getting off track again.

Over the years, the celebration around the King Cake has tamed down. A lot. Instead of being hailed as King/Queen for the day, whoever gets the token now has to buy the next King Cake.

In our celebration of the King Cake, we hide several tokens: a crown for the King/Queen who gets to choose the party music and lead the games at Mardi Gras - and we let them march at the head of our little parade; a heart for the Lord/Lady of Misrule, who can overset the entertainment choices and mock the King/Queen; and the baby for providing next year's cake.

Back before we started sharing our King Cakes with others, it was just the family parading, which made it very small, and since our house is built on a circle pattern, it made it easy to parade indoors if it was cold and rainy.

Of course, now we share the King Cake with a larger group of people...and hope to share it an even larger group. Soon.

I'll be making a King Cake this weekend, and will post a picture of it, so you can at least see what you're missing.

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