Mardi Gras, that fabulously loose expression of Christian piety, is soon to rise again, and nowhere quite as famously as in the city of New Orleans.
Leading up to Fat Tuesday—the calorie-filled day before Lent—local Mardis Gras indulgences are legion and legendary: booze, beads, debauchery, and of course, cake. At the heart of any Mardi Gras celebration, alongside deliriously gaudy, bead-spewing parade floats, one will find the King Cake, a chintzy confection celebrants go crazy (crazier?) for.
Historically served after the Epiphany, the cake sparkles like a crown, with green, gold, and purple sugar dusted across a layer of white icing that’s draped over twisted, cinnamon-laced dough people have been known to tear into by the fistful. Inside, a plastic baby Jesus awaits discovery by a lucky glutton who is then made royalty for the day. The cake’s not as fancy or flaky as Galette des Rois, one of its refined relatives (of which there are many), but it certainly is the most fun.
At the height of Mardi Gras, line-ups at bakeries are rivalled only by line-ups for bathrooms. King Cake is obligatory—the only question is, which queue should you join?
At the height of Mardi Gras, line-ups at bakeries are rivalled only by line-ups for bathrooms.
Traditionalists swear by Manny Randazzo, a sugary staple since 1965 known for its textbook, touchstone King Cake. The family bakery only augments its classic recipe with one variation—a version injected with cream cheese, partially justifying it as a sweet breakfast option (not that we think you need an excuse to eat cake for breakfast).
Other bakeries are bolder with their individualized riffs on the classic. At Sucré, for example, the bakery’s Danish pastry gets a cinnamon fix, of course, along with a layer of creole cream cheese (a sweeter take on the conventional spread with a bit of cottage cheese character in the mix). Called “The Sucré King Cake”, it wins points for its extra touch of bling: powdery, edible glitter is brushed onto fresh icing for a glamorous, metallic finish.
Meanwhile, at Willa Jean, chef Kelly Fields scraps the rainbow palette for her darker, richer King Cake. She folds brioche with fine, caramelized milk chocolate and espresso, braiding the dough into a precious knot that most eaters will happily untangle. As there’s no baby Jesus hiding between its layers, it’s perhaps best suited for those who believe in chocolate as a religion unto itself.
This year’s celebration welcomes a newcomer to the block party as well. Shaya, one of the buzziest restaurants in New Orleans—located right at the heart of the parade route—blesses the city with its babka version. Created by Shaya’s new pastry chef, Bronwen Wyatt, a Cinnamon Babka King Cake is a swirl of both pastries topped with sea salted caramel glaze. Though still formed into a ring, there’s no miniature messiah here, either. However, Wyatt adds a new token to the fold: a plastic pomegranate.
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