Kitchen Lab: On Tuesday, I will be Fat

king cake frosted with purple, yellow and green

Rule #1 of Mardi Gras houseguests: bring toilet paper.
Rule #2 of Mardi Gras houseguests: do not bring extra houseguests.

I lived in New Orleans for a couple of years, and if anyone can put the Fat in your Tuesday, they can. The party basically starts after Epiphany, which is some religious thing I don’t understand on January 6, and the parades start two weeks before Mardi Gras. I understand kids from NOLA think that parades in other cities quite frankly suck… nobody throws ‘em sumpin’, mister! And contrary to popular belief, you do not have to show us your anything to get a big honkin’ pile of beads. You really just have to go to the parade and hold your arm out!

Anyway, you can ask NOLA/Mardi Gras questions in the comments if you like… this is about food. And I could go on about the food for days. And while there’s no way I could even attempt to try to think about replicating the awesomeness of the New Orleans dining experience, I saw a recipe for king cake in the newspaper last week and I had to give it a shot.

Of course, there’s a religious history to this thing… it’s a holiday attached to Lent and Easter. Somethinerother three kings baby Jesus yeah yeah CAKE PLEASE. It’s essentially a Danish or cinnamon-roll type of cake, braided with icing and sprinkles. The sprinkles are traditionally purple, green and gold, the Mardi Gras colors that symbolize justice, faith and power. Inside is a feve (a bean, or a little plastic baby) that supposedly makes the person who finds it in their slice the king or queen for the day, although I’ve never been anywhere that actually happened. Most often, the person who gets the bean/baby either has to buy/make the next king cake or host the next party.

Wait... what? Sea monkeys?

Source: http://www.steveconley.com. ©1971 Transcience Corporation. License: All Rights Reserved.

King cake is, at its root, bread. Which means yeast. YEAST! Little living things, poofing up in my food! AIEEEE!

I have never cooked with yeast. You can buy it in a jar at the store. I assume it is like sea monkeys, only you eat them instead of looking at them in a cup of cloudy water pretending they’re pets.

Yeast is sea monkey cows.

*crickets*

bowl with yeast mix and a whisk

BUBBLES! IT LIVES!

Aaaaaaanyway, now I have a whole jar of sea monkeys yeast-cows living in the door of my fridge. Or sleeping. Or whatever they do until you put them in warm water to wake them up (like your morning shower) and feed ‘em sugar (Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs!). Which is how you get your bubbles, and get your dough to rise! Your yeast-cows eat the sugar, and, erm… make gas.

*crickets*

This is sounding better and better all the time, innit? Well, it’s in all your sammiches. Deal.

egg yolks and whites separated into two glass bowls

Gratuitous egg photo, because I have never separated eggs this successfully before.

Yeast was not nearly as weird/hard as I’d feared. I’d read stories of people freaking out over their yeast, it being cows and all; of people waiting forever for their cows to fart and having to start over because they didn’t, of people just refusing to use yeast and thus limiting themselves to non-bready goodness. Tragic! Go forth and try, I say. If my ineptitude can reap success, so can you.

Once you’ve got your bubbly soup, you put in the more bread-like ingredients and knead it all up until it’s “elastic.” This is the point where I suddenly understood those people who go into throes of ecstacy over those giant Kitchenaid stand mixers… the recipe says to knead for FIFTEEN MINUTES. And whoa nelly am I the wrong height to be doing just about anything for fifteen minutes on my kitchen counters. But you really can tell the difference when you’ve successfully reached “elastic” dough… success!

ball of dough in a bowl

Rise, my yeast-cows, RISE!

Then you set your dough aside and let your little farm do its work some more. Various sources give the range at which yeast works best at anywhere from 70-90F, and it’s damn cold in Chicago at Mardi Gras time, so I turned on the oven for ten minutes or so to make the kitchen all warm and hospitable for my cows. Yes, I heard the naggy authority-voice warning me not to heat my house with the oven, but… YEAST!

unbaked king cake on baking sheet

With all this hair, you’d think I would know how to braid better.

Cows are slow. This is the boring part. You just… wait. Go read a book, catch up on Walking Dead, dye your hair, whatever. Don’t poke the cows yet. Has it been an hour and a half? Does your dough ball look like the Grinch’s heart at the end of the movie? OK NOW GO PUNCH YOUR DOUGH.

Then you split it up into three pieces, roll it like Play-Doh, and braid. Somehow you’re supposed to make the braid into a ring and pinch the ends together to make ‘em stick, but mine looked a bit sad. Hoping it would kinda smush together as it baked, I put it in the oven for half an hour. Which somehow worked perfectly.

baked king cake, un-iced

Hey, that looks like a real thing!

Then here I go with the icing. Just you wait! I make my own icing! Oh, wait, something seems to have gone weird. I followed the directions, but there’s no stinkin’ way 1/4 cup of condensed milk was gonna cut it to make anything resembling icing. So I kept adding more. And more. And more. Yeesh, did I buy the wrong stuff? No, it looks like I’ve just gone too far. THIS IS SCIENCE, WE EXPERIMENT HERE. This is an experiment. And my co-workers shall be my guinea pigs. They’ll never know anything is wrong, right?

bowls of frosting

It’s like Easter! Wait, that’s at the other end.

Hold up! I don’t want to forget the feve! As it seems the only way to obtain creepy little plastic babies is to buy them by the gross from questionable Chinese outlets, I decided to go the bean route instead. Then I decided that I didn’t want to open a whole bag of beans to take one bean out, so I put in a chocolate chip instead. SURPRISE! I poked it into a crevice in the braid, and covered it with icing.

Most good king cakes have sprinkles. An excess, a ludicrous quantity, a metric poopload of sprinkles. But since Chicago is all pączki this and pączki that, there are no bathrooms purple sprinkles to be found for Mardi Gras Day. So I went ahead and just dyed the icing. It’s still stupid-thick, but we’ll see how it goes.

king cake frosted with purple, yellow and green

YOU GUYS, I THINK I WENT A LITTLE NUTSO WITH THE FROSTING

OH WAIT WHAT HAPPENED, SLIMER YOU SLIMED ME! This is something I shall have to revisit. Initially the icing stirred like hardening plaster, and now it’s all over the place! Hopefully it’s still good. I’m taking it with me to work today… wish me luck!

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and still does not own a smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.
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