It’s Carol’s turn with our Sunday family dinner. As a nod to Mardi Gras this next week, she plans to make jambalaya. I am looking forward to that. Since Carol is cooking, that means that I am up for dessert. There are lots of Louisiana desserts that would go with jambalaya, but King Cake seemed to be the most appropriate. King cake is a tradition in many parts of the world, but in Louisiana it is served across the state, starting on Epiphany (January 6th) and ending on Mardi Gras (this year, February 13). There are many versions of king cake. Some folks make rings of filled cream puffs; others make baked meringues, etc., etc. The most common version is a brioche-like sweet bread, often filled with raisins or other dried fruit. The cake is topped with icing and sprinkled sugars in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow, and purple. I couldn’t find purple-colored sugar sprinkles, so I made do with red. I hope no one will notice. You can go all-out and fashion a “crown” of a circle of candied or maraschino cherries. The best part of the tradition, though, is finding the baby. A small plastic baby is hidden in the cake before it is baked. In the absence of the baby, a black bean will do. The person who gets the slice of cake with the baby (or bean) is supposed to have good luck. A less recognized part of the tradition is that the person is also supposed to bring the next king cake for the next celebration.
Interestingly, none of our many cookbooks from Louisiana contain a recipe for king cake. The recipe I have used is from King Arthur Flour. Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Filling layered on dough
Baby’s found a home
Pinch the dough closed over the filling
Shaped into a ring (sort of)
Ready to serve
Mardi Gras King Cake
- ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
- ¾ cup lukewarm milk
- 2 large eggs + 1 large yolk, white reserved
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1¼ teaspoons salt
- 1 package (2½ teaspoons) fast rising yeast
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2½ tablespoons milk
- sparkling sugars – green, yellow, purple
- Add all of the dough ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed until a soft, silky, but sticky dough is formed. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
- Transfer the risen dough to a lightly oiled work surface. Shape the dough into a 24 inch x 6 inch rectangle. Let rest while you prepare the filling.
- In a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour until smooth. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract and continue to beat until smooth.
- Transfer the filling to the middle of the rectangle of dough, leaving enough of the dough bare so that it can be pulled up around the filling and pinched closed. Before sealing the filling, position the baby or black bean in the filling.
- Transfer the filled and sealed dough rectangle to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Shape the dough into a circle, sealing the ends together. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise for 1 hour.
- Bake in the middle on an oven preheated to 350°F for 20 minutes. Then cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it firm up for 15 minutes before transferring it to a baking rack to cool completely.
- Beat together the icing ingredients. Pour or drizzle the icing over the completely cooled cake. Sprinkle the colored sugars in bands over the icing. Make a ring on top with the optional cherries if desired.
Kevin has developed a strong interest in Manhattan cocktails. He has read many recipes and tried many. He has looked into the qualities of various bourbons and rye whiskeys. The one thing he has settled on is the maraschino cherry that is an obligate part of any authentic Manhattan. He quickly dismissed the fluorescent red cherries that were available in my refrigerator and adopted the burgundy-colored cherries that are favored in most of the restaurants and bars in town. I will admit that they are delicious. They are also expensive. A small jar at the local Whole Foods competitor is $24. The cheaper fluorescent variety is not available at that store; at a more traditional grocery store a much larger bottle of the old standby is around $6.
The story of the two maraschino cherries is very interesting. Going back to the eighteenth century, Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast preserved its small, sour marasca cherries in alcohol for later consumption. Eventually that led to the development of a liqueur called maraschino which enjoyed wild popularity around the world. In the United States, Prohibition was established so that both the liqueur and the cherries preserved in the liqueur were banned. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic chemist in Ohio set out to develop a method to preserve cherries. No alcohol was involved, but a lengthy chemical process that involved bleaching of the cherries, multiple preservatives, and FD&C red dyes (now FD&C red dye 40) produced the familiar bright red cherry that as a child I loved on top of banana splits and in punch bowls. (I made myself sick as a ten-year-old, fishing out the maraschino cherries from the punch at my uncle’s wedding)
Until recently, we had no choice but the bright red synthetic maraschino cherry, but the real thing has made a comeback. The limitation in the resurgence is, of course, the cost. Being the tightwad that I am, I was unwilling to spend $24 for a little jar of real maraschino cherries. I decided that I would make my own rather than shelling out the money to Luxardo, which has become the (almost) monopoly of maraschino cherries and maraschino liqueur. So far my investment has included $30 for a bottle of Maraska maraschino liqueur from Zadar, Croatia (the original site of the whole maraschino industry), $8 for a pound and a half of Bing cherries (marascas are not readily available unless you visit Croatia), several dollars for sugar, cinnamon sticks, spices, etc., and my free labor. It is clear that I have made a strong statement about the economies of DIY over the high prices of the authentic stuff.
The good news is that making your own maraschino cherries is easy. The bad news is that they don’t taste the same as the real thing. The really good news is that they still taste mighty good, and you have well over a half bottle of liqueur left to enjoy on its own. You definitely need a cherry pitter, but a small one works just fine. The only thing else that is required is a little patience.
Fresh Bing cherries with a hand cherry pitter
Boiling sugar, water, and flavorings before adding the cherries
Maraska original maraschino cherry liqueur
Grocery store cherries for comparison
Homemade maraschino cherries
- 2 pounds fresh Bing cherries, rinsed, stems removed, and pitted
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 large strip lemon peel without white
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup maraschino liqueur
- Pit the cherries and set aside.
- In a pan large enough to hold the cherries in a single layer, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Add the cinnamon, lemon peel, and vanilla.
- Add the cherries to the boiling mixture and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the liqueur. Turn off the heat, and allow to cool.
- When the cherries are completely cool, transfer to clean jar(s) (You will have enough cherries for about 1 pint) and cover with the cooking liquid.
- When the jars are completely cooled, move them to the refrigerator and let them continue to macerate for at least two days.
- Well covered and refrigerated, the cherries should last for at least a month’s worth of Manhattans (or Old Fashioneds).