UPPER WEST SIDE — While the city’s foodies obsess over the latest trendy pastry, one unsung confection will grace select city bakeries for a limited time, available only to those in the know.
King cake — otherwise known as a galette des rois — is a ring-shaped confection named in honor of the Christian holiday of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, and is typically is served in New Orleans during the runup to Mardi Gras.
The dessert, which ranges from a flaky pastry in some French interpretations to a doughy, icing- and sugar-soaked coffee cake in the New Orleans style, is most popular in the South, but several French bakeries in New York have prepared their own versions, including Épicerie Boulud.
“It is a round cake of housemade puff pastry filled with a rich, fragrant almond cream called frangipane. The puff pastry is scored on top to resemble a crown [of the three kings]," said pastry chef Mymi Eberhardt, whose Upper West Side eatery will produce the delicacy for just a few more weeks.
The cakes traditionally include a small trinket — or fève, which means "bean" in French — tucked inside, she said.
"The ceramic fève we put inside our cakes are of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, cows and donkeys… all representative of the Nativity scene,” she said.
Traditionally, whoever is served the piece of cake that holds the trinket gets special honors or has obligations, such as being responsible for bringing the cake to the party the following year. The trinket can also bless the recipient with good luck for the year.
Jenny McCoy, the pastry chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and author of cookbook “Desserts for Every Season,” baked hundreds of king cakes in New Orleans before making her way up north. She recalled the Southern rendition of the cake.
“The one in New Orleans is more bready. It’s like a coffee cake or Danish sort of thing. It’s a sweet bread dough — eggs, milk and butter. Some people just fill it with cinnamon and sugar and butter,” she said. “It gets rolled up into a big log and then it’s twisted into a big circle…then it’s covered with an icing that’s Mardi Gras colors — purple, gold and green.”
The New Orleans version is hard to find in the city, but it's not impossible. Mara's Homemade, a Southern bakery that relocated from the East Village to Syosset, L.I. several years ago, makes and ships its king cakes to NYC customers craving the dessert.
Mara's executive chef Joshua Levi says that although the bakery can make the cake year-round upon request, they're particularly busy these days producing the confection with a variety of fillings — everything from Nutella to cream cheese to cinnamon sugar. They even shipped their cakes to a New Jersey bakery after the bakery's order of frozen king cakes from New Orleans arrived in pieces.
"A few years ago, we were on the Today show with our king cake," Levi said, adding that host Kathie Lee plunged right in.
"She just dug right into it with her hands, picking it apart trying to find the baby [trinket]. I happened to hide the baby very good, so it was just horrifying for me to watch" he said.