Ask chef Chris Weysham of his childhood memories of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and he’ll answer you with just two words: king cake.
“Any bakery of note makes king cakes in the lead-up to Mardi Gras,” Weysham, who is now head chef at Melbourne’s Cajun-inspired East of Everything, says. “And of course, every bakery claims that theirs is the best.”
If you’re scratching your head and wondering: a) what New Orleans Mardi Gras is and b) what the hell king cake is, you’re not alone. “In Australia, Mardi Gras has a hugely different meaning,” says Chris. “Not many people I’ve come across know about the festival in New Orleans.”
For the uninitiated, Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival, which begins on January 6 - or Twelfth Night - and ends on Shrove Tuesday (ie Mardi Gras itself). It’s an important Christian holiday, and in New Orleans, it’s a time for the hedonism of all kinds: parties, parades, dancing and of course, feasting.
And this is where king cake comes in. The cake, a braided wreath of cinnamon roll-style dough topped with sweet icing and gold, purple and green sugar (for the colours of Mardi Gras: gold is for power, purple symbolises justice and green represents faith), is everywhere in New Orleans during the Carnival season. An estimated 750,000 king cakes are made annually in New Orleans, with many bakeries shipping their goods all over the country. It’s highly symbolic - as well as deeply delicious, says Weysham.
Though king cake isn’t only found in New Orleans - in England, there’s Twelfth Night cake, in Portugal, there’s Bola Rei, and in France, there’s the Gâteau De Rois - the New Orleans version is quite unique. Inside each king cake, traditionally, is a small plastic baby. Whoever eats the slice with the baby in it becomes “king” for a day, and also must bring the king cake to the next party. This tradition may have roots in Christianity, but some believe that its origins go back even further, to pagan Roman festivals like Saturnalia, a winter solstice celebration honouring Saturn, the god of agriculture. During the festival, cakes were made to celebrate the harvest, and according to Larousse Gastronomique, “During the Saturnalia, the ‘king of the day’ was chosen using a fava bean concealed in a galette.” It’s here that the tradition of the baby in the cake was said to have begun.
As for the plastic baby itself, the idea is said to have come from an enterprising baker named Donald Entringer, whose bakery, McKenzie's, was one of the biggest and most popular commercial bakeries in 20th century New Orleans. In the early 1950s, Entringer was approached by a travelling salesman who was selling small porcelain dolls. The salesman suggested that the dolls would be perfect to bake into a king cake, and Entringer gave it a go. After he ran out of porcelain babies - and decided they were too expensive, anyway, he swapped them out for the plastic version that’s so popular today.
And though Weysham has never seen king cake in Australia, he says that he can see the tradition taking off here, if for no other reason than the fact that the cake is delicious. “Normally I’d say that king cake is too time-consuming and tricky to prepare,” he says. “But all this talk of it is making me crave it! I think I’m going to make one right now.”
Don't miss our special event coverage of the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras 2020: Live Stream will be available to watch here from Saturday, 29th February 2020 at 7:30pm or catch-up via SBS On Demand after the program airs.
“This cake is pure, unadulterated childish glee. There’s no holding back. It’s full colour, full sugar, then full throttle post-ingestion. And I have to say, it’s as much fun to make as it is to give! I guarantee you’ll have as much fun making this as the recipient has cutting it! I mixed popping candy in with the sprinkles before coating the cake for extra fun.” Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co. 2
"I never thought the humble carrot cake could be taken to such a ridiculous level of indulgence. I was given this recipe by my good friend Priyant Pratap who’s a huge fan of American-style home cooking and he’s been harassing me for ages to make it. It has all the hallmarks of great American baking - buttermilk, cinnamon, corn syrup and cream cheese, and oh my goodness, it’s heavenly with a capital 'H'. I have changed the original recipe a little, using butter instead of oil and reducing the sugar, which almost seems futile, but hey, I try...." Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.
A classic Passover dessert that draws on the Sephardic traditions of the Mediterranean, Morocco and the Middle East. In this recipe whole oranges are boiled for two hours and then puréed skin, pips and all. Not only is this cake incredibly moreish and moist, it is also gluten and dairy-free making it the perfect all-rounder.