King of the Cake: Mardi Gras with Chef David Guas
With Fat Tuesday just around the corner, I asked my friend David Guas to share his thoughts about the King Cake, the classic dessert of the Carnival season. David began his career as a pastry chef and brought the king cake from his native New Orleans to his two NOLA-inspired restaurants in the Washington, DC area, giving DC locals a chance to taste the flavors of one of my favorite cities. Enjoy!
To put it plainly, I bake cakes to fill the void in the pit of my stomach that makes me ache for home. I grew up eating rich, decadent cakes for celebrations – the multilayered Doberge was the only birthday cake I knew, scarlet wedges of red velvet was on special occasions, homey slices of Strawberry Shortcake was during Ponchatoula, Louisiana strawberry season, and then the familiar sweet bread cake in the shape of a crown, the King Cake, shows we have moved into the carefree Carnival season. Slicing a healthy slab with the side of a fork—whether at the dinner table, as part of a holiday celebration, or just any day at all—and tasting tender crumb against chocolate or slick icing or ripe fruit bring me straight back to my youth. Add a frosty glass of milk and you’ve got the best remedy for homesickness ever invented.
When I was in high school, some friends and I would stop at McKenzie’s Bakery in Uptown New Orleans, on the way to swim team practice, buy a king cake, and try to out-eat one another while driving to the pool. Whoever finished the king cake by the time we got to practice was the winner and undisputed master of the king cake—needless to say we weren’t the speediest (or most buoyant) swimmers during Carnival season!
January 6, also known as Twelfth Night, marks the beginning of New Orleans’s Carnival celebrations and the start of king cake season. King cake is to Mardi Gras what pumpkin pie is it Thanksgiving—the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without it. Every table in every home, office, cafeteria, and lounge will be graced by a king cake at some point between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, when Lent begins. During this time, which can happily stretch for months depending on the calendar year, New Orleans is invaded by king cakes and king cake parties.
Similar to a glazed coffee cake, the feted culinary confection is more of a sweet bread than a cake, laced with cinnamon, shaped like a braid or a crown (depending on the baker), and decorated with sugar tinted the three colors of Mardi Gras: gold for power, green for faith, and purple for justice. Our cake at Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery is a more of a traditional French style brioche, deliciously simple with a buttery pastry, stuffed with Creole cream cheese and topped with a good dose of sugar. As a bonus, a tiny plastic baby is hidden in the cake; whoever gets the piece with the prize gets to host the next king cake party and supply the king cake. So while most parts of the country spend January, February, and March recovering from the decadence of the holidays, New Orleanians are once again eating, celebrating, and living life to the max.
All because it’s Carnival Time and everybody’s havin’ fun!
New Orleans-born TV personality and chef David Guas is widely familiar from his frequent appearances on "The Today Show," “The Talk,” Food Network, and his role as host and co-judge of Travel Channel’s summer competition series, "American Grilled." His first cookbook, DamGoodSweet (Taunton Press 2009) was a James Beard Award finalist and his most recent cookbook, Grill Nation (Oxmoor House) was released in April 2015. Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, VA and Washington, DC.