Louisiana is filled with historic towns and districts. Cornstalk fences, shotgun houses dripping with gingerbread, old Victorians with beveled glass doors shimmering in the morning sunlight.
As the rest of America winds down from the parties, overeating, and merriment of Christmas and New Year’s, New Orleans keeps the party going. Mardi Gras season officially kicks off today. January 6 is often referred to as Epiphany, Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day and commemorates the day the Bible says the three wise men reached the baby Jesus. For weeks, the city is taken over by elaborate Parades and people stuffing their faces with sugary king cake. The party culminates on Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on March 5th.
Since I am currently at work on my anthology set in New Orleans and Cajun Country, I thought I’d share this bend of the Mississippi River which holds a special kind of magic and adventure. This is the state where my husband was raised, and I fell in love with during my first visit. While the French Quarter is filled with pralines, po-boys, beignets, jazz, and paddle-boats—there is so much more!
Here’s a look at the celebration:
Parading groups (krewes) take to the streets of the French Quarter to honor the fallen French hero, Joan d’Arc. Another group, Phunny Phellows, heralds the arrival of Carnival with a streetcar ride down St. Charles. Ave. wearing costumes.
Let them eat cake
Traditionally, the bulk of the parades happen around the two weekends ahead of Fat Tuesday. Scheduling changes this year mean the Krewe of Chewbacchus, a walking parade devoted to science fiction, is rolling earlier than in previous years. Chewbacchus, has grown from a few hundred members when it started in 2011 to abut 1,800 participants last year.
Outside of New Orleans
In southern Louisiana’s Cajun country, costumed participants ride on horseback or run through towns stopping at housed to collect ingredients for gumbo in a tradition called Courir de Mardi Gras.
Never visited Louisiana? Here’s a bit of local speak so you can feel right at home:
Beignets—little square donuts covered with powdered sugar, served with café au lait (coffee with chicory and milk).
Cajun—descendants of the people of Nova Scotia who settled in Louisiana.
Calle—the Spanish word for street.
Calliope—a musical instrumental found on a steamboat consisting of a set of steam whistles played from a keyboard.
Cher—Cajun word of “dear.”
Gumbo—thick, spicy soup prepared with ingredients such as rice, sausage, chicken, okra.
Second Line—a celebratory dance accompanied by jazz and decorated umbrellas; a New Orleans tradition at weddings, jazz funerals, and other festive occasions.
I hope you enjoyed my blog post. I’ve included a recipe for King Cake and several photos from my visits to the city.
Happy Mardi Gras, everyone!
Traditional KING CAKE
For the cake:
1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry yeast
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup melted butter
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
For the icing:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
1 plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking
1. For the cake, pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
2. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
3. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
4. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
6. Once it's doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing, while the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it's a touch too loose, add a little more powdered sugar.
8. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.
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