Mardi Gras, the highlight of the carnival season, is a holiday in which revelry and religious tradition are bound together. The words "Mardi Gras" are French for "Fat Tuesday" — a time for eating, drinking and celebrating right up until the stroke of midnight — when the fasting of Lent commences with the onset of "Ash Wednesday."
It's known as a time to feast before the fast. Well, I say, "Let them eat cake — King Cake to be specific!" Apparently the French thought so too. The earliest version of this specialty cake is believed to have originated in France in the 12th century.
To fully appreciate the charm of this over-sized gaudy donut (remember it's decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras Royal colors of bright purple to signify "justice", green for "faith" and gold for "power"), you have to understand a bit of history.
The Mardi Gras season officially begins on January 6 or the "Twelfth Night," also known to Christians as the "Epiphany." Epiphany actually comes from a Greek word that means "to show." It is said that Jesus first showed himself to the three wise men and to the world on this day.
In the 12th century, the French started a tradition of celebrating the arrival of the wise men with a feast of the Epiphany (also called Twelfth Night or King's Day). The "crowning glory" of the celebration was the baking of a King Cake to honor the three kings. The cake was made circular to portray the circular route used by the three kings to get to the Christ Child. In early versions of this cake, a bean, pea or coin was hidden inside the cake and the person to receive the hidden treasure was declared "King for the Day." It also posed for good luck in the coming year.
In Louisiana, Twelfth Night is also the official start of the carnival season which ends on Mardi Gras Day (a flexible date which falls on the last Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). In most King Cakes today, a small plastic baby (to symbolize the Christ Child) has replaced the bean, pea or coin. The person who finds the baby in his or her piece of cake is crowned "King or Queen" of the party and is expected to carry on the carnival festivities by hosting the next King Cake Party!
Now I'll fess up. I'm not a big fan of most King Cakes. The majority of them seem to me little better than semi-stale, garishly decorated coffee cakes. Yet I can't ignore the fact that these things are popular — WAY POPULAR. In the New Orleans metro-region alone some 750,000 are sold during the short period of January 6-Mardi Gras Day.
Happily I have found one that I like a good deal — the "Cream Cheese King Cake" from Haydel's Bakery in New Orleans ($37.64 includes shipping). It's a little less sweet than most, very moist — and the cream cheese in the unavoidably garish icing adds a lovely creamy note.
To help complete the festivities, your King Cake comes with some Mardi Gras extras including: Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide, a king cake history scroll, one pack of PJ's Coffee & Tea brand French Roast coffee, carnival beads and doubloons.
To find out more about my favorite King Cake, you can contact:Haydel's Bakery4037 Jefferson HighwayNew Orleans, LA 70121800.442.1342 (toll-free)haydelbakery.com
David Rosengarten is Editor-in-chief of The Rosengarten Report. (For more information about David Rosengarten and for complete ordering information on the other products he discussed on "Today," please visit his Web site at: www.davidrosengarten.com/louisiana )