No, Mardi Gras is not just about Bourbon Street! In fact, most of the people you meet on Bourbon are tourists- I believe the tourists have given this celebration a bad reputation.
"Mardi Gras", in French, translates to "Fat Tuesday". It is the last chance for feasting before the holy Lent season- a time of praying and fasting that leads up to Holy Week and Easter. This tradition of feasting can trace its roots back to medieval France.
The French traditionally celebrate on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) with a "gateau des rois", or king cake. At the feast, the cake would be cut into the number of guests plus one. The extra piece would be called "God's portion". This would be saved for any beggars that might come to the door during the feast. The rest would be split among the guests by the youngest member of the family calling names from under the table- this is to ensure that there is no cheating, because hidden inside the cake is a bean. The person who gets the bean becomes the king of the party.
When the French settled in Louisiana, they brought along their tradition of Mardi Gras and king cakes. If you go there any time between The Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, you are sure to find king cakes in every store! Today, instead of hiding beans in the cake, you are likely to find a plastic baby, meant to represent the infant Jesus. I am told that the circular shape of the cake is to represent the route which the wise men took when visiting Jesus. When they were told by angels not to return to Herod, they went another way home...
So, now that we are far from Louisiana, I make my own king cakes! They are a small reminder of the wonderful times we had with our great friends there. Mardi Gras is a time to celebrate life, family, friends and faith. Laisez les bons temps rouler!
Here's what you'll need to make your own delicious king cake:
1 c warm milk
1/8 c butter
2 1/2 t yeast
1/4 c sugar
3/4 t salt
1/4 t nutmeg
2 3/4 c flour
filling of choice
glaze and toppings
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until incorporated, then turn onto a floured surface. Kneed until dough is elastic, add more flour if dough is too sticky. Place in clean bowl and cover with a wet towel. Let rise for about an hour. Turn onto floured surface and roll out to a large rectangle (about 10" x 16"):
Next, you need to prepare your filling! The traditional cinnamon filling is easy- just mix 1 cup brown sugar with 2 T cinnamon. I was feeling creative today and mixed 12 oz cream cheese with about 1 pt strawberries (you could also use blueberries). You could use lemon custard as a filling, or even use homemade preserves! The possibilities are endless!
When your filling is made, lightly brush your dough with butter, then spread the filling in a 5" strip right down the center of the rectangle. Then, taking the long end farthest from you, roll the dough in jelly-roll fashion until it's a long tube. Move the dough to a greased cookie sheet. make an oval and pinch the end together. With scissors, cut slits in the dough every few inches:
Bake for about 30 minutes.
When the cake is done, let it cool slightly then glaze with a mixture of 1 c powdered sugar and a couple T water. Make the glaze pourable, but not too runny. If you want to insert a plastic baby (found at crafting stores) or bean into one of the slits, feel free! Just warn everyone to look for it so they don't choke. The one who finds the prize should be crowned king or queen of the party :)
Add sprinkles or colored sugar to the top to make it more festive! Enjoy this sweet treat with your family and friends.