Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jan 10, 2010
08:44 AMSmall Dishes
Parade of King Cakes
Mention January 6 and some people think the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. For many, it’s time to take down the Christmas decorations. For me, it’s time to start the party. It’s Carnival time.
Most years, I try to make it down to New Orleans for the final frenetic week. Carnival there is as much a contradiction as is the city itself—vulgar and sleazy on the one hand, aristocratic and sybaritic on the other. It’s like two trains, sometime running on parallel tracks, sometime on tracks that intersect. Public debauchery and gratuitous nudity on Bourbon Street. Exclusive balls with elaborate costumes at the Municipal Auditorium. Endless parades anticipated by all throughout the city. Like a locomotive, it starts slowly and gradually gains speed, rushing to its final destination: Mardi Gras. “Carnival” and “Mardi Gras” are often incorrectly used interchangeably.
In New Orleans, Carnival always begins on January 6, Twelfth Night. It is the season leading up to its one day culmination, Mardi Gras. Purists flinch at those who commonly and redundantly refer to Carnival’s final day as “Mardi Gras day.” Since Mardi Gras—literally “Fat Tuesday”—is always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and forty-seven days prior to Easter, the length of the Carnival season and the date of Mardi Gras changes from year to year. (It is February 16 in 2010.) New Orleanians remark on Mardi Gras as occurring early or late each year, just as most of us make the same observation about Easter. (The date can occur anytime between February 3 and March 9.) Regardless, Mardi Gras is the day of days in the City that Care Forgot and a state holiday in Louisiana.
In France, the Feast of the Epiphany is observed with a galette des rois or three kings cake, commemorating the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. The recipe varies regionally, but is most commonly made with puff pastry and an almond filling. It always contains a small ceramic doll (or dried bean) hidden inside. Whoever finds the doll gets a cardboard crown and becomes king. When the king drinks, the other guests will toast, “Le roi boit! Vive le roi!”—“The king drinks! Long live the king!”
In New Orleans, the ritual of the king cake has become more than a harbinger of Carnival. It’s enjoyed almost every day up until Mardi Gras. An oval pastry, it’s lavishly decorated with tinted sugar and icing to represent the jewels of a crown. The colors are always purple, green and gold—symbolizing justice, faith and power respectively, the official colors of Carnival. Hidden inside is a small plastic baby; whoever gets it has to buy the next king cake or host the next party.
With the rise of the grocery store chain, king cake in New Orleans became nothing more than a glorified coffeecake. Underneath its gaudy exterior was relatively plain dough, typically flavored with spices or almonds. But it continues to evolve and today king cakes with fillings like cream cheese and praline pecan are the most popular. At some quality bakeries, French-style king cakes are also still sold. Over 500,000 of the pastries are consumed each year in the Crescent City and another 75,000 shipped by overnight delivery throughout the country.
You can make your own, but doing so in the Big Easy would be akin to making your own kringle here. (I’m sure it happens but not very often). For me, making a king cake on January 6 and taking it to the office is an annual tradition. I’ve concocted my own recipe using brioche dough, but almost any sweet yeast dough will work. (Here’s Emeril Lagasse’s recipe.) Let’s face it, king cake like Carnival is more about spectacle than taste and, of course, the baby.
Unquestionably king cake is the food most associated with Mardi Gras, but there a few others. Watching parades is a major pastime and getting up close a preoccupation. (What’s the point of going if you’re not going to get lots of beads?) That means getting there early … and waiting … and snacking on Popeye fried chicken or Frito pie—a bag of corn chips split open and topped with chili and melted cheese. The Moon Pie—graham cracker rounds filled with marshmallow cream and dipped in chocolate—is a popular parade throw.
More and more bars and restaurants in Madison feature themed food and entertainment on Fat Tuesday, but were fortunate to have a few where the Mardi Gras spirit lives on all year long. Laissez le bont temps rouler!
The Bayou. It bills itself as a “New Orleans-style Tavern.” I’m not sure they have “taverns” in the Big Easy but they sure do have a lot of bars. The Bayou would feel right at home on Bourbon Street.
Liliana’s. David Heide’s restaurant is one of Madison hottest and features new New Orleans-style cooking served in an elegant, contemporary setting. I love the oyster menu.
Louisianne’s Etc. This basement bistro in Middleton has a loyal following and specializes in traditional Creole and Cajun favorites—a perennial Best of Madison winner.
New Orleans Take Out. John Roussos opened his carry-out restaurant on Fordem Avenue back in 1987 and for many it just gets mo bettah with a second location on Monroe Street.
Scott’s Pastry Kitchen. You can’t get a king cake here every day, but then again, used to be you couldn’t in N.O. either—before it became a major tourist commodity. Scott’s makes king cakes for Mardi Gras and it’s recommended that you order in advance since they sell out fast.