Monday, February 23, 2009

Mardi Gras King Cake or Diabetic Sugar Coma?

Christmas and New Year's fast become hazy, distant memories in New Orleans, since as early as January, after Twelfth Night on the sixth, the city begins its annual draping of bright, gem-toned, somewhat abrasive, but impossible to miss colors -- a jarringly abrasive goldenrod yellow (or gold), forest to kelly green, and a rich, bright purple--the first appearance of these hues on supermarket king cakes being the first indication that Carnival is upon us.

Famous local bakeries like Haydel's, Gambino's (their king cake is here on the right, photo courtesy of their site), and Randazzo's find themselves shipping king cakes all over the country, some selling out and sending them to customers year-round, even though tradition dictates that they be available only for the Mardi Gras. Personally, I think that's something that should be stuck to, since it's really easy to OD on sugar just eating a little bit of it.

Maybe it's because I'm from Long Island, New York (my fiance can't stomach king cakes, and my sisters found it overwhelming), or maybe it's because of my ethnic background (I mean, culturally, we serve fruit as a dessert and our sponge cake pastries tend towards the flavorless side), but the sweetness of this raved-over cake just kills me. It's great for the first couple of bites, but after that initial taste, it's a bit much to handle.

Longwindedness aside, you may wonder: what is a king cake?

Served as a round with a hole in the middle like a Danish ring, the landscape of this twisted pastry is an exciting one, full of swells and uneven dips. This kind of inconsistent appearance is always a good thing, since it indicates that it's been handmade from scratch ... as they usually are. Topping off the king cake is a thick layer of white glaze (not icing! The topping very obviously was poured on like molten candy to drip as it pleased) made from confectioner's sugar, then literally coated generously (not to be confused with sprinkled liberally or dusted over) with a dense covering of sugar crystals in purple, yellow, and green.

A big bite of king cake (seen left, courtesy of MyRecipes.com) is obviously extremely sweet, but the cake itself is slightly flaky in medium density air-puffed layers that are cool to the taste and not overly rich or as buttery and light as croissants. It's often said to be reminiscent of twisted brioche, and it's swirled with cinnamon in sparkly rings that lace through the pastry like candy veins, giving a sweet shot of life to the mild-tasting bread. Scrape half the toothachey sweet glaze and wipe all of the colorful sugar off, and we have ourselves a tasty treat that closely resembles the delicious Danish Rings that Entenmann's makes, a delightful substitution in an area they don't service. However, with all of that superflous candy all over the entire thing, it's overdone, overcontrived, and a massive headache and stomachache waiting to happen. And as some very Southern foods tend to excess, king cakes are easily pushed even further over the line with fillings of (even sweeter) praline, strawberry, cream cheese, and others, which blow my mind with the fact that they're growing each year in popularity.

This is not to say I don't enjoy an occasional slice of king cake. I do, truly. See that picture? That's me on the left in my college days, diving in on Mardi Gras day to fuel for Fat Tuesday. I mean, there's a great play of texture in the king cake -- the soft give under the initial hard crust of the glaze; the crispy grains of sugar that roll like sand in your mouth before dissolving; the refreshing neutrality of the cake, cut with sparks of cinnamon, with its satisfyingly soft yet firm bite. These are all good things. All I'm saying is that it's hard to devour these candy beasts of treats the way native New Orleanians do, so more power to 'em and God bless great dental plans.

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