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King Cake a crowning touch for Mardi Gras feast

Celebrate Mardi Gras with a King Cake, a pastry made to celebrate the Christian story of the visit of the wise men to baby Jesus, Jan. 6, a season that extends until Lent, which begins Feb. 10. This one from ABC Cake Shop and Bakery on San Pedro, has a cream cheese filling. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Celebrate Mardi Gras with a King Cake, a pastry made to celebrate the Christian story of the visit of the wise men to baby Jesus, Jan. 6, a season that extends until Lent, which begins Feb. 10. This one from ABC Cake Shop and Bakery on San Pedro, has a cream cheese filling. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You don’t have to be from Louisiana to appreciate a delicious King Cake – you can make the cake and the Mardi Gras season tradition your own.

Elizabeth Withers, now retired, who moved to Albuquerque more than 30 years ago, still likes to share the cake because it’s yummy and fun.

“I’ve brought a King Cake from ABC (Cake Shop and Bakery) to several Mardi Gras parties,” says Withers, who grew up in Louisiana. “I’ve introduced my friends to King Cake, red beans and rice and gumbo.”

She remembers a grocery store in New Orleans, in an old building with high tin ceilings, where the baker made the most delicious King Cake: “People would make the extra trip to get one of those.” Her favorite was one with pecan pie filling.

Of course, according to the tradition for King Cake, each cake had a tiny plastic baby tucked inside.

Paul Bendinskas, a co-owner with his wife, Edwina, of ABC Cake Shop and Bakery on San Pedro NE, says the baby originally symbolized baby Jesus. The cake is served during the Carnival season, which begins Jan. 6 or Epiphany and goes through Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, before the more austere Lenten season on the Christian calendar. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the three kings or wise men.

A tiny plastic baby, the treasure hidden in the cake, originally symbolized baby Jesus, now represents luck and prosperity. The person who finds the treasure is king or queen for the day and named as host for the next King Cake party, so the good times can keep rolling. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A tiny plastic baby, the treasure hidden in the cake, originally symbolized baby Jesus, now represents luck and prosperity. The person who finds the treasure is king or queen for the day and named as host for the next King Cake party, so the good times can keep rolling. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Now the baby symbolizes luck and prosperity. The person who finds the baby is king or queen for the day and designated as host for the next King Cake party,” he says, adding that in New Mexico he sells most of the cakes closer to Mardi Gras.

The trinket in his cake is a tiny plastic baby attached to a medallion. When the cake became popular centuries ago in France and Spain, a bean served as the hidden treasure inside the cake, he says.

The sweet yeast dough is kneaded with sprinkles of cinnamon, so the flavor is dispersed in every bite. A log of the dough is shaped into a circle and baked. After it cools, it’s split, filled and the plastic baby is hidden inside. It’s frosted with traditional Mardi Gras colors of yellow or gold for power, green for faith and purple for justice and festooned with beads.

Bendinskas fills the cakes with Bavarian cream, cream cheese and fruit fillings. He sells the cakes for $20 for one about 12 inches in diameter, and another larger one for about $27, depending on the filling. Customers with a complimentary Sweet Frequent Rewards card get a discount.

Scott Cesarz, the bakery team leader at the Carlisle Whole Foods store, says he sells the most King Cakes the week before Mardi Gras. He says the cakes are popular for the whole Carnival season and especially popular for Mardi Gras.

“It’s a great tradition. You can have fun with it and make it your own,” he says. One of his customers’ favorite fillings is raspberry glaze.

“It’s interesting that even during Hurricane Katrina, bakers had King Cakes, outsourcing them from the surrounding area. One simple cake has become the keystone of the culture,” he says. “There are King Cakes all over the world in every region. It’s a very old tradition.” He says he’s found references to the cake as early as 1699.

Home bakers could make the cake with less sugar, if they liked. The top could be sprinkled with colored sugar instead of the usual powdered sugar glaze and colored sugar, he says.

He recommends the natural food coloring at his store and coarse sugar, shaken in a covered plastic tub, to create the vibrant purple, yellow-gold and green hues. He uses an organic, all-purpose flour because its gluten content is higher than cake flour, giving the cake more body. Cesarz says to keep the cake light and fluffy, don’t overwork the dough.

ABC Cake Shop and Bakery owner Paul Bendinskas slices cake as Angelina Rael watches. Although he makes extra King Cakes, reserving one at 255-5080 guarantees a cake if you want one close to Mardi Gras, Tuesday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ABC Cake Shop and Bakery owner Paul Bendinskas slices cake as Angelina Rael watches. Although he makes extra King Cakes, reserving one at 255-5080 guarantees a cake if you want one close to Mardi Gras, Tuesday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

KING CAKE

Serves 15. This recipe doesn’t have a filling.

2 quarter-ounce packages active dry yeast

2 teaspoons, plus ½ cup granulated sugar

3½ cup all-purpose flour (plus ¼ cup for high altitude baking)

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon lemon zest

½ cup warm milk

5 egg yolks

9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) butter, softened

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon milk

3 cups powdered sugar

¼ cup lemon juice

Natural green, purple and yellow food coloring

1 whole egg

Pour ½ cup warm (110 degrees to 115 degrees) water into a small bowl and sprinkle with yeast and 2 teaspoons of the granulated sugar and stir to combine. Set bowl aside in a warm place for 10 minutes, or until yeast bubbles up and mixture doubles in volume.

Meanwhile, sift together 3½ cups of the flour, remaining ½ cup granulated sugar, cardamom, allspice and salt in a large bowl. Stir in lemon zest, then make a well in the middle of the flour mixture.

Pour yeast mixture and 5 egg yolks into well and stir slowly with a wooden spoon to combine well. Alternately, use a standing mixer with a dough hook attachment to mix ingredients. When mixture is smooth, beat in 8 tablespoons of the butter about 1 tablespoon at a time.

Continue to beat 2 minutes more, or until dough can be formed into a medium-soft ball. If using a standing mixer with a hook attachment, continue to knead dough in mixer for 10 minutes on medium speed.

Alternately, transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead, adding up to 1 cup more flour about 1 tablespoon at a time as needed so that dough is shiny, elastic and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes.

Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a large bowl evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Place dough ball in bowl and turn to coat with butter. Cover bowl and place in a warm spot for about 1½ hours, or until the dough doubles in volume.

Remove dough from bowl and place on lightly floured surface. Using your fist, punch dough down with a heavy blow. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top, then pat and form dough into a long rope. Pinch ends together to form a large circle. Cover dough with towel and set in a warm spot for 45 minutes, or until doubled in volume again.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat remaining whole egg and milk together in a small bowl to make an egg wash. Brush top and sides of dough ring with egg wash, then bake on a baking sheet on middle rack of oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Place cake on wire rack to cool, then hide a trinket in the cake by poking it up through the bottom.

Combine powdered sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons water in a bowl and whisk until smooth. If icing is too stiff, add more water until spreadable. Divide icing among three small bowls and color each separately with drops of green, purple and yellow food coloring. Spread icing over top of cake in alternate colors, making about 2 sections for each color. Cut cake into slices and serve.

ONE SLICE: 340 calories (80 from fat), 9g total fat, 5g saturated fat, 100mg cholesterol, 320mg sodium, 58 g carbohydrates, 1 g dietary fiber, 31 g sugar, 6g protein.

– Whole Foods, wholefoodsmarket.com

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