After an impromptu confession (“I’ve never had King Cake”) at my first crawfish boil, I heard an angel sing, “I’ll take you on a tour!” The angel is my Baton Rouge neighbor Michelle, a native of New Orleans. I interrupted before she sang ‘tour’ -- “When can we go?!” King Cake, if you’re unfamiliar, is a tradition that runs as deep and wide as the Mississippi River. It’s a Louisiana staple that traveled from France in the late 19th Century and graces tables across the state beginning with The Epiphany in January and concluding with Mardi Gras. The cake is equal parts coffee cake and French pastry with a tiny toy baby tucked inside. It’s cinnamon-infused nostalgia and a treat for this newcomer to get the insider tour.
Heading east for an hour on I-10 with a local is an adventure in Louisiana culture and history. I wished my recorder was running as Michelle preached the fascinating gospel of all things Cajun, Creole, and Mardi Gras. One hand on the wheel, I reached for my notebook and urged her to take some notes. As we passed the LaPlace exit, our conversation got spicy as she described the best andouille at Jacob's, exit 209. She had to keep me from taking a detour by promising we could visit there next time.
Our plans were loose, with only our first stop set in stone. Manny Randazzo’s Bakery has been cranking out king cakes for more than half a century and they are included on every king cake list that’s ever been published. Michelle was eager to get there early to beat the crowds. Loyal customers streamed out of the bakery juggling stacks of cakes so high they had to peer to the side to navigate back to their cars. The long line out the door validated Michelle’s urgency. One hour later and we would have left this storefront empty handed. We grabbed our goods and marched on.
The most challenging part of this little day trip was deciding which other bakeries to visit. With a bit of compass work and the latest ‘best king cake’ list courtesy of the Times Picayune, we created a king cake constellation as we crisscrossed the Crescent City. The details are foggy from the aromatherapy sugar buzz we got as the car filled up with cake after cake, each one festooned with its bakery’s signature fillings and toppings. Think heavy vanilla glaze and lots of purple, green, and gold sprinkles.
All this shopping was making us hungry and our haul of baked goods needed to make it back home intact for the grand tasting. So we took a little detour for lunch in the Warehouse District and landed a table at Chef Michael Gulotta’s new restaurant Maypop. Fortunately for us, the chef was checking in with the dining room and joined our conversation on the king cake conundrum. He and Michelle reminisced about their childhood memories surrounding the seasonal treat and he shared the source of his mother’s current favorite cake.
We pointed the car toward Tartine Bakery on Perrier Street to confirm Mrs. Gulotta’s suggestion, plunked down our cash and turned for home. Michelle got busy with a text invitation to the neighbors in Baton Rouge: “King Cake Tasting Party, come sample NoLa cakes from Randazzo’s and more. Who’s in?”
We unloaded our haul onto Michelle’s dining room table as the friends gathered on cue. While I sliced each cake into bite-sized servings, the tasters began their reporting in overlapping songs. “Mardi Gras is my favorite holiday!”
“This is a nice pastry but it isn’t king cake.”
“This one tastes like a croissant, I would eat it for breakfast.”
"It's divine, just divine!"
“The party never ends.”
“I like the crunch of the sugar!”
"That was perfect, it has a little bit of everything. I love Carnival Season!"
As king cake season draws to its annual close, the gears will shift from the sugar frenzy and Mardi Gras excess to the fast of lent and on to the Louisiana festival season. More firsts for me and with my initiation of king cake complete, I'll do some testing in my kitchen. Wishing you all a happy, safe, and festive Mardi Gras! Laissez les bon temps rouler!