King Cakes: a specialty for the Mardi Gras season

Baker Maurice Delachelle starts turning out King Cakes by the hundreds early in January in time for Twelfth Night and he bakes his last King Cake the day before Mardi gras, Fat Tuesday. By that time he has chalked up more than 2,000 of his delicious, luxurious, completely handmade cakes, a specialty for this Mardi gras season.

A King Cake is a coffeecake with a New Orleans accent. The size varies with the price, but the oval, double-horseshoe shape is standard.

Sometimes it is round like a giant doughnut but the top is always glazed and decorated with green, purple and gold-colored sugar.

The dough is essentially sweet and it ranges from being gooey and capable of being squeezed into a small pellet, like some store- bought, white bread, to rich and fulfilling as a brioche at the George Cinq in Paris.

Besides the shape, there is an ingredient that makes the King Cake different. It is a bean or small china or plastic doll, which has been baked into the cake. The one who bites into the slice of cake with the bean or doll is obliged to host a King Cake party the following week.

The traditions of King Cake celebrations go back to the paganism inherent in both French and English festivals. In France, the Twelfth Night of the Epiphany is celebrated with gifts.

In England, as early as the 9th century, a Feast of Kings was celebrated on January 6, with the selection of a king and the performance of mummers, games and other diversions. And it was in England that the custom of a cake with a bean in it was started.

The concept of the King Cake started in New Orleans in 1869 when a carnival organization, the Twelfth Night Revelers, staged their first gala, and the custom of King Cakes was born.

If you want to start your own King Cake party tradition, here are directions from Maurice Delachelle as it is made in his Chartres Street restaurant, La Marquise. La Marquise King Cake 5 eggs 1 pound bread flour 2 ounces granulated sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 package dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 1/2 pound butter (2 sticks) Colored sugar Apricot jam for glaze

mound flour on a kneading board. Make a large indentation in the center, put sugar and salt in the middle and mix with the flour with your hands.

Break 5 whole eggs into the hole in the center and mix all together, again with your hands, on the kneading board, kneading and mixing until the dough is soft, not sticky and of a bread-dough consistency.

Dissolve yeast in warm water, add and knead 5 minutes.

Add 2 sticks of butter, slightly softened and cut into small pieces. Knead until butter has been absorbed completely.

Set aside and let rise for 3 hours at room temperature; then punch the dough down and let rise a second time. Cover dough and place in the refrigerator.

After 5 hours, divide into two parts. This amount of dough makes two King Cakes. Take each part, put your finger in the middle and keep swirling it around so the hole gets wider and the cake is like a large doughnut, slightly oval if possible. After you have done this with both halves, place both ovals on a lightly greased flat pan, cover with a light wet towel and let rise for 2 or 3 hours. Bake in a preheated, 350 degree F. oven from 25 minutes to 1/2 hour , until light brown.

While still warm, glaze with melted apricot jam. Decorate with the colored sugars. You can dye granulated sugar with food coloring. Sliced almonds, cherries and glazed fruit can also be used to decorate.

It is important to use butter and not margarine, because the butter gives the necessary flavor. If you're using a China doll or dried bean, place one in each dough batch after swirling it into shape and before the rising and baking step. If you're using a plastic doll, do not bake it in the dough but insert it after the cake is cooked.

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