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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Mardi Gras everyone!

Did you know that Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday? Mardi = Tuesday, and gras = fat. I learned that years ago in my middle school French class. At least I took something away from that class.

Once again I have been unable to get any Pączkis since I'm not in Michigan where there is a larger Polish community. I guess if I were closer to Austin, I could possibly find some, although I'm not sure if the Czech bakeries would sell any.

Here is a recipe for Pączkis that I posted last year.

Pączki, usually pronounced [poon-shki] or [pun-shki] is a Polish pastry. The word itself is typically Americanized and spelled "punchkies", especially for those of us from the north. In the south, like those of us in Texas and Louisania, the trend is to have King Cakes instead of Pączkis.

The history of Mardi Gras.

New Orleans Mardi Gras history

Though the exact origins of Mardi Gras are subject to debate, the celebration known as Carnival came to be associated with Judeo-Christian tradition.

In its earliest usage in medieval Europe, the Latin word carnelevare, from which "carnival" is derived (literally meaning "to lift up" or relieve from "flesh" or "meat"), may have referred to the beginning of the Lenten season of atonement and abstinence rather than the festive holiday customs that preceded Lent.

Because the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, was one of feasting—as symbolized by the ritual slaughter of a fatted bull or ox (boeuf gras)—it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.

Occurring on any Tuesday from Feb. 3 through March 9, Mardi Gras is tied to Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring Equinox. The climax of Carnival, Mardi Gras is always scheduled 47 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays).

You can read about the history of the King Cake here.

"The King Cake tradition came to New Orleans with the first French settlers and has stayed ever since. Like the rest of Mardi Gras during those early days, the king cake was a part of the family's celebration, and really didn't take on a public role until after the Civil War. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the TNR used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball."

Most of the King Cakes I have ever seen don't use a bean anymore. The most common item stemming from the 1950's, is a small plastic unclad baby. Many people say this represents the baby Jesus, tied in to the connection with Epiphany, while others attach no particular religious significance to the cake or trinket. Others say the baby hidden in the cake refers to the fact that the three Kings ("Wise Men") had a difficult time finding the Christ Child and of the fine gifts they brought to Him.

Others state, "The baby in the cake was said to have become common after a local bakery chain got a large shipment of such plastic baby dolls from Hong Kong very cheaply in the 1950s. Some say there is little further significance to the baby, but earlier ceramic baby dolls as trinkets are documented in New Orleans back to at least the 1930s."

Some of the plastic babies have holes in them as well. This hole runs from the top of their heads to their bottoms. This allows Mardi Gras party-goers to string the baby onto a strand of beads and wear them around like badges.

Although, whoever finds the plastic baby in their slice, is in charge of paying for the current cake, or buying a King Cake the next day or week, up until Mardi Gras day. These days many bakeries will affix the baby figure to the inside of the cake box to avoid tooth damage, choking hazards, and law suits. The person who buys the cake can then insert the plastic baby into the cake or a slice, avoiding a surprise when they bite down.

The classic King Cake is oval-shaped, like a racetrack or oblong doughnut. The cake dough is basic coffee-cake, sometimes it has cinnamon and nuts inside, sometimes it's just plain. This dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape, then shaped into the oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape. The classic decoration for King Cakes is simple granulated sugar, colored in purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival).

It's a bit late to get yourself any Pączkis or King Cake, but keep it in mind for next year. You can even make your own King Cake. I read that you are not supposed to prepare and serve the cake before Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) or after Mardi Gras Day. I figure if you bake one before today is over, I think you'll be safe.

King Cake - courtesy of Emeril Lagasse.

Prep Time: 3 hr 30 min
Cook Time: 30 min

Serves: 10-12 servings


1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
2 packages dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4 to 5 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, cooled
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup finely chopped candied citron
1 pecan half, uncooked dried bean or King Cake Baby


2 cups sifted powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
Purple, green and gold sugar crystals


Preheat the oven 350 degrees. Combine the warm water, yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside to a warm place for about 10 minutes.

Combine the 4 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, salt, nutmeg, lemon rind and add warm milk, melted butter, egg yolks and yeast mixture. Beat until smooth. Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface.

Knead in enough remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place the dough in a well-greased bowl. Turn once so greased surface is on top.

Cover the dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Punch the dough down and place on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle with the citron and knead until the citron is evenly distributed.

Shape the dough into a cylinder, about 30 inches long. Place the cylinder on a buttered baking sheet. Shape into a ring, pinching ends together to seal. Place a well-greased 2-pound coffee can or shortening can in the center of the ring to maintain shape during baking.

Press the King Cake Baby, pecan half or dried bean into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough. Cover the ring with a towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the coffee can immediately. Allow the cake to cool. For the glaze: Combine the ingredients and beat until smooth. To assemble, drizzle cake with the glaze. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, alternating colors. Cut into the cake and hope you do not get the baby.


2 thoughtful comments:

Melissa said...

I ate a packzi for you!

Hol and J said...

Yum, thanks! Not that I needed the sugar/calories from them anyway, but I sure would have enjoyed splurging.

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