At this often dreary time of year, it’s comforting to seek out activities and foods to brighten one’s mood and one’s home. In Hawley, we don’t have to go far to obtain an extremely bright (and extremely delicious) food right now. Wells Provisions in Charlemont is taking orders for King Cakes.
I first encountered King Cakes in graduate school. My roommate, Alice, was from Louisiana. She had a vast collection of Mardi Gras beads, and she and her family taught me about King Cakes.
These oval, tri-colored cakes are eaten from Jan. 6, Epiphany, until Mardi Gras, which will fall this year on March 1.
Like many Christian traditions, the cakes are actually a holdover from pagan times. The ancient Romans observed Saturnalia, their winter-solstice festival, by serving a cake in which a bean was inserted. Whoever got the slice of cake with the bean was king for a day.
The French and Spanish adapted the cake to mark the time between Epiphany (when the Wise Men are said to have found the baby Jesus) and Lent.
I asked Wesley Janssen, co-owner of Wells Provisions, about her King Cake recipe. She explained that over the past decade New Orleans, Louisiana, has seen an “explosion” of new and creative King Cakes.
She based her recipe on one from a Vietnamese bakery in New Orleans, Dong Phuong, she told me. Dong Phuong’s King Cake received a James Beard American Classics Award in 2018.
According to the James Beard Foundation, this award goes to restaurants that have “timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
The cake at Wells Provisions begins with a brioche dough combined with cinnamon and sugar. As she experimented with the dough, Janssen discovered that it worked best when allowed to sit for 24 to 48 hours.
To keep the cake from being overly sweet, Janssen created a cream cheese icing with just a hint of maple syrup “so it has a little New England touch.” The cake is topped with the classic Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold to signify justice, faith and power.
Wesley Janssen told me that the cakes have become very popular, even serving as birthday cakes for several local children and adults. “That brings us so much joy, spreading a little bit of New Orleans culture up here,” Janssen enthused.
Following Louisiana tradition, the cakes come with a plastic baby to represent the baby Jesus. The baby may be hidden inside the cake just before serving. Whoever finds the baby is king or queen for the day.
Janssen and her family, who moved to Charlemont last year from Louisiana, plan to spend the week of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “It is a big celebration in the street,” she told me. “It’s a free celebration, which is pretty awesome. It’s pure joy and happiness … All walks of life are out on the street celebrating together.”
Mardi Gras is often celebrated by Krewes, groups of people who band together for parades and balls. The Janssens are apparently “Star Wars” fans. They take part in the Krewe known as Chewbacchus and look forward to a Mardi Gras full of the Force.
King Cakes may be ordered from Wells Provisions via the store’s website. The cakes may be picked up on Thursdays and Saturdays through the end of February.
I don’t have Janssen’s recipe for King Cake so I’m providing one I made several years back. The filling leaked into the center of the ring of cake a bit, but it was tasty … if not quite so tasty as the version at Wells Provisions.
Happy Mardi Gras! Laissez les bons temps rouler….
Mardi Gras King Cake
for the cake:
2 packets yeast (do not use instant)
2 teaspoons sugar plus ½ cup sugar later
4 to 5 cups flour
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
the zest from 1 lemon (save the lemon to make juice for the glaze)
½ cup lukewarm milk
5 egg yolks (you will not need the whites)
¾ cup (1½ sticks) sweet butter at room temperature
for the filling:
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
for the glaze:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
the juice of 1 lemon
a little water if needed
food coloring as needed
Place the yeast and the 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl. Cover them with lukewarm water, and allow the yeast to proof for 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl combine 3½ cups of the flour, ½ cup sugar, the nutmeg, the salt, and the lemon zest. Stir them together thoroughly with a whisk.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour in the yeast mixture and the warm milk. Stir in the egg yolks, and combine the mixture thoroughly.
When the batter is smooth, beat in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Place the dough on a floured board and knead it, adding more flour as needed. Your dough may end up slightly sticky but should not stick to the board.
Knead the dough until it feels smooth, then knead it for 10 minutes more. Don’t be discouraged. This kneading makes the final cake puff up.
Place the dough in a buttered bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and allow it to rise until it doubles in bulk. This will take at least 1½ hours.
When the dough has risen, punch it down. Using your fingers, pat and stretch the dough to shape it into a long, narrow rectangle, at least 24 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide. Let the dough rest while you beat together the ingredients for the filling.
If you want to, place a quarter or a bean in the middle of the dough to stand in for the baby Jesus. Gently spoon the filling down the center of the strip of dough. Fold the edges up over the filling to form a cylinder that encases the dough.
Pinch the edges together to seal the filling as well as you can. Pinch the ends of the cylinder together to form a ring, and place it on a silicone- or parchment-covered baking sheet. Let it rise, covered, until it becomes puffy, about an hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bake the King Cake for 25 to 35 minutes, until it is golden brown. Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool completely.
For the glaze, beat together the sugar, vanilla and lemon juice, adding a bit of water if needed to make the glaze thick yet pourable. Divide the glaze in three, and color the three parts purple, green and gold. Drizzle them artistically over your cake. Serves at least 12.
Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.