Monday, February 20, 2012

Preparing for Mardi Gras

Today is the Monday before Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday when many church-going folks decide to give up sweets. Thus - cake! 

And not just any cake. The traditional Mardi Gras cake, King's Cake. I have fond memories of heading down the block to the Gutowsky's house for the annual crawfish boil and King's Cake eating party. They were from Louisiana, where such things were normal. My mom is from Indiana. I quickly learned which state had a stronger food culture. 

Mrs. Gutowsky was an amazing lady, and she ran a hell of a Mardi Gras party. There were beads, toys, and plenty of delicious food. Most of it they cooked themselves, but not the cake. It was special. It came from a bakery. 

According to Wikipedia, King's Cake exists in many parts of the world, served typically between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday. But in the southern US, it is associated almost exclusively with Mardi Gras. And it always contains a small trinket (typically a plastic baby) that represents the Christ Child. Whoever got the trinket in their piece was supposed to host the party next year. We didn't play it that way though. Obviously.

Since Mr. S and I moved to California, I figured I'd be out of luck for Mardi Gras. I didn't realize how right I was. There is absolutely nothing happening! I was so distraught, I had to do something. 

This is a hybrid King's Cake. Not the traditional Southern one with pecans and raisins. I decided to give it a California twist with local fruits and nuts: apricots and pistachios!

First, scald the milk and add the butter. Then wait for it to cool....

In the mean time, foam the yeast in warm water and a tablespoon of sugar.

In a large bowl, mix the yeast, milk, eggs, sugar and salt.

Add freshly ground nutmeg. I mean it. It makes a huge difference.

Then add your flour, a cup at a time. 

Once it becomes too hard to whisk in, use your hands and turn out for kneading. Knead for 8-10 minutes, adding flour when too sticky to work, until smooth and springy.

Grease a large bowl (as my mother says "this is the only reason why you keep a jar of Criso around").

Gather the dough into a ball. Dump it, head first, into the greased bowl. Slosh it around and turn it over so that all sides have a thin coating of shortening. 

Let it rise until doubled (1 1/2 hours or so).

Now, for the filling. Pistachios, apricots, cinnamon, brown sugar...

...butter, flour, vanilla, and honey. Hey! Save some for the cake!

Roll out the dough into a 10x16 rectangle and cover with filling.

Using your fingers, roll up the dough jellyroll style, starting from the wide end.

Once rolled, form into an oval on a parchment covered cookie sheet. Snip around the circle, cutting down about a 1/3 of the way.

Let it rise one more time, then bake.

Once baked, stuff the Christ trinket into the cake. I'm using a brass button (because apparently you can't find little plastic babies at the grocery store).

Then drizzle with icing and sprinklize.

Oh, the beauty!

California King's Cake
Makes 1 cake
Adapted from All Recipes

1/2 c. milk
2 tbsp butter
1 package active dry yeast
1/3 c. warm water (110 degrees F)
1/4 c. sugar - 1/2 tbsp reserved
1 egg
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/3 c. chopped pistachios
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. dried apricots, diced
1/4 c. melted butter
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla

1 c. confectioners' (powdered) sugar
1 tbsp water

For the pastry - 
Pour milk into a small saucepan and scald (cook till there's little bubbles around the sides of the pan, and there's steam rising). Pull from the heat and add butter. Let sit till the mixture reaches room temperature. In a small bowl mix warm water, yeast, and 1/2 tbsp of sugar. Let sit 5-10 minutes until nice and foamy.

In a large bowl, combine the milk mixture, yeast mixture, remaining sugar, egg, salt and nutmeg. Whisk or beat until completely incorporated. Add flour, one cup at a time, beating after each addition. Turn out onto floured work surface and knead until smooth and springy (8-10 minutes), sprinkling on more flour as necessary. 

Grease up a large bowl. Gather your dough into a ball. Dump the ball into the bowl and swoosh it around, flipping it over. This gives the dough ball a thin layer of shortening all over, keeping it moist. Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise until doubled in size.

When risen, roll out the dough into an approximate 10"x16" rectangle. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

For the filling -
In a medium bowl, mix pistachios, apricots, flour, cinnamon and brown sugar.  Melt the butter and mix in honey and vanilla. Pour butter mixture over the sugar mixture and combine.

Spread the filling evenly over the dough. 

Roll the dough, jellyroll style, starting on the wide side. Move the roll to a parchment lined cookie sheet. Join the ends to create an oval. Using kitchen shears or scissors, snip a third of the way down the tube. Let rise again, for 30-45 minutes.

Slide into the 375 degree oven for 30 minutes. If using a Christ trinket, insert into the cake after removal from the oven.

While cake is still warm, mix powdered sugar and water for icing. Drizzle icing over the cake and top immediately with colored sugars.

*** If you want to make a more traditional King's Cake, substitute chopped pecans for the pistachios and raisins for the apricots.

Who wants the next piece?


  1. I object!!! Indiana has a fabulous food culture. It just involves things like pork roast with mash potatoes, gravy, green beans or corn on the cob (from the garden, of course) homemade applesauce, and a black raspberry pie with ice cream (the raspberries picked just that morning - just think of the mosquito bites--but it is worth it.)none of that hiding plastic babies stuff for us - we believe in serious food. And where did Orange Rolls come from?? Humph!!

    1. As an 18-year former Hoosier myself, I must comment on the food culture. I have been away for 9 years now and still dream of an Indiana tomato! Not the grainy, pink ones I've found in NC, FL, and CA, but a big, red, juicy, fresh-from-the-garden tomato that's so perfect you don't want to do anything else but slice it and sprinkle it with some salt and pepper. Or put those slices on some white bread with a little mayonnaise. How I love (and miss!) those tomatoes! And amazing sweet corn, as well. But I do not miss those darn casseroles! A Midwestern-er will throw a whole meal in a dish, bake it, and call it a casserole. NO THANK YOU! I left those casseroles in the heartland and never looked back!

      Megan- I must ask if you enjoyed the crawfish boils? When we lived in the FL Panhandle I TRIED to get into Cajun/Creole food since we had a lot of it in our area, as well. I was unsuccessful, though! And I couldn't stomach those crawfish! That gooey green/yellow stuff when you twist the head away from the tail is too much for me. I like king cake, though, and yours was great! Thanks for sharing!!