Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Marie-Grace and Cécile's Traditional King Cake

Spoilers: this was kind of a disaster, but it seemed like a good idea at the time!

Mardi Gras - or some variation thereof - isn't a tradition that's unique to New Orleans, but I think when the holiday comes up, it's the first place people think of. It's another floating holiday, marking the day before Ash Wednesday and thus the official start of Lent, or one of the Christian traditions I've always been really lousy about actually participating in. Since observing Lent traditionally means making some personal sacrifices and changing your diet to something considered simpler and less rich, that means cutting down on things like butter, sugar and basically everything else delicious.

Mardi Gras is a celebration of everything that Lent kind of isn't, and is hugely popular in New Orleans. People go all out with decorations, parades and parties, and pretty much any piece of media featuring the city involves it in some way - even The Princess and the Frog takes place near and on Mardi Gras, and so obviously the two girls from New Orleans couldn't be left out of that party.

I'm sorry to say that this was kind of a culinary disaster, but after the effort I put into making it, I definitely wasn't going to keep my attempt to myself! Let's just say King Cake turned out to be a lot harder to make than it seemed to be.

So despite Mardi Gras being a pretty significant event in Marie-Grace and Cécile's stories, I actually... don't own anything that really relates to it. It's no where near as big a deal in my neck of the woods as it is in theirs, and honestly? The parts of their collection (all of which are retired now) that relate to the character's adventures at two different Mardi Gras parties never appealed to me. Although the fairy costume is a significant part of their story, I just didn't like it enough to purchase it before it was retired, and I'm honestly not all that sorry I didn't think to add it to my collection. Because of this, they'll be modeling dresses that are the colors people usually associate with Mardi Gras, even if it's not something you'd wear to a costume ball.

It also apparently doesn't appear in the illustrations of either Meet Marie-Grace or Meet Cécile, which is very odd to me considering it's such a major if slightly implausible plot point. It's Marie-Grace's first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and she and Cécile are both invited to attend Mardi Gras balls. There's just one problem: the two new friends can't go to one together, because New Orleans is still a segregated society. Cécile comes up with a plan so that they both have a chance to visit each others' balls, although how no one can tell the difference between the two of them with just a fairy costume and a flimsy mask, I don't know.

Then again, my favorite superhero wears a domino mask, so I guess I can't judge too hard.

Anyway, unfortunately there isn't too much specific about traditions beyond attending the costume parties, dancing to music and eating delicious treats in either of their books. There is, however, some fun trivia included in the Looking Back section of Marie-Grace's book, while Cécile's focuses on the differences between New Orleans culture and the rest of the United States specifically in regards to race relations. The French brought the custom to New Orleans in the 1700's, and it marks the end of the season known as Carnival, which begins on the twelfth day after Christmas and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Another fun fact: poor MG and Cece also have the misfortune of having the hands down ugliest illustrations of any AG book series.

Anyway, one of the traditional things to eat during Mardi Gras is a king cake, which is basically a kind of cinnamon bread that I thought couldn't be too impossible to make. I'd never actually seen or heard of one before doing research for this post, but it reminds me a lot of the Three Kings Day cake my grandmother usually makes, in that both are desserts that are supposed to contain trinkets that bring good luck to whoever gets the piece with the hidden surprise. Apparently my grandmother's cake is actually pretty much a variation of this tradition, and I assume it has to do with her Italian roots. The traditional trinket in a king cake is a fava bean, but since the 1950's, people have used tiny plastic babies that are supposed to represent the baby Jesus. No offense to anyone reading this, but the idea of biting into a piece of cake to discover a plastic baby kind of terrifies me! My grandmother usually just sticks aluminum foil wrapped quarters into each grandkid's piece of cake to make sure no one's upset they didn't get one.

 I used a recipe from myrecipes.com, and initially, it didn't necessarily seem more complicated than some of the other stuff I've made, so I figured hey, what could go wrong?

As it turns out, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to being overconfident in the kitchen, especially when it involves bread apparently.

You cook sour cream, sugar, butter and salt together on the stove until it's nice and liquidy.

Meanwhile, get your yeast culture going. This one was easily the most active one I've ever seen while cooking, so I was very excited and expected this to be a dough that wouldn't stop rising.

This all gets mixed together in a stand mixer with some bread flour, and honestly, it was almost too much dough for my mixer to be able to handle. It got pretty sluggish and labored the more flour went into the bowl, and I was a little worried I'd kill the motor if I put more in.

Fortunately, nothing bad happened, and I was able to knead out the dough into a decent sized ball, which got set aside to rise in an oiled bowl with a towel over it as instructed.

And... it didn't rise. Not one bit. Again, I'm not sure what happened because I did everything I was told to, and the yeast obviously wasn't dead, but since the St. Lucia buns worked out okay even though the dough didn't rise, I decided to just go ahead with it in hopes that things would be okay this time, too.

You were supposed to have enough dough to make out two cakes, but my dough had barely enough to make one sheet of dough. You spread softened butter on it, and then dust heavily with cinnamon and sugar. This all gets rolled up jelly roll style and then gets folded into a donut shape, or a U.

It allegedly only needed to bake for sixteen minutes, and came out of the oven looking okay, so I frosted it and sprinkled on the traditional colored bands of sugar.

And then I set it aside to wait for my mom and brother to get home.

When I checked on it after they had, it was to discover that apparently, it hadn't cooked all the way. And the dough had continued to rise? So the hole was gone, and the entire middle was just completely raw. A lot of the filling had also started to ooze out all over the cake stand, and overall, it wasn't necessarily appetizing looking.

Bottom line? Next time, I think I might stick to store bought king cake. While I'm certainly not super discouraged by culinary failures, I tend to be more discouraged wen said failure is the product of something that was particularly labor intensive or time consuming, and this definitely qualifies as both of those. As my free time has become somewhat limited thanks to my new job, I don't love the idea of spending several hours on something I won't even really be able to eat when it's finished!

Still, it was kind of fun to try something different for a holiday I don't usually celebrate. Maybe next year, we'll try something less complicated!

Better luck next time, I guess!


  1. Kudos for your bravery! I shy away from anything that involves yeast. And also, your honesty is refreshing. I hope you have better luck with future recipes involving yeast.

    1. Thank you! I hope so, too. I wonder if warmer weather will help since our house can be a little drafty. I guess we'll see!