This past weekend, Kimberly Winter Stern and I were doing our weekly radio show when a local baker/food artisan and friend stopped by with a cake box of treats.
He said he was in a hurry but inside the box were some king cakes. Ah … JC Gregg definitely knew how to get to Kim and I as we both go crazy over his desserts. I consider myself to be a “king cake aficionado” and self-proclaimed expert.
JC told us not to be surprised when we open the box — it’s not your usual New Orleans king cake decorated with Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow and purple. No sir, this was “the real thing,” he proclaimed.
Not being a patient person, I ripped open the box and to my amazement, a simple round puff pastry like cake appeared before my eyes. I was truly puzzled and wanted to know more.
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I carefully cut into the flaky, buttery pastry to find it layered with an almond pastry cream. Absolutely delicious, but it was still puzzling. I needed more information for sure, so I called JC after the radio show and presented him with a list of questions.
You see, JC loves food history, just like me. He hasn’t watched TV in 10 years. Rather, he prefers going to the library and researching. He usually will have eight or so books sprawled out in front of him with a note pad taking all kinds of notes.
JC answered all of my questions that afternoon. He also had so much to say and was very excited to share. So, here we go.
Jasper: Tell me about the history of king cakes outside of America.
JC: As best I know it, the king cake really has its roots back to the Renaissance era. The cake was baked with a bean inside and the cake was a puff pastry made with an almond cream. Then in the south of France they wanted their own cake and took the same puff pastry and incorporated a custard — pastry cream. It has been said that it was used during Roman Empire times for the Day of Opposites. This is why the trinket is so important. You see, whoever gets this trinket is said to become king for a day.
So how does it relate to Christianity?
Christianity enters the picture and it (the cake) was changed to represent the Epiphany. This is the day when Christ showed himself for the first time to the three wisemen and this has basically stuck since then. Let’s rewind a bit though. After southern France created their own king cake with a pastry cream, some years later there were more ingredients for baking that were much more widely available.
Spain developed their own version, taking the lead from southern France. Now we have the original cake twice removed. The Spanish decided to make the king cake in more of a yeast type dough, more like brioche. This tradition was brought to the New World to Canada with the French.
I understand all of this, but how did king cakes become famous in New Orleans?
When the French were basically cast out of Canada by the English, they settled in New Orleans. At this point it is pretty unclear of what version of the King Cake was brought with the Canadians. Around 1762 the French signed over New Orleans to the Spanish — Treaty of Fontainebleau. Already rich in their traditions with Carnival, they used the king cake in their celebrations before it was named Mardi Gras.
Then came the Treaty of San Ildefonso where Napoleon Bonaparte pressured Spain to give up rights in the Louisiana Purchase. There is so much history involved in this region. Not to mention the roots from Africa (Egypt) played in the role. The king cake was adapted in roughly the 1870s as we know it now for Mardi Gras.
So tell me about your king cake.
I have taken the cake that once was and have tried to re-create into something more palatable. I love my sweets, however, the modern version of the king cake is too much for me.
I have taken a traditional recipe and made the inverted puff pastry thicker than usual. This is for show. It creates such height. Most recipes call for 1/8-inch dough. I use 1/4-inch and fill it with the almond/pastry cream. I put on an egg wash and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight and then brush again with egg wash, make the design on top and bake it off.
I am working on a different filling actually. Your co-host Kimberly loves butterscotch and I want to make something with those flavors. The hard part is getting the right timing on the the butterscotch. It’s a caramel of sorts, but with brown sugar instead of white sugar and the addition of butter instead of just cream once the sugar has caramelized and reached temp.
You see, when making regular caramel, it’s easy because I go by color of the cooked sugar. Once it reaches that golden color it’s ready. With the brown sugar it begins at that golden color so i tend to overcook the sugar and it doesn’t taste like I want it to. Oh well, that’s what keeps me in the kitchen, working it until I get it right.
Do you ever make a modern king cake with all the colors?
I also do the New Orleans-style king cake. However, mine is unique as well. I do make a sweet pastry dough. Rather than making it all cinnamon and sugar, I smear cream cheese and ricotta cheese and roll it loosely a couple of turns. When it’s done baking, I cut the top third off of the cake and fill it with a caramel mousse and then I make a version of bananas foster and line the inside of the cake on top of the mousse and put the cover back on and then drizzle it with a deep caramel sauce — almost like butterscotch. I figure it’s better than a powdered sugar glaze. If your going to have something sweet like that, it might as well have a ton of flavor.
Jasper: And so my friends, just in time for Mardi Gras, the real king cake history from local food artisan JC Gregg. As for this chef, I was lucky enough to enjoy the king cake from JC Gregg — no plastic baby, no sugary glaze, just the traditional pastry with a hint of almond. I closed my eyes and imagined I was back in the Renaissance era.
Ha, I even dreamed there was a bean in my cut of the cake. Lucky me!
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.