In other parts of the world, these brightening days counting down from King's Day to Ash Wednesday and the moderation of Lent are known as Carnival, a time of immoderate revelry. In the United States, and especially in New Orleans, celebrants work their way through Carnival to the ultimate festivities on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls this year on Feb. 5.
If you lived in or near New Orleans, you might have already attended a few king cake parties before the big one next week. Here, a delicious braided ring of tender delicately spicy-sweet bread would be shared among those looking for luck.
The colors green, purple and gold sprinkled in sugar atop of the king cake represent faith, justice and power. Who can resist a little power? Who doesn't want to boost their faith or cry for justice every once in a while?
Sometimes a king cake conceals extra delights such as praline, fruit or cheese fillings. In times past, the recipient of a dry bean hidden in their piece got the ultimate honor: crowned king for the year in an updated version of the Saturnalian "Lord of Misrule." The good luck in this is the privilege to pay for the next party, or at least its king cake. The custom has evolved into the inclusion of a tiny plastic baby Jesus in most commercially prepared king cakes. What could be luckier than accidentally swallowing one of those?
Many cultures have their versions of king cake, prepared either for Twelfth Night or throughout Carnival. For example, Portuguese Bolo Rei is similar to French Bol Rei, an apricot-glazed, fruit-studded king cake that not only might be topped with a crown but also contains a well-publicized collectible trinket. Sometimes size matters, with the largest king cakes paraded through the streets in a competition between bakers.
There's not usually a big parade here in Juneau, but on Mardi Gras you can find people at least bedecked with beads, tossing back bourbon, listening to Dixie. If you want to get even more authentic, try offering a gilded coconut to a pretty woman and see what happens. Better yet, start a tradition and throw a king cake party.
To make your own king cake, use your favorite yeasted danish dough recipe with 4 to 5 cups of flour, being sure to add some extra butter to this pre-Lenten treat. When the dough has risen to twice its original volume, punch it down and divide in two. Freeze one half or make two king cakes.
Divide a half into three equal parts and roll into oblong forms. Allow these to rest, covered, for 15 to 30 minutes. Roll into thick coils, braid, and form the braid into a ring. Place the ring on a sheet pan lined with parchment. Apply some egg wash for extra shine and allow to proof up to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until browned and the ring comes up off the pan easily. Be careful though, this bread is not tough! While still hot, tuck a bean or a plastic baby into the braid, apply a liberal amount of white frosting and decorate with green, purple and gold sugar. Allow to cool, and then test your luck!
Andrea Mogil can be reached at PieintheSkyAK@aol.com.