Celebrate Mardi Gras with King’s Cake

La Galette des rois

True confession time…I’m embarrassed to admit it, especially since all of my daddy’s family are native Louisiannians, but I’ve never been to a Mardi Gras celebration in all my 46 years. Not even so much as one strand of beads collected, although my husband says I’m a good candidate to earn hundreds…God love him! No Twelfth Night Ball. No Fat Tuesday party. No Rex, no Bacchus, no Venus and no Zulu. Most importantly for a chef, no King’s Cake.

Not familiar with King’s Cake? Me either. I mean, I’d seen images of the glorious confection. Layers upon layers of pastry, stuffed with cream cheese, raisins and nuts, then braided into a big round cinnamon roll type concoction, baked to golden brown perfection and then topped with icing or sugar of purple, gold and green. This over-the-top dessert seemed right up my alley. I decided to do more investigation since Fat Tuesday is next Tuesday, Feb. 21.

First of all, I wanted to know more about Mardi Gras and the tradition of the King’s Cake. Where did this tradition come from? Surely it’s not just a big ‘ol party for party’s sake. I knew Mardi Gras began in France and had some religious significance, but I wasn’t really clear on the details.

It turns out Mardi Gras actually means “fat Tuesday.” Here’s where it gets a little complicated with a blend of some Pagan and Christian rituals. Fat Tuesday is a day 46 days before Easter and one day before Ash Wednesday, the last day prior to Lent…a 40-day season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations, which ends on Easter Sunday. The origin of “Fat Tuesday” is believed to have come from the ancient Pagan custom of parading a fat ox through the town streets. Such Pagan holidays were filled with excessive eating, drinking and general bawdiness prior to a period of fasting. In medieval times, the parade or carnivale was a time for average citizens to party along with the untouchable nobility and even royalty. Kings and queens would throw coins to their subjects from the parade route.

But it doesn’t end there.

Even more confusing, the tradition of the King’s Cake actually has to do with what’s called the Epiphany. This is traditionally Jan. 6 and is supposed to be representative of the visit of the Magi and presentation of gifts to the baby Jesus. In France, the cake is called “galette des rois,” which means “wafer of the kings.” A bean, which is called a favé or small porcelain baby is baked inside. The person who finds it becomes the king or queen for the day and must then name a queen or king partner.

Why the purple, green and gold?

These colors were actually chosen by the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, who played the first King Rex in the very first American Mardi Gras parade in 1872. The purple was to symbolize justice, green for faith and gold for power.

So, I know it’s kinda geeky of me, but now that I learned more of the details of Mardi Gras and background of the King’s Cake, I figured it was time to experiment with making one. I started with recipes for the kind you see in the grocery store, but the results were disappointing. Really not much better than the cellophane wrapped, who-knows-how-long-it’s-been-there, convenience store version of a cinnamon roll.

Then I came across a couple of recipes for authentic galette des rois. One really caught my attention from a  French Chef. It seemed like it would be a more refined version, with its puff pastry base and frangipane filling. It was delightfully light and delicate without being overly sweet. In France, you can find them in bakeries starting shortly after Christmas and up through Easter and they come decorated with an ornate gold paper crown perched on top for the finder of the small prize baked inside to wear during their reign as king (or queen). What fun! I’ve always wanted to be queen of everything.

I hope you will try a new Mardi Gras tradition for yourself next Tuesday, even if it’s only to wear your favorite purple dress or green blouse. As always, I look forward to hearing your comments and maybe even seeing a picture of your King’s Cake. And as they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” which means “Let the good times roll.”

Galette des Rois

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup ground almonds

2 eggs + 1 egg for painting

1 tablespoon rum (optional)

1 pound boxed frozen puff pastry

1 large dry bean or fève figurine

To make the frangipane, blend the butter with the sugar until well combined. Blend in the almonds thoroughly. Beat in the 2 eggs one at a time and then the rum if you are using it.

In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg.

Roll out half of the puff pastry into a round about 12 inches in diameter. Place it on a wax paper lined baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, paint the outer 1 1/2 inch circumference of the pastry with beaten egg.

Spread the frangipane in a round in the center of the pastry so that it just meets the painted on egg. Press the bean into the frangipane somewhere close to the outer edge.

Place the other puff pastry (rolled out into an equally sized round) on top of the first. Use the tines of a fork to press the edges closed. Brush the top of the galette with the beaten egg.

Use a paring knife to etch a pretty pattern into the top of the galette. Traditionally this is in a cross-hatch pattern, or concentric half circles, but you can make up your own pattern if you are feeling creative. Don’t cut through the pastry, just etch.

Cut a small hole in the center of the pastry to allow steam to escape. Place the galette in the refrigerator to cool for at least 30 minutes before baking. You can make it a day in advance as well – just be sure to keep it refrigerated.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place the refrigerated galette in the center of the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the top is dark golden brown. Serve warm.

Makes 8 servings.