Every year on the Friday night before Mardi Gras, the Columbiettes of Holy Angels Catholic Church in Mount Airy throw a wingding of a Mardi Gras party. This year’s party will be Friday night in the church parish hall. The event usually brings out a nice mix of Holy Angels parishioners and other folks from Mount Airy and adjacent communities who like good food and a good time.
The Columbiettes, under the leadership of New Orleans native Adreann Belle, put out quite a spread. There is red beans and rice, two kinds of gumbo, both filé and seafood, and pasta jambalaya made with gluten-free pasta.
But Belle draws the line at King cake. King cake is more of a sweet bread then a cake which is formed in a circle, covered in icing and colored with green, yellow and purple sprinkles and may or may not have a fruit, creme or nut filling. A small plastic baby is nestled inside the cake.
“New Orleans people don’t bake King cake,” says Belle. “They go to a bakery and buy it.”
But considering the dearth of bakeries in Mount Airy offering authentic New Orleans confections, the ladies of Holy Angels were forced to come up with another strategy.
Enter Theresa Hutton who was enlisted to bake King cakes for the event six years ago. “No one seemed to have a recipe,” said Hutton.
“I’m not from New Orleans.” Hutton admits. “That is not my heritage. I’ve had King cake and gumbo, but had never made a King cake.” So Hutton did what anybody would do in a similar situation. She went online to consult the experts.
She found several recipes but “they were awful. It tasted dry and I couldn’t get that dough to rise to save my life. And I’ve baked a lot of cakes. And I’ve worked a lot with yeast.”
Since King cake is not really a cake at all but a sweet yeast bread with a filling and frosting, Hutton decided she’d use a sweet roll recipe that she knew worked. She pulled out the Betty Crocker Cookbook that she had owned since she got married and turned to the sweet roll recipe that had never failed her.
For the filling, she went back to her online research and utilized an Emeril Legasse recipe. She figured, “If he didn’t know how to do it, nobody did.”
Success at last. Perfect King cake.
One of the great mysteries of King cake is how in the world you bake a cake with a plastic baby in it and not end up with a cake filled with chunks of molten plastic. Theresa Hutton says that during the experimentation phase with the online recipes, someone tucked in a baby as they were rolling up the dough before it was baked, claiming that was the way it was done in New Orleans. And it worked. The baby did not melt.
But the King cake bakers of Holy Angels prefer to simply tuck a baby under one of the pieces when the the cake is cut, before it is served.
This strategy also reduces the possibility that someone accidentally bites down on a baby and chips a tooth. The seam where the two ends of the dough are brought together to form a circle also provide a convenient place to tuck in a baby after baking. The icing then hides the seam.
New Orleans tradition is to serve the first King cake of the season at The Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, as it is sometimes called, on Jan. 6. The lucky person receiving the baby in their slice of cake throws a party the next week, where the lucky recipient of the baby throws another party the next week, and on it goes throughout carnival season culminating on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. The following day, Ash Wednesday, ushers in the Lenten Season, and King cake is no more until the next year.
But since carnival season in Mount Airy is basically the one party at Holy Angels each year, the Columbiettes have changed up the tradition for their Mardi Gras party. The lucky recipients of the babies from their King cakes each receive a door prize.
There will be twelve King cakes this year, with Theresa Hutton and Michelle Gilley each baking six. In the past, Lucille Doyle, Marge Johnson and Jeanette Kilen have also taken on King cake duty.
Enjoy King cake without baking your own
Tickets are still available for this year’s Mardi Gras party at Holy Angels Catholic Church, 1208 N. Main Street, Mount Airy. The party starts at 6 p.m. and lasts until 10. Music, a parade and dancing will follow dinner. Dinner will be served from 6 -8 p.m. with take-out available. There will be plenty of door prizes and several raffles, a 50/50, one for an afghan and one for a handmade quilt. Costumes are optional. Advance tickets are recommended and are $16. Tickets at door are $18. There is limited seating and everyone must be at least 18 years old. For tickets or further information, call Adreann (336-710-1481) or Marge (336-917-9837). Proceeds go to Columbiettes for charitable contributions and projects.
This is the recipe used at Holy Angels. It comes from several sources, including Emerill Lagasse and the Betty Crocker Cookbook and was developed after much experimentation by Theresa Hutton. Plastic babies can be found in party stores or baking supply stores.
1 package quick acting active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
½ cup lukewarm milk (scalded. then cooled)
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup shortening or margarine or butter
1 teaspoon salt
3 ½ -4 cups all-purpose flour
1 8 oz. package cream cheese
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk 1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
Glaze and decorations:
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
Purple, Green, and Gold sugar crystals
Dissolve yeast in warm water in 2 ½ quart bowl.
Stir in milk, sugar, shortening, salt egg and 2 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth.
Stir in enough remaining flour to make a dough that is easy to handle. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl. Cover, let rise in warm place until doubled. (Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.)
Punch down dough.
Flatten dough with hands or rolling pin into rectangle, 15 x 9 inches on lightly floured surface.
Mix filling ingredients and spread evenly over rectangle leaving edges uncovered. Roll up tightly into a cylinder beginning at 15 inch side. Bend dough to form a circle (you can use a metal can to help keep the shape) Pinch to seal edges around the tin can. Cover lightly and let rise til double again. Bake at 375°F. for 25-30 minutes or until done.
When cooled completely, tuck a plastic baby in the seam where the dough was joined.Mix glaze and drizzle over the cake, paying particular attention to hide the seam and the baby’s location. Decorate with colored sugar crystals.