Wednesday, February 5, 2014
And Stones in Our Cakes
My brother Richard wrote last night saying that he didn't have any memories of donuts at school on First Fridays, but that he remembered King Cakes. So this post is for him. He mentioned the authentic king cakes, the ones that came from McKenzie's bakery, and he is absolutely right. There are many pretenders, but most of them are a case of what my mother would have called gilding the lily-- ruining a good thing by overdoing it. I was cautiously excited when I saw a boxed cake at our Whole Foods a couple of years ago that had a label that said King Cake. But the cake turned out to be heavily frosted with gloppy white sugar frosting and with sprinkles scattered over it, far too rich to eat as often as we ate king cake, which was for some of us almost daily during the season between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras.
The real New Orleans king cake was a simple brioche pastry, more like a breakfast sweet roll than a cake. It was always made in an oval, flattish on top, with sections that were sprinkled with gritty granulated sugar that had been dyed green, gold, and purple, the Mardi Gras colors. No frosting, no maraschino cherries, no sprinkles, no little plastic crown stuck into it announcing what it was. It came in a plain clear plastic bag with a twist tie.
Inside every king cake was buried a babyjesus, and it was exciting to get the baby! Sometimes if you got the baby at a party you had to choose a partner (your boyfriend or girlfriend) to be your king or queen, and the two of you had to host the next week's party. In families, the person who got the baby was envied by all. On the left are two slices of cut cake. It was considered highly unethical to peek at the underside of the cake before choosing your section. Often the baby had sunk to the bottom and could be clearly seen on the bottom of the cake. You had to make a blind choice. Can you find the baby's arm poking out of one of these two pieces of cake?
The two babies on the right represent two different varieties. Our parents had told us that During The War king cakes had had pecans or almonds in them instead of babies. This substitution was somehow connected to wartime austerity, but by the fifties, plasticky rubber babies were coming into fashion, and the older china babies were somewhat rare. It was thought that it was too easy to break a tooth if you chomped down on a china doll, so everyone chewed a little carefully until the doll surfaced. One year I swallowed a china babyjesus a few minutes after finding it in my piece of cake. I was around five or six years old and had been chewing on the doll to clean all the cake off of it while I waited to leave for a program at school. When I choked my dad grabbed me by the feet and held me upside down and shook me until the babyjesus flew out.