Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is With That Plastic Baby Jesus Thingy?


"It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans." 
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Letter to Pamela Moffett, 9 and 11 March 1859
Mardi Gras King Cake
            
            Carnival. Mardi Gras. Shrove Tuesday. Whatever you call it, it’s the last hurrah before you give up your beloved enter delicious food item here, before Lent. If you aren’t religious, it’s even better. You don’t have to give up anything for one hell of a party.
            And what’s a party it is. While Brazil, Venice and New Orleans are best known for their blowout parades and balls, other countries (this means you, grumpy Protestant Europe) have more subdued traditions. But all of them have one thing in common: Food. Lots of it. The worse for you, the better. We’re talking lots of fat, sugar and eggs.
            In France and the UK, there are often pancakes (not the fat American kind – more like a crepe). Poland has Paczki, which is fried pastry dough with a pastry crème filling (not unlike a donut in concept – but far better tasting in reality).  Sweden has also has an almond crème filled pastry called semlor. And Italians also have fried pastries in various shapes and fillings including fritelle, sfingi, castagnole, etc.[1]
            And then there is King Cake. Named after the biblical three kings, King Cake makes it’s appearance after Epiphany (celebrating the day the Magi visits the baby Jesus) in January. In France, la galette des Rois comes in two varieties: one made of puff pastry with an almond paste (frangipane) filling popular in northern France, and another in the south, made with a brioche-type dough studded with candied fruits. Spain and Latin America also have a similar cake to the southern French one, except the dried fruit is on top, not within, the cake itself.
            And New Orleans? Well, just like America itself, the cake is loud and gaudy and heavy. Typically, the cake is an egg and butter enriched yeast dough with some kind of filling (cinnamon is the most common), shaped into an oval with purple, green and gold icing and sugar on top. 
            But what about this baby Jesus thing? The one thing that is common to all King Cakes is a little trinket representing the Baby Jesus baked inside the cake. Before the advent of plastic, a fava bean or a dried pea was the Baby (and still is traditional in Europe and Latin America). The US, being the US, we have plastic babies. And once again, the US being the US, you can’t bake it in the cake anymore without someone throwing a lawsuit. Thus, the plastic babies are still traditional, but usually left outside the cake or tucked inside right before serving.
            But why bother? Because if you get the little bean or trinket, you get the “honor” of supplying the King Cake the next year. Or even better, in Mexico you have supply tamales for Candlemas. And oh yeah, if you’re into royalty, you get to be called King or Queen for the day.
            All that effort for a made-in-China plastic non-recyclable tchotcke? Forget the baby. Stick with the cake. Happy Mardi Gras!

King Cake
2 tbs. butter
8 oz. sour cream or cream fraiche
6 tbs. sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 envelope dry yeast
½ tbs. sugar
¼ c. warm water (110F)
1 large egg
3-31/2 c. flour (do not use cake flour)
¼ c. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 tbs. butter, room temperature

Colored icing:
11/2 c. powdered sugar
11/2 tbs. melted butter
1-2 tbs. milk
dash of vanilla extract
green food coloring
yellow food coloring
purple food coloring  (or a combo of red/blue food colorings)

Colored sugar crystals in yellow, green and purple

1.     Take 2 tbs. of butter, sour cream, sugar and salt and cook over medium low heat, stirring often, until the butter melts. Take off stove and cool to 110F.
2.     Stir yeast, ½ tbs. of sugar and ¼ c. warm water in a large bowl to dissolve. Set aside for five minutes or until mixture becomes bubbly.
3.     Add butter/sour cream mixture and egg to yeast and stir thoroughly. Add in 1 to 11/2 c. of flour to start and then add the rest of the flour until a soft dough appears (it will be sticky!) and starts to pull away from the bowl (this can be done in an electric mixer).
4.     Knead dough on a floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic – about 8 to 10 minutes. Lightly grease a large bowl, and turn dough around to coat. Cover bowl with a clean towel and leave in a warm, draft-free place to rise, until doubled in size, about an hour.
5.     In a small bowl, stir cinnamon and sugar together. Set aside.
6.     Punch dough down and roll out dough into a 28 by 10 inch rectangle. Spread softened butter on top of dough. Sprinkle sugar-cinnamon mixture on top. With the long side facing you, roll dough tightly in a jellyroll fashion.  Seam side down, make into an oval shape, using a bit of water to seal the ends together and place on a non-stick baking sheet.
7.     Cover again with a clean towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, about 20-30 minutes.
8.     Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375F and bake 20 minutes until golden.  Cool for an hour before frosting and decorating.
9.     Icing: Stir together all ingredients, except for food coloring, until smooth (you may need to add more or milk to get the consistency you want). Divide the icing into three batches and add 1 drop of food coloring into each. 
10. To decorate cake: Drizzle colored icing in desired fashion (since I have a 6- year old, it’s the dump and spread method). While the icing is still wet, sprinkle colored sugars as desired. Let icing set before serving. Best eaten within 2-3 days (it won’t last that long though).


[1] Pastry debates, like pasta debates, are contingent upon region. As one of my friends, married to a woman from Bari said, “All Italian cooking is good, but we all know that Southern Italian cooking is best.” I suspect this statement is what has kept his marriage intact.
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