When I lived in Alabama, my students introduced me to King Cake. During Carnival season, they would take weekend road trips to Mobile or New Orleans and come back laden with beads and occasionally, a King Cake, which they would bring to class. And so, as we read Kate Chopin's startling, heart-wrenching novella The Awakening, set in New Orleans and Grand Isle, we would munch on the cinnamon scented and brightly bejeweled cake, soaking up Creole culture.
The history of King Cake is as intricate and layered as the braids of the cake itself, stretching back through the Catholic church to Roman times--perhaps Saturnalia, as wikipedia suggests, or a more ominous connection to ritual human sacrifices as this website suggests. Either way, the traditional cake is a simple coffee cake/bread, sometimes filled with cinnamon and brown sugar or candied fruits, or nothing. The authentic insert is a bean, coin, or plastic baby to either represent the Christ child who was honored with the King's Day Cake (Epiphany) or to crown whoever found the trinket King (or Queen) of the day.
After moving back to the Midwest, I considered making a King Cake, since no one seemed to know what it was. In Michigan, the Fat Tuesday treat is Pascki, a jelly or cream filled donut of Polish descent. I always waited too late and didn't have enough time to make the brioche base. Not so this year. I planned ahead a bit, and spent the last few days creating this cake.
I searched the internet for recipes and settled on this one by Burt Wolf (of PBS travel show fame). I started the dough on Sunday, let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and last night fashioned and baked the bread. My dough was so soft and stretchy, the long, cinnamon filled ropes seemed to stretch into infinity as I braided them into a rather messy mass.
The bread baked and cinnamon filled the house, and spilled out of the ropes.
After the bread cooled, I brushed it with a simple sugar and confectioner's sugar glaze, and then added the traditionally colored sprinkles:
Green for Faith
Gold for Power
Purple for Justice
I couldn't find purple sprinkles anywhere, but my friend M, a native of Louisiana, told me to dye regular sugar with food color, which worked splendidly.
The cake is now packed up and ready to take to work to share with friends and colleagues.
And I am more excited than before to travel to New Orleans in April for the Popular Culture Conference--I can dream of a warm, humid, afternoon at Cafe du Mond, sipping cafe au lait and eating Beignets, catching up with old friends, and leaving with powdered sugar stuck to my sweaty arms as I walk and drive through new New Orleans.
"There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day." Kate Chopin, The Awakening