Twelfth Night cake, a delectable treat with a hint of orange and decorated with candied fruit, was an essential part of every Twelfth Night celebration. The Twelfth Night is when the biblical three wise men arrived in Bethlehem.
Sometimes made flat, sometimes formed into a circle, a Twelfth Night cake always contained a hidden almond, bean or king-shaped ornament baked into the cake. The guest lucky enough to find the token was named king or queen and ruled over the evening's festivities.
Today the tradition lives on in New Orleans, home to the king cake, which is one of the most widely recognized culinary symbols of Mardi Gras.
"Its appeal mirrors that of Mardi Gras itself. It's colorful. It's fun. And it's way, way over the top," says Tinky Weisblat, writer for In Our Grandmothers' Kitchens (http://www.OurGrandmothersKitchens.com).
King cakes start with sweetened bread dough shaped into a wreath to symbolize the path of the three wise men on their way to Bethlehem.
The traditional orange flavor and colorful candied fruits have been replaced by new and exotic fillings, such as chocolate, cream cheese and pecan praline. Topped with fondant icing or sweet glaze in classic Mardi Gras colors -- purple, green and gold -- the creations often feature wild dashes of sprinkles, strands of shiny beads and feathered masks.
Instead of an almond or bean, each cake contains a hidden baby symbolizing the Christ Child. The person who discovers the trinket is said to enjoy good luck in the coming year. That person's also on the hook to host the next king cake party.
The tasty treats make their first appearance Jan. 6, the official Twelfth Day of Christmas, and stock pastry store shelves through Fat Tuesday.
Can't find the cakes in your area? Several New Orleans bakeries now ship the coveted cakes worldwide, including the 50-year-old Haydel's Bakery (http://www.HaydelBakery.com). Cakes start at about $40.
Even better, craft your own king cake, and host a Twelfth Night celebration for friends and family.
Through much experimentation, Weisblat concocted a unique recipe for the famous cake -- a twist on the puff pastry, reminiscent of a creamy coffeecake. Instead of hiding the traditional baby trinket, she substitutes a coin -- a quarter, to be exact.
"I know people put all sorts of things in and on the king cakes -- chocolate chips, almond flavor, candied fruits, sprinkles, etc. -- but I love a simple cream cheese filling," Weisblat says. "It's hard to mess up, and the glaze makes it special."
Capture the spirit of the season by tinting the lemon-flavored glaze with purple, green and yellow food dye, and adorn the top with Mardi Gras memorabilia.
"It's forgiving for the home cook. The glaze disguises any imperfections in your cake," Weisblat says. "Not everyone likes the glaze, but I find that kids adore it.
"The only real tricks are patience and a love of gaudy colors."
MARDI GRAS KING CAKE
2 packets active dry yeast (not instant)
2 teaspoons sugar plus 1/2 cup sugar
4 to 5 cups flour
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
Zest from 1 lemon
1/2 cup milk, lukewarm
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup sweet butter, at room temperature
Trinket to hide in cake
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Juice of 1 lemon
Water as needed
Food coloring as needed
Place yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl. Cover with lukewarm water. Allow the yeast to proof for 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 3 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 cup sugar, nutmeg, salt and lemon zest. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour in yeast mixture and warm milk. Stir in egg yolks. Combine mixture thoroughly, until smooth. Beat in butter, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Place the dough on floured board. Add more flour as needed. Dough may be slightly sticky but should not stick to the board. Knead dough until smooth. Then knead 10 minutes more. Place dough in a buttered bowl. Cover with a damp cloth. Allow dough to rise until it doubles in bulk, at least 90 minutes.
When the dough has risen, punch it down. Using your fingers, pat and stretch the dough into a rectangle, 24 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide. Let dough rest. Beat together ingredients for filling.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place trinket in the middle of the dough. Gently spoon filling down the center of the dough. Fold the edges of the dough to encase filling. Pinch edges to seal. Form dough into a ring. Pinch ends together to seal. Place cake on a silicone- or parchment-covered baking sheet. Let rise, covered, until it becomes puffy, about 1 hour. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until golden brown. Allow cake to cool completely before glazing.
To make the glaze, combine sugar, vanilla and lemon juice. Add water as needed. Glaze should be thick yet easy to pour. Divide glaze in 3. Color with food dye. Drizzle glazes over cake.
(Recipe from Tinky Weisblat, http://www.OurGrandmothersKitchens.com.)