With recent emphasis on the Saints' Superbowl victory, Mardi Gras - the national holiday of Louisiana - will be even livelier this year. Parades, which began last weekend will continue until Fat Tuesday, will keep the party going in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and of course, Ascension Parish, as revelers eat and drink their way through the next week.
One holiday favorite to be found at many festivities will be King Cake, a decorated filled ring of twisted bread. The delectable pastry originated in western Europe in honor of the Three Kings who made their way to Bethlehem to honor the Baby Jesus on January 6, the 12th day after Christmas. French and Spanish settlers brought the cake to the New Orleans, where it became a favorite.
Though the recipe varies for the cake, it always contains a trinket, most often a plastic baby. Whoever finds the trinket in their piece is supposed to gain good fortune- and the honor or buying the cake next time.
In Ascension Parish, one of the biggest suppliers of King Cake is Ralph's Market in Gonzales. Located at the intersection of Hwy 44 and Hwy 931, Ralph's makes over 1, 000 cakes per day during Mardi Gras season. The enterprise keeps seven or eight employees busy rolling and stuffing the dough with fillings and the precious baby, and then baking and icing the finished product. This year, the crew has worked night and day to meet the demand of local shoppers who line up at the door to buy them up for their own celebrations and to ship out of town. Of course, this year, the store has also been extra busy preparing Who Dat cakes and Valentine's Day cakes.
Ralph's isn't sharing their recipe for the king cake, but here is a tasty variation from Chef Emeril Lagasse
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup warm milk (about 110°F)
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
4 1/2 cups bleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
4 cups confectioner's sugar
1 plastic king cake baby or a pecan half
5 tablespoons milk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Purple-, green-, and gold-tinted sugar sprinkles
Combine the yeast and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the melted butter and warm milk. Beat at low speed for 1 minute. With the mixer running, add the egg yolks, then beat for 1 minute at medium-low speed. Add the flour, salt, nutmeg, and lemon zest and beat until everything is incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball, and starts to climb up the dough hook. (If the dough is uncooperative in coming together, add a bit of warm water (110 degrees), a tablespoon at a time, until it does.)
Remove the dough from the bowl. Using your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly oil a bowl with the vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the filling. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and 1 cup of the confectioner's sugar. Blend by hand or with an electric mixer on low speed. Set aside.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers, pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spread the filling lengthwise over the bottom half of the dough, then flip the top half of the dough over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a cylinder and place it on the prepared baking sheet seam side down. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn't a seam. Insert the king cake baby or pecan half into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough.
Cover the ring with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free place. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Brush the top of the risen cake with 2 tablespoons of the milk. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
Make the icing. Combine the remaining 3 tablespoons milk, the lemon juice, and the remaining 3 cups confectioner's sugar in medium-size mixing bowl. Stir to blend well. With a rubber spatula, spread the icing evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the traditional purple, green, and gold sugar crystals, alternating colors around the cake.
The cake is traditionally cut into 2-inch-thick slices with all the guests in attendance.
YIELD: 20 to 22 servings
Ralph's all sold out? Also try these local suppliers of King Cakes.
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