Tomorrow is Epiphany…Twelfth Night…the Twelfth Day of Christmas on the liturgical calendar, when the Church celebrates the coming of the Kings to visit the baby Jesus. While scholars tell us that it is more likely that Jesus was a toddler living in a house with Mary and Joseph when the wise men came, my mental picture is still that of the kings with their gifts, kneeling before the baby in the manger.
As a native New Orleanian, I still remember the excitement and suspense of the King Cake on January 6. Who would bite down on the tiny porcelain baby hidden in the dough?
In the early 70s, in a new house with a dining table that seated 12 and my parents newly retired in Corpus Christi, I decided to have a Twelfth Night party. I turned to Mama to recall the traditions of Twelfth Night in New Orleans and to help me plan my menu.
Mama’s great-grandmother moved to New Orleans with her daughters in 1860, and Mama and her five siblings grew up on the fringes of the Garden District, English Protestants in a very French Catholic city. It was impossible to avoid—even if one wanted to—the city’s religious traditions and customs, brought to Louisiana when it was a French colony.
According to Mama, you should not take down your Christmas tree until Twelfth Night, a grand event, the eve of the Mardi Gras season—hence, the garish green, gold and purple sugars on traditional King cakes. Not only would the person getting the baby (she advised using a dried bean instead) have good luck for the year, but she should host the next year’s party.
The New Orleans Cookbook
My go-to cookbook is The New Orleans Cookbook, by New Orleans residents Rima and Richard Collin, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1975. Rima was a gourmet French and Creole cook, while Richard wrote a weekly food column and a best-selling New Orleans restaurant guide.
The Collins present a slightly different view:
“This large brioche-type cake shaped like a thick oval crown and decorated with candied fruit and colored sugar is prepared in New Orleans bakeries for the period between Twelfth Night (January 6) and Ash Wednesday. A bean or tiny china baby doll is baked into it and the person who gets the slice containing the bean or doll is king or queen for a week and must also provide a new King cake to be served at the week’s end. And so every week brings a new cake and a new king or queen. This ritual is a popular custom in family group and in offices, a way of making all the weeks leading up to Lent festive. The tradition appears to have been introduced to New Orleans by its earliest French settlers, who continued a custom dating back to the Middle Ages….
“New Orleanians do not bake their own King cakes, since they are baked in a wide range of sizes and prices, but if you know how to make a coffee cake, you should have no problem following these general instructions for putting the King cake together. The principal points to keep in mind are: the shape, an oval ring about 2½ inches thick and about 3 inches high at the highest point; and the decoration, as elaborate and colorful as possible in order to make the cake look like a jeweled crown. As for the bean or doll, it can be baked into the batter or pushed into the finished cake from underneath—just so long as it’s done secretly, so no one knows in advance which slice will designate the monarch for the week.” [p. 220]
Reclaiming Old Traditions
At my first Twelfth Night dinner party, I served daube—a Cajun pot roast—and white rice and made a King cake. To my surprise, the winning friend invited the same group over a year later. Thus was born an annual supper club that lasted for years, each host or hostess becoming more creative with the menu and with where to hide the bean.
Since I have been too busy with the Season’s celebrations this year, I have given myself permission to wait until January 6 to take my tree down. I was reminded of the King cake recently when my favorite food blogger, the young Parisian Clotilde Dusoulier, posted her recipe here for a traditional galette des rois—cake of the kings—far more elegant and attractive than the New Orleans version. That encouraged me to check out the contemporary New Orleans King cake here. Bakeries now offer an astonishing variety, most of them sounding far better than the heavy, chewy dough and candied fruits of the cakes of memory, though the traditional cakes are still available and are shipped all over the country.
Viva la tradition!