After my family, what I miss most about Louisiana is the food and the rich traditions behind it. Like making pralines after picking pecans in the fall, or boiling a sack of crawfish for a backyard party in the spring, or making gumbo the day after Thanksgiving with the turkey carcass. For me, these are all family traditions.
But there’s one Louisiana food tradition that I associate with the workplace, not home: the King Cake. In the Louisiana French tradition, Carnival season begins at the Feast of Epiphany (aka Three Kings Day) and runs through Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lenten fasting begins). During Carnival season, no party was considered complete without a King Cake, a sweet bread sprinkled with sugar with a bean hidden inside. The lucky party-goer who was served the slice of cake with the bean was tasked with throwing the next Carnival party. Are you still with me? I realize this is not a mainstream American tradition.
This tradition continues today among circles of friends and in workplaces, although the bean has evolved into a tiny plastic baby. When I was a student working on the LSU campus, our boss brought a King Cake the Friday after Epiphany, then whoever got the baby brought the cake the next Friday and so on until Mardi Gras.
The good news for the person who drew the baby is that King Cakes are easy to buy at bakeries back home. The bad news for me is that I’ve only found one place that sells them in the Bay Area and it’s in San Francisco, and they’re by special order only. A long way to go for a cake plus the challenge of carrying it home on a bike.
For years I’ve toyed with the idea of baking my own, but the traditional recipes sounded like too much work and the easy recipes using place-and-bake cinnamon rolls sounded too sweet. This year I tried again, googling “easy king cake” and behold! An easy recipe with a cream cheese filling and a touch of lemon that passed my discriminating standards. Start to finish, including rising, was about 90 minutes.
Even though I knew my co-workers wouldn’t know what it was, I baked a King Cake and on Mardi Gras last week I brought it to work on my bike. A dish draining rack tied down to my bike’s rear rack made the perfect King Cake basket. All that was missing was the toy baby. For that, there’s always next year.
Do you have traditional holiday foods from back home that aren’t common where you’re living today? Do you cook them yourself or drive far or mail order to get them?