Mardis Gras falls on March 8 this year, which means many chefs and home cooks are turning their culinary ambitions towards New Orleans.
Pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin certainly can turn out one of that city’s traditional king cakes — with a premium brioche dough, rich with butter and eggs. But these days it’s his inspired variations on that classic that he’s most passionate about.
His Bourbon Street king cake, for example, with chocolate custard, bourbon and toasted pecans. Or there is his General Foster king cake with a banana’s Foster-type filling; the Woodlawn Plantation, with praline cream and Southern Comfort; or even the Pontchartrain, filled with Bavarian cream custard, sliced strawberries, almonds and whipped cream.
“Every year I do something a little different, something new,” Albin says. “It makes things interesting.”
Interesting, and perhaps unrecognizable to those first French settlers who brought the annual Mardi Gras celebration — as well as its king cake — to Louisiana 300 years ago.
Traditional versions are a simple circle of buttery dough spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with a sugar icing. And while those still represent the dominant king cake, each year sees more variations as bakers pump them full of fruits, cheeses, chocolate and other flavors.
“The filled king cake trend started in the 1970s,” says Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. “People wanted things that were sweeter and sweeter, and bakers wanted to be different. Before that king cakes looked the same and were pretty much the same.”
These days, at least two dozen flavors and fillings are readily available. In addition to most fruits, you also can get such exotic flavors as praline, cream cheese and almond paste.
Sweet potatoes get in act
At Navarre’s Famous King Cakes in Springfield, La., about 45 miles northwest of New Orleans, Earnie Navarre has even introduced a sweet potato praline king cake.
“A friend of mine is a big fan of sweet potatoes, and he asked me to make a king cake with them for him,” Navarre said. “It’s a lot like a sweet potato casserole, with brown sugar and pecans.”
Rhonda Ruckman, pastry chef for the Donald Link restaurants and retail shop Butcher, was eager to experiment with some new flavors, after having been away from the city — and Mardi Gras — for several years.
“I’m definitely doing the classic cake, but I wanted to try some new things,” Ruckman said. “I’m making a chocolate creme cake with a wonderful brioche dough, a layer of sour cream, devil food crumbs and chocolate chips.”
For most bakeries the cream cheese cakes, or a combination of cream cheese and fruit, is the most popular of the king cakes, with strawberry fillings close behind.
Hundreds in line
At Randazzo’s King Cakes, customers lined up by the hundreds to get their king cakes on Jan. 6 (or Twelfth Night), the traditional opening of the Carnival season.
Randazzo’s offers a half-dozen flavors, its royal king cake, which is quartered off with cream cheese, apple, lemon and strawberry fillings in each section, and even a fleur-de-licious king cake, with black and gold icing in a nod to the “Who Dat” Saints fans.
Manny Randazzo, the second generation to operate the bakery, says the new flavors may have their fans, but at his bakeries the traditional king cake remains the big seller.
“It can get pretty crazy with all the fills, the double fills, the flavors,” Randazzo said. “But still 75 percent of our sales are still the traditional cake. People who say it’s dry or not flavorful enough have not had one with a rich brioche and the hint of cinnamon. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser.”
Start to finish: 4 hours (45 minutes active). Servings: 16.
FOR THE DOUGH:
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
4 eggs, room temperature
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant or fast-acting yeast
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE FILLING:
1/2 cup raisins
4 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
For the decoration:
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Purple-, green- and gold-colored sugars
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the milk, sugar, zest, eggs, egg yolks and butter.
With the mixer running on the lowest setting, add the nutmeg, salt, yeast and 5 cups of the flour. Mix until a dough comes together. If the dough is too dry, add a tablespoon of water; if it is too wet, add a couple tablespoons of flour. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky.
Increase the mixer speed to 2 and knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the filling. In a small saucepan, combine the raisins and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high. Remove from the heat and let soak for 15 minutes. Drain the raisins, then transfer them to a kitchen towel and pat dry.
In a food processor, combine the raisins, cream cheese, brown sugar, flour and cinnamon. Pulse together until combined, then add the pecans and pulse just until incorporated.
When the dough has risen, coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into a long rectangle, about 22-by-14-inches.
Spread the filling over the surface of the dough, leaving a 2-inch border along the edges. Roll the dough up into a tight log starting with one of the long sides. Pinch the seam shut and turn until the seam is on the bottom.
Move the log onto the prepared baking sheet. Insert one end of the log into the other end to form a ring. Loosely cover and allow to rise until puffy and almost doubled in size, about 1 hour. Toward the end of the rising time, heat the oven to 350 F.
Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
To make the icing, in a medium bowl stir together the powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle over the top of the cooled king cake. Immediately sprinkle with the colored sugars before the icing begins to harden.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 437 calories; 118 calories from fat (27 percent of total calories); 13 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 104 mg cholesterol; 74 g carbohydrate; 8 g protein; 2 g fiber; 290 mg sodium.
Crispy Shrimp in Spicy Cajun Sauce
Start to finish: 50 minutes. Servings: 6.
1 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup honey
3 to 4 teaspoons hot sauce, to taste
3 teaspoons Cajun seasoning blend, or to taste
3 teaspoons salt, divided
Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups quick-mixing flour, such as Wondra
1 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 pounds large-sized raw shrimp, shells and tails removed
3 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced
To make the sauce, in a large bowl whisk together the mayonnaise, honey, hot sauce, Cajun seasoning and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Set aside.
In a large cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium, heat 3/4 inch of oil to 350 F.
Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl, whisk the eggs. In a second shallow bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and the black pepper.
Working in batches, dip the shrimp first into the beaten eggs, then in the flour mixture to coat well.
Fry the shrimp in the oil until golden, about 1 minute per side, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain the oil temperature. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried shrimp to a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with the sauce for dipping.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 434 calories; 179 calories from fat (41 percent of total calories); 20 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 373 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 36 g protein; 0 g fiber; 992 mg sodium.