DURING the Republican convention here, local bakers have rolled out a specialty item called Kings' Cake, a confection usually available only during the Mardi Gras season in January or February. Pat Dansky of Joe Gambino's Bakery says the bakery sells about 175,000 cakes during the Mardi Gras season. For this first-time, out-of-season baking, she estimates that Gambino's may sell anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000.
``Ya'll are baking Kings' Cakes?'' is the excited response she quotes from many of her local customers.
Beginning with Epiphany, or King's Day, Jan. 6, the first Kings' Cake is served at social gatherings. It's an oblong-shaped coffee cake, decorated with carnival colors of purple, gold, and green, and baked with a hidden favor inside. The person whose piece of cake has the favor inside (usually a tiny plastic doll) is crowned king or queen and then chooses his or her matching king or queen. This couple is then responsible for the next party, in the continuing round of celebration.
There are varying degrees of complexity in preparing a Kings' Cake. But one simple way, should you wish to be in on this week's Republican revelry, is to buy a ready-made bread dough, which can be found in the frozen food section of the grocery. Knead two loaves together, working in raisins or citron that have been soaked in orange juice to add sweetness. Arrange the bread, braided, in an oblong circle and then bake.
Of course, there is always the coffee cake mix approach, or the traditional Kings' Cake recipe below. There are even Kings' Cake mixes at the New Orleans airport.
Kings' Cake 1 package yeast 1/4 cup warm water 6 tablespoons milk, scalded and cooled 4 to 5 cups flour 1/2 pound butter 3/4 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 4 eggs 2 tablespoons melted butter Favor (plastic doll or bean) Light corn syrup Green, yellow, purple
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add milk and about 1/2 cup of flour. In a large bowl blend butter, sugar, salt, and eggs. Add yeast dough, and mix thoroughly.
Gradually add 21/2 cups flour to make a medium dough. Place in greased bowl, and brush with melted butter. Cover with a damp cloth, and allow to rise until doubled - about 3 hours.
Use 1 cup (or more) flour to knead dough, and roll into a (4- to 5-foot-long) rope. Form into an oval on a 14-by-17-inch greased cookie sheet, connecting ends of rope with a few drops of water.
Press the favor into the dough from underneath. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled - about 1 hour. Bake at 325 degrees F. for 35 to 45 minutes or until lightly browned.
Brush top of cake with corn syrup and sprinkle with alternating bands of colored sugar. (To color sugar, shake sugar with a few drops of food coloring in a covered jar.) Freezes well.