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Silver Threads: King cake musings

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

The first bite I took of a king cake 50 or so years ago was a disappointment. “It tastes kind of  like French bread joined at both ends and coated with  sugar,” I complained. I’d already sampled several slices of doberge since moving to New Orleans, and that amazing goodie had become, for me, all that cake should be.

“It’s delicious,” enthused my husband at my king cake initiation, brushing purple, green and yellow specks from his shirt and singing the praises of McKenzie’s, the bakery from which he’d bought it, once his native city’s best known, and since, long-gone and greatly missed.

I got to thinking about that the other day, when reading that there’s to be a King Cake Festival Sunday in Champion’s Square outside the Superdome, wondering what versions of this local favorite will be offered.

Because, in the years after I tasted my first, king cakes have slowly but steadily improved, at least to my way of thinking.  The aforementioned spouse and our daughter are loud in disagreement. Do not even think of serving them a piece of -- gasp! -- FILLED king cake.

Some bakeries began making them taste more like big cinnamon rolls, an innovation I appreciated, and then came the pleasant surprise of cutting in  and discovering that, in addition to the little plastic baby trinkets, they contained cream cheese or chocolate or lemon.

I don’t know which filling came first, but Wikipedia says that in 1972 a small bakery in Picayune, Mississippi started adding fillings to king cakes, the most common being cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.  And I couldn‘t have been happier when those akin to apple pie arrived on the scene.

Quoting again from Wikipedia, “The king cake takes its name from the biblical three kings. In Catholic liturgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany -- commemorated on January 6 -- celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5) is popularly known as Twelfth Night. The season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas  up until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.”

Some organizations or groups of friends may have king cake parties every week through the Carnival season, and whoever gets the trinket is expected to buy the next cake for these get-togethers. That was the case among my co-workers when we enjoyed the seasonal treat at the office. No one ever failed in his or her duty; a new cake appeared every week. And since at least half us weren’t native Orleanians, I don’t remember any grousing about whether they were filled or not.

Bakeries such as Haydel’s and Randazzo’s (there are almost as many Randazzos here with bakeries as there are Brennans with restaurants) have formidable presences on the Internet, since they are among those supplying king cakes shipped around the U.S. I was surprised to see that their websites offer king cakes with green and red icing for Christmas, red and pink-iced cakes for Valentine's Day, and green and white ones for St. Patrick‘s Day -- also advertising specialty king cakes from the beginning of football season for LSU and Saints tailgate parties, as well as for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Easter.

I wonder if my ultra-traditionalist husband would tolerate fillings in these new-fangled cakes?

P.S. The free King Cake Festival will take place from 11 AM to 6 PM; benefits babies and children at Ochsner; and will feature live performances, a kids’ zone, and a one-mile stroller fun run.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]