Alison Rold is Assistant Production Manager in EDP and she is a fearless bread baker.
Many years ago, before the birth of the Internet, a friend of mine told me that he was delivering a lot of king cakes from New Orleans. I had no idea what a king cake was, but I was intrigued, thinking maybe it was some elaborate sheet cake. I went to the library and found a book with a picture of one. Then I hunted down a king cake recipe in another book. It didn’t look like a cake at all. It looked like a crown, and was a big circle of iced sweet brioche dough, colored with purple, green, and yellow sugars. I’ve always liked baking, so I decided to make one and bring it to work as a surprise.
The evening before Fat Tuesday I made and shaped the dough, baked it, frosted it, and, following the recipe instructions, dribbled a lot of different food colorings straight from the little bottles onto the white icing. I thought about it before I did it because it seemed like a rather intense use of liquid food coloring, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. When I was finished, it looked a bit like a coral-colored snake. I wish I had taken a picture of it. I stuck a coffee bean in the bottom of the circle of sweet yeast bread, brought it into work, set it by the coffee urn, and announced that it was a king cake to celebrate Mardi Gras. I cautioned everyone to watch for the coffee bean so no one would choke. I said that it would be considered an honor to find the bean, and finding it would make you king for the day, though tradition also dictates that the finder would have to host the next Mardi Gras party. Because there was only one cake, it disappeared in less than an hour.
The next year I baked another king cake and did a better job of it, with proper Mardi Gras–colored sugars. People started asking me how to make one. They thought that they might try baking their own the following year. By then I had different recipes and some tiny plastic babies to make it more traditional. Over the years more and more people took a chance and brought in their own versions. We found beads and masks and better king cake collectable dolls from New Orleans, and every year the table looked more festive. Here at the Press, Fat Tuesday has become as anticipated as the other traditional holidays.
Mardi Gras will be here soon. Now there are hundreds of king cake recipes and photos available on the Internet. And even though there have been many changes at the Press since that first king cake, with staff coming in and going out, a number of us still bring king cakes to celebrate Mardi Gras day. It’s one way to add color and flash to the deadliest part of the winter in our part of the country. I think we may need it as much as those who started the festival.