I’ve always felt a strong pull towards the city of New Orleans, as if in some long-forgotten past life, it were my home. The most likely explanation for this feeling comes from reading way too many Anne Rice novels during an impressionable period of my youth. I dreamed of the vampire Lestat in the way which girls today dream of the infamous Edward. I so clearly imagined myself in Rice’s stories, that I began to believe I had a history with New Orleans. Whatever the case may be, the city calls to me. I’ve yet to visit New Orleans, but it’s high on my list.
In another time and place, I would have surely planned my New Orleans trip to correspond with the uproarious celebrations of Mardi Gras. But at this point in my life, as I sit here expecting my third child, I’d almost certainly plan my trip for any time of year except Mardi Gras. I’m just not sure there’s enough wild youth left in me to handle Mardi Gras. These days, I’d be much more inclined to find a dimly lit bar and sit back with a few drinks, listening to live jazz until the wee hours of the morn.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is traditionally celebrated on the day before Ash Wednesday; a sort of last hurrah before buckling down for Lenten preparations. Tomorrow, as I’m comfortably nestled on my couch, watching American Idol and eating Easter candy, the city of New Orleans will be buzzing with the grand excitement of Mardi Gras; parades, beads, music and wild partying. It’s a time to celebrate, indulge, and let the good times roll!
If you were composing a list of foods associated with Mardi Gras, King Cake would surely top the list. King cakes have a long history as part of the Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans. They are typically made from a ring of lightly-sweetened bread, similar to a brioche, which is then drizzled with a sweet glaze and decorated in the customary Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. Part of the king cake tradition involves placing a small plastic baby, said to represent the baby Jesus, into the cake. Other items, such as dried beans or nuts are often used as a substitute for the baby. The party guest to find the ‘baby’ is deemed the king.
Holidays make fantastic opportunities for getting kids involved in the kitchen. As with all cooking activities, young children develop early-learning skills in multiple areas. But when the cooking activity relates to a special holiday, it also becomes an opportunity to create a memorable experience which helps kids to connect with their newly learned knowledge of customs and traditions. Experiences like these create memories and help to develop curious lifelong learners.
As part of our Kids Cook Mondays series, my little helpers joined me in making a traditional king cake with a twist. We started with a basic king cake recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse, the culinary king of New Orleans. Then, as Emeril would say, we kicked it up a notch, with a double filling of coconut cream cheese and chocolate. The kids helped to measure, mix, stir, and knead. As we worked, we talked about Mardi Gras and its relevance to Lent and our upcoming Easter preparations. We chatted about the history of king cakes and the tradition of the plastic baby in the cake. Then, once the cake was complete, we eagerly plunged our forks into the sweet slices of cake, curious to discover who would become our king for the day.
Chocolate Coconut King Cake
Adapted from Emeril’s King Cake
For the Cake
- 1/2 cup warm water (105-115 degrees)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 packets dry active yeast
- 4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon lemon peel
- 5 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup warm milk (105-115 degrees)
- 1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
For the Fillings:
- 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
- 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1/8 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/3 cup shredded coconut
For the Icing:
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Water (a few spoonfuls)
- Colored sugars (green, purple, and gold)
Combine warm water, sugar and yeast. Stir until dissolved. Set aside for about 10 minutes. It will begin to bubble up, indicating that the yeast has been activated.
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and lemon peel. Gradually stir in the egg yolks, milk, and melted butter. Stir in the yeast mixture until well-blended. If the dough becomes too thick to stir, knead the ingredients together with your hands. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add additional flour until it becomes more manageable.
Coat a large bowl with a bit of vegetable oil or melted butter. Place the dough into the prepared bowl and turn once or twice so that the top of the dough is lightly coated with oil. Cover with a towel and let the dough sit for about 1 1/2 hours.
Prepare the coconut filling by stirring together the softened cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and coconut. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Once the dough has rested and risen for 1 1/2 hours, split the dough in half. Roll each half into a log, about 30 inches long. Flatten each log into a long rectangle. Sprinkle the chocolate chips along the center of one of the rectangles. Spread the coconut mixture along the center of the other rectangle. Fold the rectangles in half along the long sides and pinch closed. Form into rounded logs. Twist the two logs together. Then, arrange the twisted logs into a circle and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover with a towel and allow to rest for 45 minutes. Then, bake for 30 minutes.
To prepare the icing, combine the powdered sugar and vanilla with just enough water to form a pourable glaze. Drizzle the glaze over the warm cake. Sprinkle with colored sugars.
Prior to serving, insert a nut or dried bean into the bottom of the cake. The guest to find the nut in their piece of cake is deemed king!