As the Berkshires and Southern Vermont prepare to celebrate Mardi Gras, a royal treat awaits those who indulge during "Fat Tuesday" next week, the eve of the Lenten season.
King cake, popular in New Orleans and other regions of the southeast U.S., may be found locally at some bakeries and church gatherings. The Mardi Gras king cake is a variation of the French king cake traditionally served on, or leading up to, the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorated on Jan. 6 to mark the Magi (three Wise Kings) visiting Baby Jesus.
"Every celebration has a food tradition and Mardi Gras happens to have this yeasty, buttery cake," said Katie Wilson, spokeswoman for King Arthur Flour, a supplier of baking goods and cookbooks based in Norwich, Vt.
"It's another way to add to a celebration during a dull time of year," added pastry chef Andrea Wadsworth of A.W. Confections in Lee, Mass.
The king cake now in season is yeast-based and is decorated with icing of the three primary colors of Mardi Gras: purple, representing justice; green, for faith; and gold, for power. It's usually fruit-filled and, like the Epiphany king cake, may have a replica of the Baby Jesus hidden in its middle.
Patisserie Lenox co-owners Jean Yves and Yulia Bougouin, who have baker cafes in Lenox and Great Barrington, Mass., and Hudson, N.Y., are more geared to the Christmas season king cake, but can do a pre-Lenten one upon request.
"If we know what it is, we bake it," said Bougouin.
For amateur bakers, using yeast can be intimidating, but worth the effort, according to Bougouin's husband.
"For someone at home, [king cake] is much easier than making croissants," Jean Yves noted.
"If you're trying to use yeast for the first time, a king cake is a good place to start," Wilson added. "The process of drying yeast has improved exponentially and is now rarely a problem."
Several years ago, King Arthur Flour began selling a king cake kit for novice bakers and those lacking the time to make one from scratch.
"[The king cake] tastes like the one I would buy at a bakery, but I made it myself and saved some money," said Wilson, who has used the kit herself.
The King Cake Kit is available at King Arthur Flour's retail store in Norwich, Vt., via catalogue or online at kingarthurflour.com.
While Mardi Gras king cake is Danish-like, the Epiphany king cake (galette des rois) is traditionally a French puff pastry with almond creme, which, when served the rest of the year in France, is a pithivier, according to Rachel Portnoy, pastry chef and co-owner of Chez Nous, the French bistro in Lee, Mass.
"It's not sweet, just like a tea pastry, very simple," she said.
Portnoy served the dessert for the first time Jan. 6, which this year happened to fall on one of their themed-dinner nights, held every Thursday from January into May.
"It was a discovery for the 30 people who were here and they loved it," she said.
Mardi Gras King Cake
Recipe courtesy of King Arthur Flour
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
2 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
3 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Baker's Special Dry Milk or nonfat dried milk
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil, or 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
8-ounce package cream cheese
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil
2 cups confectioners' sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons, plus 1 to 2 teaspoons milk, enough to make a thick, but pourable glaze
Yellow, purple, and green fine sparkling sugars
Candied red cherries (optional)
Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment.
To prepare the dough: Using a stand mixer, electric hand mixer or bread machine, mix and knead all of the dough ingredients together to form a smooth, very silky dough. You may try kneading this dough with your hands, if desired; but be advised it's very sticky and soft.
Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 1 hour. It'll become puffy, though it probably won't double in size.
Transfer the soft dough to a lightly greased work surface. Pat and stretch it into a 24x6-inch rectangle. This won't be hard at all; it's very stretchy. Let the dough rest while you prepare the filling.
To prepare the filling: Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour until smooth, scraping the bowl once. Add the egg and flavor, again beating until smooth.
Dollop the filling down the center of the long strip of dough. Then fold each edge up and over the filling until they meet at the top; roll and pinch the edges together, to seal the filling inside as much as possible. Don't worry about making the seal look perfect; it'll eventually be hidden by the icing and sugar.
Place the log of dough onto the baking sheet. The dough will be very extensible, i.e., it'll stretch as you handle it. So pick it up and position it on the pan quickly and gently. Pinch the ends together.
Cover and let rise for about an hour, until it's puffy. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while the dough rises.
Whisk the reserved egg white with 1 tablespoon water, and brush it over the risen cake.
Bake the cake for 20 minutes, then tent it lightly with aluminum foil. Bake it for an additional 30 minutes, until it's a rich golden brown.
Remove the cake from the oven. After about 15 minutes, transfer it from the baking sheet to a rack to cool.
To make the icing: Beat together all of the icing ingredients, dribbling in the final 2 teaspoons milk until the icing is thick, yet pourable.
Pour the icing over the completely cooled cake. While it's still sticky, sprinkle with alternating bands of yellow, purple, and green sugars. Space candied cherries in a ring around the top.
Yield: 1 loaf, about 16 servings.