Monday, February 23, 2009

A Taste of Mardi Gras

I just returned from a trip to New Orleans so please enjoy a series of Nawlins and Mardi Gras themed posts. I discovered a newish sweet shop on Magazine Street that inspired this post on King Cakes, though the picture above is not one of their delicious confections. More on the shop in the days to come.

The “modern history” of the King Cake began in 12th century France when the cakes were baked on the eve of January 6 to celebrate the Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child. A single token was hidden in the cake as a surprise for the finder. This tradition was not invented to celebrate the Epiphany, but was instead an adaptation of a pagan tradition.

The more ancient history is believed that in pre-Christian Western Europe the pagan Harvest celebrations involved a sacrifice ritual of the “sacred king.” How was this unfortunate chap selected? Well this is where the cake comes in. Several men of the tribe, would eat of a cake in which a coin or bean was placed prior to baking. Whoever got the slice that had the coin or bean was the chosen one and was treated like a king for the year, the catch was that at the end of that year he would be sacrificed and his remains returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful.

The custom came with French settlers to Louisiana in the 18th century and continued to be associated with the Epiphany. During the 19th century with the increasing focus on Mardi Gras the tradition seems to have shifted and for a short time became a weekly event between the Epiphany and Mardi Gras and determined who would host the next weeks party. It was also during this period that they began using a porcelain baby in lieu of the coin or bean as the baby hidden in the cake symbolized the difficulty that the three Kings had in finding the Christ Child and of the gifts they brought.

In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers, one of the major Mardi Gras crews, held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the Twelfth Night Revelers used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the Twelfth Night Revelers now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake's lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you're on the court; gold is for the queen.
Unlike the French version of the cake - la galette des rois - still served for epiphany which is round without a hole in the middle, the king cake is an oval-shape with a large hole in the middle. The dough is basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon. The dough is rolled out into a long tube then shaped into an oval with the ends twisted together to complete the shape. This twisting is also a convenient place to put the baby if one wanted to increase one’s odds of finding it. The cake is then baked, and decorated with simple purple, green, and gold granulated sugar, the colors of Carnival.

No comments: