People report finding Jesus in the strangest ways; today, one of those ways might be in a cake. That’s because it’s Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, the last day to eat King’s Cake before Lent begins.
The King’s Cake accompanies festivities to commemorate the Epiphany, the day the Magi (interpreted by some to mean “kings”) arrived in Bethlehem and presented gifts to baby Jesus the twelfth night after his birth. The cake is a reenactment of Epiphany, with a bean or baby figurine baked into the cake to symbolize Christ and is eaten throughout Carnival festivities.
It would seem to be a safe assumption that the King’s Cake has its roots in Christianity; however, some trace it back further to an ancient pagan Roman festival. Held throughout the Roman empire, Saturnalia was a winter solstice celebration honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. In ancient times, fava beans were believed to be magical and also used for voting. Cakes were made to celebrate the harvest and, according to Larousse Gastronomique, “During the Saturnalia the “king of the day” was chosen by lot, using a bean concealed in a galette. It was only in the Middle Ages that this cake ceremony began to be associated with the festival of Epiphany.”
Since it only occurs once every 70,000 years, Thanksgivukkah will have to be left to the imagination, but if the Saturnalia/Epiphany mashup is any indication, bizarre and contradictory things can happen when holidays coincide, especially when it involves a pagan-religious combination. The fusion resulted in a raucous and hedonistic time filled with boozing, dancing, masquerading and gambling. All mixed together with a dose religion. The tradition of baking a bean into a cake carried over. It now signified the visit of the Magi but still stayed true to its pagan roots by retaining the tradition of electing a mock king. He became known as the King of the Bean because of how he was chosen and also as the Lord of Misrule due to the mayhem that occurred while he presided over Carnival.
During Carnival, hierarchical structures were turned upside down, roles were reversed and usual social order was suspended. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed the crowning and decrowning of the mock-king was central to all of this--a playful way to manipulate the everyday world. According to Bakhtin, the "primary carnivalistic act is the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king." This ceremony "is a dualistic ambivalent ritual, expressing the inevitability and at the same time the creative power of shift and renewal, the joyful relativity of all structure and order, of all authority and all (hierarchical) position. Crowning already contains the idea of immanent decrowning: it is ambivalent from the very start. And he who is crowned is the antipode of a real king, a slave or a jester; this act, as it were, opens and sanctifies the inside-out world of carnival."
All of this lead to a sense of being liberated from official or hierarchical social and behavioral norms. Needless to say, these acts were something the Church frowned upon but they eventually came to be condoned to an extent and were seen as a necessary period of fun and games before the fasting and abstinence of Lent.
Epiphany cakes and traditions were found throughout Europe--in England, it was known as a Twelfth Night cake, the Portuguese had the Bola-Rei, and the Rosca de Reyes could be found in Spain. In France, the King’s Cake is known as the Gâteau De Rois. First mentioned in the 1300’s, the cake was popular throughout the country. In an effort to remove the cake’s pagan connotations, the fava bean was replaced with a porcelain figurine of a crowned head, honoring the three biblical kings. Although this placated the priests, things got political for the pastry during the French Revolution, when any sort of association with kings was controversial. A ban was considered for the confection and, in 1794, the mayor of Paris urged the people to end the holiday and “discover and arrest the criminal patissiers and their filthy orgies which dare to honor the shades of the tyrants!” For the most part, his demands were ignored and he had to settle for renaming the cake Le Gâteau Des Sans-Culottes, which translates to “the Cake of the Men-Without-Pants” to honor to the lower class revolutionaries who were nicknamed for their fashion.
The cake survived the scandal and made its way across the ocean to the colonies of the New World. It’s believed the festivities of Carnival were brought to Louisiana by French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville. He led an expedition on behalf of the French crown and on March 2, 1699, he set up camp along the Mississippi River, 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans. It just so happened the next day was Mardi Gras, and so began its celebration around the Big Easy.
When it was introduced to New Orleans, the type of cake varied depending on the region in France the settlers were from. In northern France, the confection is usually a flaky puff pastry filled with almond cream; the cake served today is more typical of southern France--a sweet yeast bread shaped to form a crown. The New Orleans version has its own touches. The official colors of Mardi Gras--created in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex--purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power are usually added onto the cake as decoration.
Want to make one last King’s Cake before Lent? Here’s how:
(from My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh, via Epicurious)
For the cake:
1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry yeast
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup melted butter
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
For the icing:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
1 fève (fava bean) or plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking
1. For the cake, pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
2. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
3. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
4. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
6. Once it's doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing, while the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it’s a touch too loose, add a little more powdered sugar.
8. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.